Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Picture of the Day: Art in Central

This sculpture breaks up the straight lines in Central!
Art Basel may have come and gone, but in Central there are a few sculptures worth looking out for.

One of the prized ones is the Henry Moore bronze called Oval with Points (1968-70) in front of Exchange Square. It is shaped like the number 8, but the points in the middle fail to touch, which critics say creates tension and drama.

The piece was probably bought in Hong Kong because the number 8 is a favourite for feng shui reasons. No wonder it's surrounded by water and mini fountains, perhaps in the hopes of generating more wealth for the occupants in the building...

Monday, 30 March 2015

Bagging More Confusion

Get ready for more plastic bag restrictions from April 1
On April 1, Hong Kong will start implementing further restrictions on the use of plastic bags in the city. All retail stores selling goods that are not food-related must charge HK$0.50 for a plastic bag, though wet markets are still safe because of hygiene issues.

However, we can already imagine supermarket cashier staff will have arguments with customers over what can and cannot be charged for a plastic bag. Apparently staff are freaking out because they are worried they will get into trouble with their employers if they don't enforce this new regulation properly.

From 2009 until now, a levy was imposed on major outlets to charge HK$0.50 for a plastic bag. While the government claims this cut down 90 percent of the plastic bags in the city, there still seemed to be a lot of them around.

Wet market stalls only have small bags available, and so you always need more than one bag, and even then the seller will put those small bags into one big bag... what a waste!

And then in supermarkets, there are people who refuse to pay HK$0.50 at the checkout and use those flat-top plastic bags for fruits and vegetables to put their items in there. Many use it to carry small milk cartons and yogurt. But from Wednesday onwards they will be charged HK$.050.

Items that are not vacuum sealed or in its own packaging, will not be charged for those thin see-through plastic bags. Things like toilet paper in its own plastic packaging will not be subject to the HK$0.50 either.

So it's kind of confusing really -- unless you just remember that anything not vacuum sealed and edible will mean a free plastic bag.

All this confusion, say local green groups, is because of legislative councillors dragging their feet on this issue and stipulating a number of exemptions before passing the bill over a year ago.

And then it's taken this long to finally put it into action, though not everyone is sure what is going on.

Basically the best rule of thumb is whenever you walk out the door of your home, carry a cloth bag with you because you never know if you'll need to buy something. The local stationary store won't be able to give a free plastic bag anymore, nor the shoe store or electronics shop.

Will these new restrictions further cut down on the use of plastic bags? Probably only slightly, and the use of paper bags will jump. And that HK$0.50 -- who gets to keep that? In the first phase, the money went to the government, but now apparently shopkeepers big and small get to keep the extra money. Why is that?

This means tycoons like Li Ka-shing will make even more money from those people who forgot or didn't bother to bring a plastic bag with them while they shop at Park 'n' Shop, Fusion, International, Great...

Perhaps that alone would be a good incentive to bring a cloth bag to prevent the 17th richest man according to Forbes from earning an extra HK$0.50...

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Baking for a Good Cause

Yummy assorted cookies from iBakery
Last spring I was introduced to delicious matcha cookies and the social enterprise that made them, called iBakery. Operated by Tung Wah Group of Hospitals, the bakery was started in 2010 to train and employ people with disabilities.

The rectangular cookies had such a great green tea flavour, and my great aunt loved them so much that I kept buying boxes whenever I passed by their pop-up store in Windsor House.

It was their first collaboration with Hyatt Regency Kyoto, that gave iBakery the recipe. And then a few months ago, Hyatt Regency Sha Tin presented them another recipe, this time for yuzu madeleines.

They are similar to the traditional French recipe that calls for lemon, but instead they are replaced with yuzu that isn't as tart. These are available at their current pop-up store in Hopewell Centre in Wan Chai.

I also tried their tin box assortment of cookies. It featured seed and raisin flavour, hazelnut, cashew nut, double chocolate, wholewheat almond and chocolate cashew nut. The box was also beautifully decorated with a colourful parrot hand drawn by someone at Tung Wah Group of Hospitals.

iBakery's bakery is actually in Kennedy Town, though each time I visit the store, the cookies I want -- particularly the green tea and biscotti ones -- are not available! The store there sells the basic baguettes, sliced bread, and basic Hong Kong-style pastries, as well as some cookies.

Nevertheless it's a good cause to support, particularly in helping people with disabilities learn a skill and have a job they can be proud of.

Shop 2, G/F, Block 2, Centenary Mansion
1 Victoria Road
Kennedy Town
2816 5233

iBakery Gallery Cafe
Tamar Cafe at Tamar Park
2352 2700

iBakery Express (Tamar)
Promenade at Tamar Park
2511 8230

iBakery Express (HKU)
Run Run Shaw Podium, Main Campus
University of Hong Kong
5402 4546

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Gov't Backpedals on Dancing Grannies

The "dancing grannies" can continue line dancing in public spaces
A few days ago I wrote a post about the Chinese government issuing 12 model routines "dancing grannies" should follow to develop "healthy, watchable, scientific, and wide-ranging dancing".

There were 12 videos people could follow, but they were hardly featuring the right demographic in these "model routines" -- scantily clad young women in aerobic gear.

Needless to say the "dancing grannies" raised an uproar and now it seems Chinese sports officials are backpedaling on cracking down on these middle-aged to elderly women who have fun and exercise by doing line dancing or square dancing out in public spaces.

So it's not surprising the "dancing grannies" and their supporters criticized the new rules and routines, complaining they were robotic, and not interesting to watch or participate if every one did the same dance steps.

Although the statement initially posted on the General Administration of Sport's website had explicitly declared the end of personalized routines and the imposition of a national standard, officials later clarified that the 12 model routines were only mean to provide "scientifically sound alternatives" to existing ones.

"We saw that some people on the internet were worried that the new regulations meant all over China people would only be allowed to dance these 12 routines," Liu Guoyong, of the General Administration of Sport told the media. "Of course that's impossible. It's a misunderstanding."

Ah-ha! A "misunderstanding". So it doesn't seem like the authorities will be able to check on the some 100 million people participating in dance groups in every town, city and province, so the "dancing grannies" will be able to continue dancing to their own tunes.

So while it's a relief to hear the "dancing grannies" don't have to copy the routines anytime soon, what about regulating the noise levels so that some people can have a bit of peace?

Friday, 27 March 2015

Joshua Wong vs CY Leung

Student leader Joshua Wong armed with his mobile phone
Fortune magazine has released its world's 50 "greatest leaders" and student leader Joshua Wong Chi-fung rounded the top 10, while Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying was no where to be found on the list.

Wong's in good company, with Apple CEO Tim Cook at No. 1, Chinese President Xi Jinping at No. 3, and Pope Francis at No. 4.

The 18-year-old student leader beat out other top personalities, such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda (No. 18), Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (No. 25), and basketball star Yao Ming (No. 26).

The magazine said Wong was one of the most compelling figures during the 79-day Umbrella Movement, blocking several main roads in the city and demanding universal suffrage.

"Wong doesn't look like Hollywood's idea of a charismatic rebel leader," Fortune said, but "his non-violent protest message and energetic idealism galvanized crowds, that, over months, numbered in the hundreds of thousands."

Fortune says Leung was not a leader during the protests
Meanwhile, the magazine compared Wong to Leung, saying the chief executive lacked leadership while the student activist walked the walk.

Geoff Colvin, Fortune's senior editor noted that Leung had a range of powers from signing bills and issuing executive orders to appointing judges, but many Hong Kong people chose not to follow him during the Occupy protests.

"When they learned that the 2017 election for Leung's position would not be free and democratic, as authorities had previously suggested, they poured into the streets and followed Joshua Wong, then 17, who had started a pro-democracy student group," Colvin said.

"Leung, 60, commanded a vast city administration, including police wielding pepper spray and truncheons. Wong had a cellphone. Yet the protesters paralyzed Hong Kong for three months."

In the end the magazine says: "So who's the real leader? The answer is obvious: Leung has the leader's job, but he doesn't have leadership. Wong is the one who demonstrated that."

Fortune compiled the list based on nominations from its reporters and more than 20 leadership experts. They were looking for such qualities as vision and the ability to move others to act with them on a shared quest last year, as well as being brilliant, admirable or powerful.

We agree with Fortune's choice of Wong -- but up until the point when Leung completely ignored the student leaders to have another round of dialogue, and Wong began his pathetic hunger strike.

That's when the Open University student began losing credibility, and his weak attempt at gaining attention yielded nothing except health concerns.

Nonetheless, we're pleased Wong is in the top 10 because he as well as Alex Chow Yong-kang and Lester Shum really were the leaders of the Umbrella Movement, who inspired young and old to fight for what they believed in.

Keeping the movement alive is what the Umbrella Movement is about, and with the six-month anniversary to the start of the protests tomorrow, Fortune's praise of Wong is a reminder of the goal of true universal suffrage.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Going Abroad Younger

Mainland Chinese parents want their kids to study abroad to avoid this fate
Mainland Chinese parents who can afford it are looking to send their only child abroad for education earlier -- as young as kindergarten.

The anxious parents either don't want their children to go through the rote education system or think it's too stressful, and would rather they go abroad for a more liberal-minded schooling.

Clive Smith-Langridge, headmaster of Packwood Haugh School in England, said he has received many inquiries from Chinese parents about the preparatory school, which accommodates for students aged four to 13. He reported one inquiry came from a parent of a one-year-old baby, perhaps in the hopes of getting on the wait list for September 2018?

Across the Pacific, Alex Zou, CEO of Vancouver Public Education Alliance, which helps Chinese students pre-grade 12, reports his client base has doubled in each of the past few years. While most of the students are studying in high school, there are some that were sent to elementary schools and even kindergarten.

"The high school students we serve only need to pay about CAD$24,000 (HK$150,000) a year, including tuition and board, which can easily be covered by many Chinese families," Zou said. "I think studying in Canada has become an 'education for ordinary people'."

Parents not only hoped their children would have a solid education, but also develop hobbies and personalities, as well as have a competitive edge later on in the job market.

After the end of the Cultural Revolution, China opened up to the world, and the only Chinese students who went abroad were those studying master's degrees or a doctorate.

Some 10 years ago mainland children started studying in overseas high schools. In the United States, nearly 24,000 mainland students enrolled in private high schools in 2013, compared to just 65 in 2005, according to eol.cn, China's largest education portal.

Zou said most mainland students studying abroad are from wealthy coastal regions, while families in second and third-tier cities preferred their children to complete high school at home.

Back at Packwood Haugh School, Smith-Langridge says: "We can prepare and send our students to the best independent schools in England, like Eton. At the moment there are two or three Chinese students, but the market is promising here and the demand for high-quality education is growing."

While it's natural for parents to want to give the very best to their children so that they can have a better life in the future, we have to wonder studying overseas at kindergarten age is the best thing for them.

Otherwise this may spawn a new generation of kids with major attachment issues...

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Regulating Dancing Grannies

Have you seen women like these dancing around your neighbourhood?
On my way to the shuttle bus that takes me to work each morning, I pass through a small park and there's music blaring and a group of women in their 60s are busy following a dance routine, waving their arms, sashaying to the right then the left.

Some include handkerchiefs to accessorize their dancing, others fans. One time Gangnam Style blasted out which shocked me -- those aunties were really cool! But then I never heard them play that song again.

In Beijing, these "dancing grannies" were commonplace. After offices are cleared out, these women start converging on parks, plazas and even wide sidewalks, anywhere they can spread out and do their thing -- even if passersby have to snake around them to get to the other side.

While the music can be unbearable to listen to -- some are old school songs or just plain bad recordings, it's great to see these women not only getting some exercise in, but also socializing with others, which is probably the key to their well-being and health.

But not everyone likes the "dancing grannies" and there have been incidents where angry residents have tried to chase these women away to go dance elsewhere. In 2013 a Beijing man was so annoyed that he fired a shotgun in the air and set three Tibetan mastiffs at the dancing group. He was later arrested near his home.

This week the Chinese government has decided enough is enough and has issued rules developed after a joint study by the General Administration of Sport and the Ministry of Culture. The hope is to develop "healthy, watchable, scientific and wide-ranging" dancing, state media reported.

Therefore, an expert panel has developed 12 model routines that will be taught across the country by instructors who have received official training.

Here's the first one for you to check out:

Three scantily-clad young women show aerobic-like moves to synthesizer music that surely will rile up grannies who prefer their traditional songs.

"Dancing in public squares represents the collective aspect of Chinese culture, but now it seems that the over enthusiasm of participants has dealt it a harmful blow with disputes over noise and venues," said Liu Guoyang, chief of the General Administration of Sport. "So we have to guide it with national standards and regulations."

While many of these "dancing grannies" have complained about being regulated, other critics say the rules don't deal with the real issue -- noise levels. A commentary on news portal RedNet said:

"What the grannies need are venues, not regulated routines. Only an increase of public sports venues can satisfy urban and rural residents' need for fitness routines such as football and square-dancing, and lessen the phenomenon where square-dancing disturbs residents and takes up all the parks and public spaces."

Another commentary on Xinmin Evening News said: "The biggest tragedy is not the square dance by grannies, but the fact that grannies have nothing else to do than square-dance."

The last thing the government should want is a revolt from these "dancing grannies" -- they know organization and coordination!

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Five More Years?!

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has hinted he may run a second term
We're two years away from the elections for the next chief executive of Hong Kong and already incumbent Leung Chun-ying has hinted that he will run again in 2017.

Just before an Executive Council meeting, Leung said: "I would not rule out any possibility. Whether to seek a second term is something [to be considered] in later days".

He added in the meantime he would focus on his work at chief executive and implement his 2012 manifesto.

Leung's comments come weeks after an authoritative pro-establishment source stirred up controversy in Beijing earlier this month, saying Leung would win a second term and also introduce controversial Article 23 national security laws to Hong Kong if the government's political reform package is vetoed in the Legislative Council.

On March 8, a veteran Hong Kong politician who spoke on condition of anonymity said that although pan-democrat lawmakers and activists had called for Leung to step down during the 79-day Occupy movement last year, "the three co-founders of Occupy Central were in fact Leung's biggest election campaign team... Because when Beijing said neither compromise nor bloodshed could happen he really waited 79 days" until the civil disobedience movement ended peacefully.

"It just showed Beijing how obedient he is," the person added. "Beijing wouldn't ask Leung to step down just because he's unpopular with Hong Kong people."

Did you just feel a chill down your back?

The thought of another five more years of Leung after 2017 is not news we want to hear, but it is a strong indicator of what Beijing thinks of him, and of us.

Protesters tried to sabotage things with the Umbrella Movement, but he and China were unmoved, and got the police to do the dirty work for them.

If we're stuck with Leung for another five years, Hong Kong's major social and economic issues will not be resolved, swept under the carpet yet again, only to create even bigger gaps between the rich and the poor, out-of-control property prices and reliance on infrastructure projects to keep the economy going.

Perhaps the only person who could sabotage Leung's chances is his own daughter Chai-yan, whose family drama has already cracked the illusion everyone in the household is just as obedient as he is.

Maybe we should start up a crowdfunding campaign to help fund her ongoing antics at Government House...

Monday, 23 March 2015

Picture of the Day: Totoro Sighting

Look who's here to greet customers!
Last night before going to the Cassandra Wilson concert, YTSL and I had some time to kill and decided to check out the Donguri Republic store in LCX in Ocean Terminal.

Can we catch a ride on the cat bus?
She led the way -- as she'd been there before -- and was a kid in a candy store as soon as we arrived. Donguri Republic is the first store outside of Japan to offer merchandise related to characters created by Studio Ghibli.

Some favourite animated films include My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, and Spirited Away.

A massive furry Totoro greeted customers -- though he was a rock hard shell underneath -- and further inside was the large Cat Bus in My Neighbor Totoro. People could go inside this bus for photos, and buy all kinds of stuff from bibs for babies to jigsaw puzzles, finger puppets, books, face towels and even Ponyo made of Baccarat crystal!

We were in the store for some 15 minutes, when YTSL got all nostalgic listening to a particular song playing on the store's sound system and promptly bought the CD! These are the kinds of customers Donguri Republic are catering to!

Lots and lots of Totoros!
Donguri Republic LCX Harbour City
Shop 19, LCX Level 3, Ocean Terminal, Harbour City
Tsim Sha Tsui
2376 3363

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Sultry but Slow

Two-time Grammy winner Cassandra Wilson performed in Hong Kong
This April 7 marks the 100th anniversary of Billie Holiday's birth and jazz singer Cassandra Wilson has a new album marking the vocal legend's birthday called Coming Forth by Day: A Tribute to Billie Holiday.

And at the suggestion of YTSL we went to see Wilson perform tonight at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall as part of the 43rd Hong Kong International Arts Festival.

"I've been in love with Billie Holiday's voice since the moment I heard it, and she has inspired me throughout my career," Wilson said in the program notes.

The first of the two-night concert was already sold out so we settled for the second one, that was almost full. Unlike the other night with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Wilson's band took up centre stage, with a piano and keyboard, drums, guitar, bass, woodwinds, and electric violin.

The all-male band warmed up the crowd until Wilson made her appearance in a black sequin sleeveless gown with a slit down the side, and pointy heels. She started off by singing The Way You Look Tonight, Don't Explain and What A Little Moonlight Can Do, before taking off her shoes and going barefoot the rest of the evening.

Her latest album pays tribute to Billie Holiday
Her voice is so sultry, and if it had to have a food reference it would be buttery smooth with the sweetness of caramel. However her pacing was very slow, as YTSL remarked, as if Wilson were performing in an intimate nightclub setting.

But we were in a formal concert hall with a few thousand people and surely she could regulate the pacing of the show to be a bit fast here, a bit slow there, eventually building to a strong finish.

Instead we were stuck on the slow song side. During You Go To My Head, Wilson walked off stage and says to the band she'll be back later... and we're left with the band trying to entertain us when we've come to see her. Some people in the audience even get up to leave, which seemed strange, but perhaps they had other things to do than watch the 59-year-old Wilson give her interpretation of Holiday's songs?

Eventually she comes back, and at one point we wonder if she was nursing a hangover, since she mentioned they were hanging out in some hotel last night...

Nevertheless the individual band members were fantastic together and as soloists. There was a lot of kudos for Robby Marshall, the young tall guy who played the saxophone, oboe and flute, as well as for guitarist Kevin Breit. Pianist Jon Cowherd kept everything in check, with his own noodling.

After about 70 minutes, she sang another slow number, The Last Song, followed by Everything A Good Man Needs that seemed to pick up the pace of the concert. But alas, it really was the last song, and she and the musicians left the stage!

Following some energetic clapping, the band finally came back, and after they started playing, Wilson also returned to the stage to sing I'll Be Seeing You -- another slow one.

For some, Wilson's performance seemed muted, and fell short of expectations, but as someone watching her for the first time, I quite enjoyed her sultry singing, though would have appreciated a few more songs to round out the evening.

Cassandra Wilson
Coming Forth By Day: A Celebration of Billie Holiday
Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall
March 21-22

Songs performed in order:

The Way You Look Tonight
Don't Explain
What A Little Moonlight Can Do
Crazy He Calls Me
You Go To My Head
All of Me
Good Morning Heartache
These Foolish Things
The Last Song
Everything A Good Man Needs
I'll Be Seeing You (encore)

Saturday, 21 March 2015

China has World's Worst Delays

Shanghai's Pudong Airport one of the world's worst in terms of delays
After my trip to Xiamen that resulted in delays going there and back, I'm not surprised to find China's airports and airlines were the worst in the world for being on time last year, according to FlightStats.

The US-based data provider on air travel found of the world's 61 largest airports, the seven worst performers for on-time departures were all mainland airports, with Hangzhou's Xiaoshan, Shanghai's Hongqiao and Pudong facilities taking the bottom three spots. Only 37.74 percent of flights left on time from Xiaoshan, 37.17 percent from Hongqiao, and 37.26 percent from Pudong.

These three airports were followed by Shenzhen Baoan, Guangzhou Baiyun, Chongqing Airport and Beijing Capital International Airport.

Japan's Haneda Airport had the best on-time rate of 89.76 percent of the largest airports in the world, while Itami airport was the best performing of 374 world airports of all sizes with an on-time percentage of 94.56.

Zou Jianjun of the Civil Aviation Management Institute of China said management of China's facilities had not kept up with demand and the network was concentrated in a few areas.

"Flight lines are too centralized in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, and it's a big challenge for their managers," he said. "Even if a small mistake happens at any of these major airports, it's quite possible that flights in other cities will be affected."

How about the fact that China's military controls the country's air space and only allows a fraction of it for commercial air travel? And with the boom in air travel, there are bound to be frictions between commercial and military interests, and the government has not resolved the situation.

This has resulted in not air rage, but ground rage, where passengers vent their frustration of delays on ground crew staff, and in a few instances things have gotten violent. Last February, a near riot broke out after more than 2,000 passengers were left stranded at Xinzheng International Airport at Zhengzhou, Henan province.

Is this how the Central government would like to see the commercial aviation industry develop? Some 390 million people traveled by airplanes last year, which is double the 2009 figure. Something's gotta give.

Nevertheless, Hong Kong International Airport dropped in the rankings too, down from 22nd spot to 80th last year.

No mainland or Hong Kong airlines made the top 10 list of having on-time arrivals last year. KLM took top spot at 88.66 percent.

Another crazy statistic from FlightStats is that if all the extra time passengers and crew spent waiting on the tarmac for flights to take off in the mainland in 2014 were added together, the total would amount to about 232 years. Even notified flight delays would add up to about 183 years.

That's a lot of wasted time! Imagine that lost productivity could have boosted China's GDP even more...

Friday, 20 March 2015

More Police Power

Police can now break up "suspicious" gatherings of three or more people
Need another sign that Hong Kong is becoming more like the motherland?

Hong Kong police now have the power to prevent "suspicious" gatherings of three or more people from turning into a protest. The new guideline from the force's management last week focuses more on "preventive" handling of unauthorized protests and is now in effect in all districts.

This enforcement of the Public Order Ordinance came out due to the gau wu protests in Mongkok which are not formally organized, and people pretend to shop right at closing time, forcing the establishments to stay open, and yet they don't purchase anything.

Another are the recent protests against parallel traders that have rotated to places like Sha Tin, Tuen Mun, and Sheung Shui. These recent incidents have escalated to violent altercations with the authorities, resulting in the use of pepper spray and arrests.

"If officers deem a gathering could cause breach of the peace or threat to public safety, we would not allow the participants to proceed," a source said. "We would demand that they produce identification and disperse, and follow them around if they did not leave. Anyone who refuses to comply can be arrested for obstructing police."

This warning sounds like it will invite more friction with the police, as protesters have become more defiant following the end of the Occupy protests in December. And following people around? Could citizens sue the police for stalking and infringing on their personal freedom of movement? Would be interesting to see how lawyers interpret this.

The source adds that if things escalate further, the crack Police Tactical Unit would be deployed to patrol the streets. Are Hong Kong protests really degenerating to this point? Or is this a scare tactic to indicate protesters here are out to create chaos, or that the police force isn't trained enough to deal with them?

The enforcement of the ordinance dates back to 1967 during the Hong Kong riots, where gatherings of more than three people without police permission were outlawed. Since the handover protest organizers must inform the police of their plans and get approval. Previously this law was aimed mostly at suspected triad members.

But with the enforcement of the guidelines, it appears like the police are looking at protesters like triad members...

"Before the Occupy movement, if police found a group of people wearing masks and carrying rucksacks gathering on the streets at night, we would check what they were up to and consider whether they were linked to triads," said a senior police officer.

He said the police were extra tolerant during and after Occupy, allowing people to gather without approval. "We showed them more than enough tolerance during Occupy."

They would have had to tolerate tens of thousands of people who poured onto Queensway on September 28 because the authorities were completely outnumbered.

Now they believe they have the upper hand. So there.

But what does this really show? It demonstrates the Hong Kong government is still sheepishly hiding behind the police and would rather the force deal with unruly protesters than try to engage in constructive dialogue and try to hammer out some kind of resolution to the socio-economic conflicts we are seeing in the city on a daily basis.

As a result should we be surprised that public sentiment here is the worst its been in 16 months following a survey released by the University of Hong Kong. The Public Sentiment Index compiled by HKU's Public Opinion Program (POP) fell to 61.8 points on March 8, down 5.9 points from the previous survey at the end of February and at its lowest level since November 2013.

With these new police measures in place, people's unhappiness with Hong Kong will deepen even further...

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Getting the Dudamel Treatment

Conductor Gustavo Dudamel (centre) getting lots of love from the audience
Over two years ago I went to Los Angeles and visited the Walt Disney Concert Hall, a massive steel structure that looks like massive pages from a musical score. We got to have a peek inside, though the Los Angeles Philharmonic wasn't inside, nor its musical director, Gustavo Dudamel.

The 34-year-old is quite the sensation. He received his musical education through the El Sistema system, where children learn instruments and how to perform together several hours a day -- for free.

It's given Venezuela, that was ruled by Hugo Chavez until his death in 2013, an opportunity to prove the state can do good things for the arts, and Dudamel is that poster boy.

Perhaps that's why he is very humble on stage, thanking practically each and every one of the musicians on stage with him tonight, after they performed Gustav Mahler's Symphony No 6 in A minor at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall as part of the 43rd Hong Kong Arts Festival.

When I found out he was coming to perform here, I tried to order a ticket right away, and was told the cheaper ones were all gone and had to buy the more expensive ones at just over HK$1,000 ($129) a pop! It was a lot to swallow, but I felt this may be my only chance to see the musical wunderkind who once broke one of Leonard Bernstein's batons while conducting the New York Philharmonic back in 2007.

It was practically a full house tonight, as everyone there was as excited as I was to see Dudamel do his musical magic. When we entered the concert hall we were told there would be no intermission -- four movements straight through for an hour and a half.

To be honest I don't know much about Mahler and his music, but this piece was palatable and pleasant to listen to, with periodic punctuations from the various percussion instruments from a gong to xylophone, and even using a wooden mallet to hit a block of wood very loudly -- twice! Some percussionists had to leave the stage to play cowbells in the distance!

There was a very full orchestra on stage, where the double bass sat on the left side of the stage, perhaps to make room for the two harpists and two harpsichordists? We could not tell from our angle what kind of keyboards they are, but they weren't upright pianos.

When Dudamel made his way to the podium, it was even more impressive to see there was no stand for his music, as he had memorized the entire score! He is apparently a Mahler aficionado -- he won the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra's prestigious Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in 2004.

Dudamel also completed his Gustav Mahler Project in 2012 -- conducting all nine symphonies (including the unfinished 10th) by alternating between the LA Phil and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela that he still leads.

While he knew the score off by heart, the LA Phil players were well versed in the music and played very well. By the end of the 90 minutes, many in the audience jumped to their feet to applaud him and the orchestra. Near me were two people holding up the Venezuelan flag and it seemed like he saw it too.

We clapped non stop for several minutes as Dudamel came out several times to bow and get each of the players who performed solo parts to get their recognition. However there was no chance of an encore when the lights went up and Dudamel asked the orchestra members to leave the stage.


Nevertheless it was neat to see a young person leading an orchestra with players that were almost twice his age. He was keen for them to get as much of the accolades as him. Very classy.

Gustavo Dudamel & the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall
March 19, 2014

Gustav Mahler Symphony No 6 in A minor

Allegro energico, ma non troppo; Heftig, aber markig
Andante moderato
Scherzo: Wuchtig
Finale: Sostenuto -- Allegro moderato -- Allegro energico

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Day Three: Xiamen

A reflection of Xiamen's downtown core on an overcast day
On our third and last day in Xiamen we explored the park near our hotel. We first crossed Yundang lake and an overpass to get to a pleasant and large park, that had a long boardwalk that led towards the water.

I noticed that Xiamen seems to like elephants, with many statues of the pachyderms around town. Now if we only knew why...

Nevertheless the park also had a playground area for children that included an amusement park complete with rides and games. However there was no one there because it was a weekday.

One of many elephants that hang around the city
We also discovered a creative way to use up dirt that was scooped up from elsewhere and dumped in the park to create a lovely man made hill covered in grass with a circular path to the summit. From this vantage point we could get a panoramic view of the city -- or at least the surrounding buildings in the area.

Afterwards we walked back towards the lake and decided to walk a good chunk of the perimeter, which is lined with a pathway that's easy to walk, and decorated with small plants, shrubs and trees.

In one section there were two massive buildings being constructed, and we could imagine the noise on the construction site must have been deafening. The amount of steel they were using particularly at the bottom seemed excessive, unless there were plans to build an extremely tall skyscraper.

Towards the end of our walk, there was a large open-air amphitheatre used for concerts and so it indicates there are cultural initiatives in the city.

The sign says no roller-skiing down the man made hill!
After a massage to relax our feet and legs, we headed to the airport and when we reached the Dragon Air counter we were dismayed to find a massive line -- it looked like one family was moving to Hong Kong -- because no one was manning the check-in counters. We waited some 20 minutes for the staff to slowly drift in, even carrying the rolls of tape used to tag luggage.

When we finally checked in, the ground crew told us the flight would most probably be delayed an hour... how nice -- and especially telling us now when we are at the airport.

There was nothing we could do except wait around. Going through immigration and security were pretty standard -- except for being frisked by a female officer -- and then we grabbed a bit to eat before heading to our gate.

The very large amphitheatre for public concerts and shows
It looked like our flight would be on time, but only a few minutes after we sat down, was the announcement made the 55-minute flight would be delayed an hour and a half. The ground crew were already organized with hot meals and drinks ready for disgruntled passengers.

The meal featured rice with pickled vegetables, surprisingly decently cooked fish, spicy chicken and stir-fried cabbage. But the wait was unbearable. The airplane finally arrived at the gate, those passengers disembarked, then it had to be cleaned before we were able to finally get on.

And that family with all that luggage? They sat across from us in the aisle. They were two families, with four children in between them, two of them toddlers. All the children wanted to sit together in the middle row, but as the plan was moving towards the runway, the flight attendants had to explain to them that there were only four oxygen masks, not five and so someone would have to move. The quick-thinking father then just took one of the babies and put him on his lap, though he and his wife changed seats later in the flight.

Where are the staff to check in all these passengers?
To say we were relieved to get back to Hong Kong is an understatement! We didn't check our baggage in so we could leave the airport as soon as we cleared immigration.

By the time we got home it was midnight after having spent four hours at Xiamen Airport.

Flying in China is not for those whose patience has run out...

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

More Drama with Leung Chai-yan

The soap opera at Leung Chun-ying's home continues with Chai-yan
We interrupt our regular programming to bring some bizarre news from Hong Kong's Government House.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's daughter Chai-yan was in the news today after she she wrote some Facebook status messages suggesting she was being physically harmed by her parents.

At 7am this morning she wrote:

And then within the same hour she also wrote: "I'd rather be living on benefits sleeping on a couch eating cup of noodles everyday than living the life I'm living now," and "I honestly wouldn't give a single fuck if my parents died right now this minute."

Then she added a "life event" on her Facebook wall, declaring her departure from home "forever".

She later posted "off to hospital" as paramedics arrived at Government House after receiving a call at 10.50am. A spokeswoman for emergency services said that at 11.45am the ambulance left because no one needed hospital treatment.

According to her, she did call the ambulance, but wasn't allowed to leave the residence.

What is going on?

Did Regina Leung Tong Ching-yi assault her daughter? If so, were there any injuries?

What precipitated this incident?

Too many questions and hardly any answers.

This afternoon all Leung Chun-ying would say was that his daughter needed space, denied his wife had hit Chai-yan, and that she was barred from leaving the house.

He said his daughter had been suffering "health problems" and had emotional problems since she began her studies in the UK.

"As a daughter of a public officer, she has been facing tremendous pressure in life," Leung said. "Meanwhile there are many public functions at Government House and therefore she could not have a quiet environment to recover."

He added that no one suffered any injuries, and as for her being apparently barred from leaving the home, Leung said: "You can use common sense to judge, how can anyone possibly imprison a person in Government House."

Leung's domestic issues are even more dramatic than the political ones. Chai-yan's presence in Hong Kong has made covering her father even more interesting these days and keeping their handlers working in overdrive...

The Birds of Gulangyu

A pelican "guarding" the bridge in the bird sanctuary
On Gulangyu there are some gardens and other sights that require paying 30 yuan admission fee and so we checked out one area that included a bird sanctuary. Strangely there were no rules posted at the entrance, and practically no staff around to watch for any mishaps, but the Chinese visitors didn't know how to react around the birds or that they should not touch them.

A cockatoo showing off his keyboard skills...
At the entrance there were some macaws, but they were chained to a bar they were standing on, and probably had their wings clipped as well. It was sad to see them stuck there, while a number of peacocks wandered around, strutting their stuff. There were the usual blue-green variety, and then a white one too that was an interesting sight.

Other birds were in an enclosed pond, like ducks and swans. A large white pelican that decided to hang out right on the bridge by the pond and so visitors were scared to walk over the bridge because it would attack the person with its big beak. Thankfully no one retaliated per se, but made for some spontaneous entertainment.

Two peacocks showing off their feathers
Then we checked out a bird show in another area of the sanctuary, and it was a very sad version of the kinds we've seen before in the west. The humans on the stage looked as if they really didn't want to be there, not smiling at all, and going through the motions, one routine after the other.

The birds -- mostly cockatoos displayed their talents in riding roller skates, riding a bicycle on a wire, collecting garbage, and playing a keyboard by walking up and down on the keys of an electric piano. Sadly these birds were also chained to their posts -- some even under lock and key!

People taking pics of the bird on a bicycle
Perhaps even more bizarre was that no one in the audience clapped either -- while they were busy filming the show and taking pictures, they didn't seem to think the birds deserved any applause! After the show we walked out of there, trying to digest what we had just seen...

Monday, 16 March 2015

Day Two: Xiamen's Gulangyu

The Neicuoao Pier greeting us as we arrive at Gulangyu
After our Art Basel report, we're back to covering our three-day trip to Xiamen.

We were lucky it rained overnight because the next day was slightly overcast but looked like the sun's rays would poke through the clouds and they did intermittently. It was perfect to go to Gulangyu, the famous island that is home to about 20,000 residents.

It's mostly a tourist site best known for its colonial architecture dating back from the 1800s and oddly enough for pianos, as there are apparently some 200 of them on the island thanks to a piano museum and at one point there was a piano academy.

One of the beautiful European-style buildings on the island
The last time I was in Xiamen was in 2009 and at the time we took the ferry from the downtown area, which only cost 8 yuan. However things have become more organized -- or shall we say more bureaucratic -- with only local residents allowed to use that ferry pier and others must use the other two that are in different parts of the city.

The closest one to us was about a 15-minute walk -- a pleasant one at that along Yundang Lake, where we saw leisure fishermen setting up their rods in the hopes of catching some fish for lunch or dinner, while others used to path around the lake to get to work or school.

Where the pier is located is not on a busy street, but near a posh apartment complex that doesn't have many amenities nearby which seems strange, but that's how things are done in China -- build flats now, then grocery stores, banks and other shops will come later.

We got to the ticket booth and were surprised to discover we had to produce ID to buy a ticket -- to go to an island that is considered to be part of Xiamen! Luckily I had mine on hand so we had to buy a group ticket where the three of us had to go to and depart from Gulangyu together. It cost 35 yuan per person and thankfully was a return ticket.

This fixer-upper has potential to be a beautiful restaurant!
To get on the boat we had to go through a security check and produce the ID again... by the time we got on, all the seats were taken and had to stand. The ride took much longer -- about 15 minutes, but it was a pleasant ride anyway.

However we disembarked on another part of the island we were not familiar with and had to get our bearings by looking at the maps posted periodically on the streets.

Nevertheless, it was nice to wander around the pedestrian-only island -- bicycles aren't even allowed which is interesting, because that would be the only way to adequately cover the entire island in a day because it's impossible by foot.

There are many small streets, each lined with small homes or shops. Some feature colonial-style architecture, but many are run down and it's a pity seeing them slowly decaying. It would be nice to see them renovated and used, but heritage building codes can be strict if you don't have the right connections...

I saw one abandoned building that could make for a wonderful fine-dining restaurant, or a stylish cafe that could be found in places like Vienna... but I digress...

The bride is instructed to cover her groom's eyes in this shot
Gulangyu is also the place for couples to get their wedding pictures taken. At one spot we saw four prospective brides and grooms taking their vanity photos and while the poses seemed manufactured and lacking in spontaneity, the dresses the young women wore were... dirty! One supposedly white wedding dress had a muddy fringe, so it was obvious the dresses were not cleaned after each use!

But perhaps our most intriguing discovery was a 24-hour self service library by the waterfront. Much like a vending machine, it has a large display window showing all the books available and their code numbers.

The user swipes their ID card, inputs the number that correlates to the book and then presto! The book comes out. To return the book, the user again swipes their ID card, scans the book's code and then inserts it into a slot.

A library book vending machine -- how cool is that?
We couldn't think of any other place we had seen this before, and surmised that perhaps the idea came from Taiwan, as it and Fujian have a very close relationship, and in turn maybe Taiwan got the concept from Japan.

We thought this was a fantastic idea and wondered if this machine were available in Hong Kong, would that encourage more people to read?

Sunday, 15 March 2015

A Quick Visit @ Art Basel

Yoshitomo Nara's works were popular this year
We interrupt our coverage of Xiamen to report back on the first day of Art Basel. The international art fair has moved up its dates from May to March to be included in the mix of the Hong Kong Arts Festival and Hong Kong International Film Festival. It's a lot going on for one month!

Michael Zavros' photo-realistic still life
The place was already buzzing just before 2pm, lots of young people in their hipster outfits, young women, some in heels anxious to impress and toting designer bags, mostly Hermes, while some guys dressed up for the occasion in a summer suit complete with a pocket handkerchief and sneakers.

I bumped into a few colleagues and even Amber culinary director Richard Ekkebus with his wife and daughter, perhaps getting a bit of artistic inspiration for his next culinary creations?

To be honest I spent about two hours at the show, passing by much of it quickly. There were many pieces that were either ill conceived or not executed well that marred the effect of the work.

A few pieces were in the "what's that all about?" category, such as a lime green cutout of a grizzly bear on its hind legs and a scarf wrapped around its neck, a head of a deer covered in glass balls mounted on the wall like a trophy, and a massive damaged paper lantern dangling from the ceiling looking like a reject from Ikea.

There is a rat under this sculpture of plastic!
There were some big names in the show this year -- particularly Yoshitomo Nara and his little girls with subversive-looking facial expressions, Yayoi Kusama with her dotted pumpkins, this time a massive sculpture, and mainland Chinese artists like Zeng Fanzhi and Yue Minjun.

While there were also works by Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, it was nice to have a bit of Matisse thrown in, like this simple yet elegant drawing called Portrait de femme.

To me it seemed like hyper-realism was back in force, with a few artists painting super photo-realistic works on canvas. The paintings by James White particularly caught my eye, with interesting still lifes from inside a hotel room bathroom, while Michael Zavros had beautiful floral paintings, including one of white lilies arranged in a large shell with its reflection below.

A bunch of blue bloated goats...
The works of Georgia Russell don't photograph well behind plexiglass, but she takes coloured pieces of paper and cuts them up into thin strips and plays with them and it looks dynamic, intricate and delicate all at once.

Claire Morgan had some intriguing pieces that involved taxidermied animals -- one called On Top, where a duckling peers down from a tower made of torn plastic. Another named Underwhelming has a rat underneath an oval-shaped sculpture made of ripped bits of coloured plastic. Perhaps an environmental theme here?

Another animal themed work was by Malia Jensen called Perfect Circle, where ceramic cats are lying on their side, with their front paw on the next cat, forming a nice circle. However, we had to wonder about Yang Maoyuan's "They" are coming to Hong Kong, featuring animals blown up into big balloons. The one with three blue goats was disturbing!

Sharp-suited cats looking bug-eyed by Lei Xue
Lei Xue's Cat Subway was fun, though the presentation was slightly off. Viewers first see these cats dressed in shirts, jackets and ties, and staring out into space. But behind them is the reason for their bug-eyed appearance, a short video, a beautiful watercolour animation of goldfish. Now if only the video were presented differently so we could understand why the cats are looking gobsmacked..

I continue to be blown away by Brazilian artist Vic Muniz (who is represented by Ben Brown Fine Arts in Hong Kong). I missed his show last year, Postcards from Nowhere, so these pieces were new to me.

Vic Muniz's take on the Forbidden City
He is best known for his collages and he continues this here, taking Chinese cities, including Hong Kong, cutting up postcards and other images and putting them on top of famous landmarks, like the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Great Wall, and the skylines of both Shanghai and Hong Kong. They are colourful and dynamic, presenting another take on these places.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Xiamen: Day One

Xiamen on a rainy Wednesday late afternoon overlooking Yundang Lake
Our three-day trip to Xiamen got off to an unauspicious start when our flight was delayed an hour. After we checked in, we received a text message from Dragon Air saying it was delayed for no particular reason, and then after we boarded the plane, we sat there for another half hour because the water system was faulty.

Marinated goose with the garlic sauce
And yes -- there were naughty mainland Chinese children on the flight. One row ahead of us was a family of five -- the mother, a baby and their eldest daughter sitting in the front row of economy, then behind them the father and second daughter who was about two years old. The girl kept talking loudly and intermittently shouting, screaming, crying -- and yet the father didn't discipline her to quiet down, or tell her she was disturbing other people, that she was not behaving.

He let her be loud and dramatic and the rest of us had to deal with it. I don't know if the father was too embarrassed to say anything, or he is usually that indulgent, but that girl certainly did not have any manners. Only when the plane landed and we were waiting to disembark was she quiet!

As soon as we walked out of the airport we could smell cigarette smoke -- we were definitely in the People's Republic of China! Thankfully the long taxi queue moved quickly and in less than 10 minutes we were in a cab and on our way through rainy Xiamen.

Many of the apartment buildings that are six or seven stories high are run down, with architectural styles left over from the early 90s, featuring white tiled buildings with small balconies where people hang their laundry. Closer to town there are more swankier, taller apartment blocks that look sleek because there are no balconies.

Delicious rice cooked with peanuts, taro and dried shrimp
Turns out our hotel is in the more posh part of town, complete with Louis Vuitton, Salvatore Ferragamo, Aquascutum, and Bally boutiques with no customers in them. Our hotel room looks over Yundang Lake, and we hope to get to walk around the circumference, which should take about an hour or so of brisk walking. There's also a lot of tea shops near us, as the province is best known for producing tea leaves on terraced hilly terrain.

When we arrived it was raining and so it's fog not smog we're seeing, but overall the air here is fresh -- a nice change from smoggy Hong Kong.

Since we arrived late in the afternoon we had an early dinner in a nearby restaurant, that serves all kinds of Chinese food -- Cantonese (even dim sum at night), Shanghainese, Sichuanese, and some Fujianese. We try going local and order lo sui or master sauce goose -- less than half a bird marinated in a soy sauce concoction that was very tender and flavourful. It went very well with a minced garlic vinegar sauce,

Assorted small fish (lots of bones!) cooked with Chinese celery
Another local dish was fresh assorted small fish cooked in a claypot with Chinese celery, radish and peppers. This was another tasty dish, the fish cooked perfectly, but required a lot of patience because the bones in the fish were so small! But like my relative remarked, eating the entire fish was like eating fish cheek, the most tender and sweetest part of the fish.

We also picked a healthy option of stir-fried vegetables with gingko that are meant to improve memory and eyesight, wood ear fungus, wai san, a kind of white yam root, lots of lily bulbs and carrots. And finally another Fujianese  dish was rice cooked with shrimp and cubes of taro topped with peanuts that was delicious -- and even better with spoonfuls of the soup left over from the fish dish.

Stir-fried vegetables including wai san, gingko and fungus
It was so good that we finished everything -- and the bill only came to 230 yuan for the three of us. If only Hong Kong prices were like that!

Friday, 13 March 2015

Picture of the Day: Prickly Fruit

A prickly-looking fruit that has lime green juice inside with edible seeds
Last night after dinner, we wandered into a Taiwanese grocery store and one of the first things we spotted in the fruit section was this yellow prickly thing that has spikes but aren't sharp. We asked one of the staff what it was and they said it was huo shen guo (火参果).

He said that we could slice the top off, add a bit of honey that was in a small packet and then sip the juice through a thick straw that it also came with. We were so curious how it tasted that we bought one to try at about 35 yuan.

In our hotel room we used the small blade on the wine opener to cut the top off and then poked the straw in. Sucking up the juice this way was very tough and at one point the stuff went straight down my throat!

So I cut open the top a bit bigger and got a teaspoon to spoon the fruit juice out.

It smelled like a banana, and inside it was lime green with seeds, kind of like a cucumber. It didn't have much taste, hence the packet of honey, but we didn't add any in to adulterate the natural flavour.

This fruit is apparently good for those who have persistent coughs, and digestion, has lots of vitamins, fibre, and while it can be eaten raw, the promotional material suggests double boiling it with crystal sugar, and that it is good for losing weight because people feel full after eating it.

It really is a dense fruit -- I kept spooning out more and more of this bright green stuff with beige-coloured soft seeds.

In the end it was interesting to try, but not something I'll be desperate to add to my healthy diet regime...

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Picture of the Day: Library Vending Machine

Interested in taking out a book from this hi-tech library?
Today we headed out to one of Xiamen's most famous spots, Gulangyu, which is best known for having a piano academy and museum on the island.

It is also a tourist destination for domestic tourists who devour the snacks on sale, from jack fruit to pineapple cake.

Locals take their wedding pictures here because of the European-style architecture from the 1800s that evoke a romantic atmosphere.

But we were really surprised to see how progressive Xiamen is with this 24-hour self-serve library near one of the three ferry piers on Gulangyu.

Users insert their ID card, pick the book they want, and like a vending machine, press the number for whichever book they want, and then it comes out of a slot.

When users return the book, they again insert their ID card and then scan the book's barcode on a scanner there before putting it into a slot.

We think perhaps this idea came from Taiwan, which may have originated from Japan.

In any case this is something you would never find in Hong Kong! But if these library vending machines were in the city, would they encourage Hong Kong people to read more?

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Picture of the Day: Truffle Soup

This menu item caught our eye -- a soup with black truffles in it!
Greetings from Xiamen, a third-tier Chinese city in Fujian province that is geographically closest to Taiwan.

This evening we had a delicious dinner at a local restaurant called Lucky Seafood that serves all kinds of Chinese food -- Cantonese (including dim sum in the evenings), Shanghainese, Sichuanese and Fujianese.

What caught our eye was this intriguing soup -- stewed black truffle with fresh bamboo fungus in a soup.

Black truffle isn't meant to be cooked but shaved raw. Seems like a waste putting black truffle in a soup, but China does produce black truffles though the quality is questionable.

Nevertheless, if there's someone you need to impress then perhaps that's a must-order dish...