Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Chateau Gazing

Chenonceau chateau, with the original tower on the right
This morning we went to visit a beautiful chateau at Chenonceau. It is located in a beautiful idyllic setting and one can imagine royalty arriving by horse-drawn carriage, with immaculately manicured gardens flanking both sides of the castle.

It was owned by Thomas Bohier and his wife Katherine Briconnet. However, Bohier owed money to the crown, and he had to forfeit the property to Henry II.

Catherine de Medici's portrait on the fireplace
He in turn gave the chateau to his mistress Diane de Poitiers, who was apparently 20 years older than him and known for her beautiful skin and red hair. In her bedroom is a portrait of Henry II's wife, Catherine de Medici, who looks very stern, so it seems strange for Diane to have her rival's portrait hanging on her wall, or is it a reminder not to be like Catherine?

After Henry II died, Catherine took her revenge, kicking out Diane and taking over the estate. She held parties in the gallery and covered the area to create more space in the chateau.

The next generation, Henry III occupied the chateau with his wife Louise of Lorraine. However, when he was assassinated, Louise was so distraught that she made her bedroom all black, while she wore white, the royal sign of mourning.

Each of the rooms were very beautifully decorated, and tapestries were more used as ways to insulate rooms, and many of the fireplaces are still in working order. The kitchen was interesting, with lots of copper pots hanging on the walls, as well as knives in the butcher area with a well worn wooden block.

The gallery used for parties and wounded soldiers
There were no washrooms in this chateau -- they used chamber pots and hardly bathed! Also curtains were installed in four-poster beds so that people could have some privacy -- there weren't many corridors so people, from visitors to staff had to pass through other people's rooms to get elsewhere.

There are many interesting details, such as the private chapel, the interlinking C's that almost look like a "D", and the original tile worn out, but the designs can still be seen on the edges of the rooms.

During World War I, the gallery was used as an impromptu hospital for over 2,000 soldiers, and in World War II, its location on the River Cher marks the line of demarcation between the occupied zone and the free zone.

The butcher room with choppers and a worn chopping board
The resistance used the chateau to smuggle people, including Jews from the north to the south in the free zone.

Outside the gardens are very pretty, but use the same plants in the entire design which while pretty, isn't very interesting for green thumb fans. There's also a garden maze, but we didn't have time to go in.

After lunch we visited the chateau at Amboise, a short drive away. It was originally built in the 15th and 16th centuries, and was the home of many kings and queens -- Charles VIII, Francis I, Henry II and Catherine de Medici.

However most of the property is gone, after an owner sold many of the stone blocks to raise money. But what we could still see was impressive.

Leonardo is apparently buried here
We first went into the small St Hubert chapel and in there is apparently the tomb of Leonardo da Vinci. He was asked by Francis I to come to France, and at that time the artist was already 64 years old. Leonardo was not the first Italian architect/artist invited by Francis I, as the others didn't want to come.

It is believed that days before Leonardo died, he called the notary to come and discuss his will and burial arrangements. He asked that he have a simple tombstone and he was apparently buried with one hand behind his head, which is unusual.

However the original church in which he was buried (not far away, on the same grounds) was destroyed, and his corpse was moved again, apparently in this chapel; however we cannot be sure because Leonardo had no descendants so there are no DNA samples to verify this. Our guide believes 95 percent that Leonardo is buried there.

The castle with those in black still existing, in red are gone
Then we made our way into the main building, going through several of the rooms, like the cupbearer's room, where there is a special cabinet storing the king's drinks. Only one person has the key to the cabinet to prevent poisoning.

Another was a long room with vaulted ceilings that would have been used for dining and partying, but also for trials, one case which involved Protestants who were convicted with attempting to assassinate the king and were hung outside the castle for four days so that the public learned a deadly lesson.

However towards the end of our tour some of the rooms were decorated with 19th century furniture, complete with wallpaper and paintings. The landscaped gardens outside are also sculpted, with bushes looking like verdant balls.

A Flemish influence in the architecture of the castle
We survived the day -- reaching 35 degrees! It was still very hot and very bright at 7pm! And it will still be very hot in the next few days.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Visiting Chartres and Chambord

The facade of the cathedral in Chartres
This morning we set off early from Paris to Chartres, southwest of Paris. It is best known for its cathedral, considered to be the best example of French Gothic architecture, and has been a Unesco World Heritage site since 2003.

We were one of the first groups in the cathedral, that was built in the 12th and 13th centuries and is also known for its stained glass windows from the Middle Ages. There are 172 stained glass windows depicting scenes from the Bible.

The Blue Virgin stained glass window
One of them depicts the "Blue Virgin" in a sky blue against a dark blue background. Blue is not a common colour used in stained glass, but here at Chartres it seems to be the norm. The cathedral also houses a piece of the veil of the Virgin Mary... there's a letter in calligraphy that claims it is from the days of Charlemagne...

The stained glass windows are tall and rectangular, and there are two round rose windows as well. The colours are so vivid, but perhaps this is due to the restoration happening at the moment, as there was scaffolding in the cathedral; it also prevented us from seeing the large labyrinth on the floor, which pilgrims used to walk on their knees while praying, as a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Behind the cathedral is a small garden and below it is a small garden maze and beyond it a panoramic view of the town.

Our next stop was Chambord, to the famous chateau -- or rather a hunting lodge -- that was commissioned by Francis I. He apparently hired Italian architects, one of which may have been Leonardo da Vinci, to create this place that has 440 rooms, 282 fireplaces and 84 staircases. One of them may have been designed by Leonardo, a double helix staircase that goes up three flights, but never meet.

The back of the chateau, or hunting lodge in Chambord
Apparently Francis I wanted the roof of the hunting lodge to look like the skyline of Constantinople. But he didn't spend much time here -- during his 32-year reign (28 years of which were spent on building the lodge), he only spent seven weeks here. Whenever he wanted to visit this home, his 2,000 household staff had to bring all the furniture, clothes and provisions for him to stay here.

Francis I came here to go hunting, and these days people come here to hunt one day a year in November.

Louis XIV spent some time here afterwards and before the outbreak of World War II, the works of art in the Louvre were moved to Chambord for safe keeping from the Germans.

Another interesting factoid is that the chateau was the inspiration for the palace in Disney's animation feature Beauty and the Beast.

The entrance to the chateau a la Constantinople
I have to come back here again to spend more time -- we had to quickly grab lunch before getting on the tour bus again to head toward Tours, but not before we sampled some wines at Montlouis.

It's located inside a limestone quarry, where the rock was quarried for the chateaus in the area. As a result it's a cool place to store wines. However there's no vineyards here -- it's a production area where grapes are processed, blended, fermented, bottled and distributed.

The Loire Valley is known for its Chenin Blanc and sparkling wines. The latter are produced by adding sugar and yeast twice. However the dead yeast leaves a cloudy mixture at the bottom of the bottle and so the bottles are placed on an angle facing down and turned periodically.

See the dead yeast in the bottle that needs to be removed?
Then once the dead yeast has collected at the mouth of the bottle, and because the caves are so cool, the sediment freezes and pops out much easier without losing too much of the sparkling wine.

We got to sample three of the wines, a sparkling wine, a rosee and a white wine, but none of them really impressed us which was strange considering we're in wine country.

By dinnertime we arrived at Tours and had dinner at a fun restaurant called Leonardo da Vinci and were entertained by a guitarist who encouraged us to sing songs either in French or English.

The very grand City Hall in Tours
After dinner we walked around the area, passing by City Hall, the shopping street nearby and saw the modern-looking streetcars. But everything was closed after we finished dinner so we could only window shop!

Cruising Along the Seine

On the boat cruise along the Seine River around Paris
Last night we finished dinner around 8.30pm and had a fun dessert -- gelato scoops fashioned into rose petals on a cone! I had to eat mine quickly because it was melting so fast!

Looking back at the Musee d'Orsay at sunset
Then my cousin suggested we take a river cruise along the Seine River that starts at the Eiffel Tower. The two of us made it there just in time to catch the 10pm sailing for 14 euros.

The sun was starting to set at that time so it was wonderful to see the sky change colour, creating a dramatic backdrop for the Paris landmarks. However it was hard to take pictures from where we were sitting as we were the last few to board the boat.

Notre Dame against the backdrop of the sky changing colours
Nevertheless, the one-hour cruise had recordings in English, French and Spanish, that pointed out the various sites from the water -- Musee d'Orsay, Legion of d'Honneur, Notre Dame, and the various bridges we went under.

Along the way we saw people hanging out by the Seine, either as couples or a group, drinking and dancing. How lively even for a Sunday evening!

By the time we returned back to the Eiffel Tower it was almost 11pm, when the tower would light up in a glittering display -- lights flashing on and off frenetically for five minutes.

It was a good show and us and lots of other people went back to the metro station to go home and have a 6.30am wake up call!
The Eiffel Tower in a glittering sight

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Some Paris Gems

Looking up at La Grande Arche at La Defense against the blue sky
Our third day in Paris was more secular, starting off at La Defense, in the far northeast end of the city.

One of then French President Francois Mitterand's "grand projets" that also included the Pyramid in the Louvre, Musee d'Orsay and Bibilotheque Francois Mitterand, La Defense's Grande Arche was completed in 1988, a 20-year project.

The site was originally where the French successfully defended themselves from the Prussians in 1870, and has now evolved into a business district, with many top national and multinational companies setting up their headquarters here.

The Arc de Triomphe is straight ahead in the distance
The arch is quite impressive, the gorgeous white marble and sharp edges create a striking image against a blue sky with disorderly clouds passing by. Look down from the Grand Arche and you can see the Arc de Triomphe in the distance.

Sadly we couldn't go up to the top of the building because the area where the glass elevators were was being renovated.

Nevertheless we took a quick peek at the nearby Quatre Saisons mall, where sales were going mad at 50 percent off.

Then we headed east all the way to Bastille, where as soon as we emerged from the metro station we saw the Colonne de Juillet or July Column. It was erected in the 19th century to honour the victims of the 1930 and 1848 revolutions. At the top is a golden statue, the Genie de la Bastille, who represents Liberty.

The curious Oriental room in Victor Hugo's apartment
We saw a sign pointing towards Victor Hugo's home and decided to find it. Down a small pleasant street by a park is his residence, an apartment where he lived with his wife Adele Foucher, from 1832 to 1848.

He paid an annual rent of 1,500 francs that was paid in four installments for the 2,800 square foot flat on the second floor.

Restorers have tried to make the apartment look as closely as it did when he lived there, following photographs of the place and eyewitness accounts.

Each room looked lavish, with sumptuous-looking wallpaper, lots of paintings on the walls, heavy antique furniture, and family portraits in photographs and paintings.

One of Hugo's ink drawings that has a lot of detail and depth
Most intriguing was a room that was done in an Oriental style, with caricatures of what Chinese people looked like -- with slanted eyes and wearing robes, Chinese-inspired furniture and murals, that were mixed with porcelain vases and plates, and two Guanyin statues.

So it turns out Hugo had some exposure to Chinese art and apparently appreciated it too!

The smallest room at the back was the bedroom, and they recreated it to look like the one in which he died in 1885, complete with the four-poster bed that was quite small, along with two paintings of his corpse on the death bed.

Soutter created abstract paintings in the 19th century
I still remember reading Les Miserables out of my own curiosity when I was in high school and what a slog it was reading the first third of the thick book. However after that things started to get interesting and the different plot lines came together making it a riveting read to the end.

And then years later the musical came out, but never gave the book justice to the numerous twists and turns in the plot, let alone the character development...

The ground floor of the apartment is reserved for rotating exhibitions and here it was showing Hugo also had an artistic ability, proficient at drawing, and how he influenced a violinist named Louis Soutter.

Hugo didn't pick up drawing until he was 30, while Soutter started when he was over 50. Soutter lived a sad life -- he never became famous as a violinist and instead ended up divorced and penniless -- his brother had to sell his violin to be able to let him live in an old people's home.

Hanging out at the Pyramid in the Louvre
When the two artists' drawings are put side by side, it's interesting to see their different styles -- Hugo masters facial expressions with minimal strokes, while Soutter is not afraid to cover the entire paper with pencil strokes that are confident and expressive.

From Bastille we headed to the Louvre, just to take pictures outside and then head to Opera station for Palais Garnier, named after the architect Charles Garnier who was commissioned by Napoleon III to build an opera house to reflect the opulence of the Second Empire.

We didn't go inside, but it was already impressive on the outside with the portraits of many composers lining the large building.

A memorable pistachio and strawberry ice cream sandwich
Just a block away was Galeries LaFayette and I was finally able to complete my mission in Paris -- to try an ice cream sandwich from Pierre Herme. My colleague had raved about them to me before, how she had one and returned not one more time, but twice in succession to savour these cold treats.

I tried the combination of pistachio and strawberry (6.90 euros) and was not disappointed at all. The sandwich shell is made of macaron, and then it's a thick slice of the strawberry swirl ice cream. Each bite was not too rich, and very refreshing, though my dad had the chocolate and nougat one that was quite heavy.

For my mom I chose three macarons for her and we agreed the Mogador was fantastic -- chocolate with hints of passion fruit to cut the richness and wasn't too sweet.

Au Printemps celebrates 150 years in pink and roses
Before going back to our hotel we passed by Au Printemps which is celebrating its 150th birthday this year, the outside of the store dressed in bright pink complete with rose-shaped medallions.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Parisian Church Fest

Notre Dame with its ornate facade
Our first full day in Paris was... a full-on one. We started off a bit late in the morning but arrived at Notre Dame to find a massive line to get into the cathedral, though it moved fast and in about 15 minutes we got in.

One of two rose stained glass windows
Construction of Notre Dame began in 1163 and then took almost 200 years to complete. After that it witnessed medieval executions, was a food warehouse during the Revolution, the coronation of Emperor Napoleon in 1804, and had a service marking the Liberation of Paris in 1944.

The facade of the cathedral is mesmerizing with so many things to see, lots of panels depicting scenes from the Bible, and the 28 kings from Judea, though the latter were destroyed because they were mistaken as French kings during the Revolution.

As a result a lot of rebuilding went on at Notre Dame. Even the gorgeous round rose stained glass windows underwent lots of repair too. Inside the place is so grand with very high ceilings, arches and chandeliers.

A service began when we were in there, and in attendance were nuns in their full habit, one even singing and leading the congregation with a few hymns.

Lots of locks still hanging out on Pont de Notre Dame
While the church tries to get donations from visitors, a neat way is through selling medallions with the church's design stamped on it for 2 euros each. It turns out other churches do the same, where people can buy them from a vending machine right in the cathedral which was interesting. Some designs have Pope John Paul II, or Pope Francis, other non-religious sites of Paris.

Afterwards we wandered behind the cathedral to Pont de Notre Dame, famously known for the padlocks on the fences lining the bridge. In late May the city announced it would remove the locks -- symbols of everlasting love -- because one part of the fence broke off last year because of the weight of the locks.

However they were still there...

An unusual but fun dome design at the Pantheon
After some lunch we headed to the Pantheon that took a bit of effort to find because there wasn't much signage giving directions. However we eventually found it and it is undergoing some major refurbishments on the outside.

The place was originally designed as a church dedicated to St Genevieve for Louis XV, who wanted to give thanks for the recovery of his illness. However, when Victor Hugo was buried here in 1885, the place became less religious and has now become more of a pilgrimage to those who made huge contributions to France's culture and celebrates generals.

The main dome is being refurbished, and in the meantime when you look up at the ceiling, it's not a traditional ceiling, but features modern faces photographed in black and white which is quite a contrast to the solemnity of the place.

The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry
Downstairs is the crypt which is where Hugo is, along with Emile Zola, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire and Marie Curie.

Then we headed to Musee de Cluny nearby and while it looked like a small space, it was packed with lots of interesting items from the Middle Ages. It is considered the only surviving Gothic residence in Paris.

While there was a lot of religious iconography housed in there, we were most impressed with the six large tapestries featuring the Lady and the Unicorn.

Each one depicts a different sense -- taste, touch smell, hearing and sight. The last one, considered mysterious, has "To my only desire". In it, the lady puts into her jewel case the collar she had been wearing in the other five panels. This could possibly mean her refusal of temptation, and renouncing the other five senses.

Pope John Paul II at St Germain des Pres
In any case, the colours of the tapestries are vivid and seem to be made around the same time as they have a similar look and colour, though the lady looks slightly different in each one.

Another church on the list was St Germain des Pres, which takes its name from the 8th century cardinal of Paris. It is the only Romanesque-style church in Paris and was once part of a monastery.

The outside has a humble appearance, but inside it's somewhat grand, with blue ceilings with gold stars, and the stained glass windows are impressive too. There was a bust of Pope John Paul II with a friendly face.

Then we headed north to Sacre Coeur which is high up on a hill. We missed the funicular so we schlepped up the stairs and had a good workout! Outside in front of the church there's a hippy-like atmosphere, as people hang out with bottles of beer and free entertainment from a guy strumming a guitar and enjoying the sound of his voice.

Inside there are lots of glittering mosaics depicting religious scenes, mostly on the theme of the crucifixion. Construction on the church began in 1875 and wasn't completed until 1914.

Sacre Coeur attracts a big crowd outside
While we were there a service was being conducted, and staff were strict about being quiet, and taking pictures. We rested our feet by sitting in the pew and watching the proceedings. Once the offering baskets came out, some parishioners left. Interestingly the basket was extended to us as well and I dropped our donation in there.

Finally, after some dinner -- moules marinere, duck confit, and steak, we took a brief look at Moulin Rouge, though it has seen better days. From there we took a ride home all the way back to our hotel. Our two-day pass is already worth it!

Thursday, 25 June 2015

A Rough Start in Paris

The packed train from the airport to town around noon
We arrived in Paris this morning only to find taxis blocked roads to Paris and Marseille airports.

Looking up at L'Arc de Triomphe
Airport staff were sympathetic, but could only help us with directions. The only way out was by train. With luggage in hand we had to go up and down, down a long hallway and then down some escalators to see tons of people waiting in line just to buy train tickets to town from ticket machines -- no one manned tickets sales desks.

It took us almost an hour to get to where the ticket booths were, and then almost another hour just to get the 10-euro tickets. We managed to climb aboard the train which left shortly after we got on.

Then we had to change trains twice just to get to our hotel.

When we finally arrived, the hotel staff strangely weren't that helpful with our luggage, shrugging their shoulders with hardly any sympathy -- is this a French thing?

To further rub it in, they said that what took us four hours to get there should have only taken 45 minutes by taxi...

It's 8.30pm and still bright at the Eiffel Tower
The taxi drivers are on strike because they are angry at online taxi service Uber for taking away their business.

Some incidents got really violent, with smashed windows, overturned cars and burned tires. Even rocker Courtney Love was caught in the unrest in her car leaving the airport. She tweeted that she was terrified, her car was ambushed and the driver taken hostage. Needless to say she was not impressed with French authorities in dealing with the situation...

So far it's a one-day strike, but who knows if it will last longer...

In any event, we finally settled into our hotel and freshened up. We grabbed a bit to eat before heading to L'Arc de Triomphe, followed by a stroll down Champs Elysees, took some pictures of the Tuileries, then had dinner before going to the Eiffel Tower.

Looking straight up the Eiffel Tower
I had good fun two years ago paying 5 euros to walk up the Eiffel Tower (the line for the elevator was too long). The stairs weren't that bad and had a fantastic view of the city. This time though, with parents in tow, we took a few snaps before heading home to rest our feet and get over our jetlag.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Three More Months

An announcement will be made in less than three months about Donald Tsang
Back in March we were told the investigation into former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen "has entered its final stage", and now the latest update is that we should know in less than three months if he will be prosecuted for graft or not.

Director of Public Prosecutions Keith Yeung Kar-hung dismissed concerns Tsang would flee Hong Kong to escape legal liabilities, a scenario he said was "quite unlikely".

Should we be so sure?

In any event, Tsang is accused of accepting favours from tycoons while in office from 2005 to 2012.

Three months earlier Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung said the investigation was wrapping up and that technical issues about laws were being sorted out.

If Tsang is convicted, he will be the highest-ranking former official ever to be involved in a bribery trial.

His chief secretary Rafael Hui Si-yan, was jailed for 7.5 years in December, after a jury convicted him of taking almost HK$20 million in bribes from associates related to Sun Hung Kai Properties. He is appealing.

In addressing criticism that the investigation has taken over three years, Yeung said: "The public is legitimately concerned about this case -- this is obviously an important case. But there is more than one facet... to the case. Compilation of certain evidence... involves investigations outside Hong Kong," he said.

"The views of outside independent counsel have been sought, and the prosecutions division has been in contact with the Independent Commission Against Corruption."

We will try to wait patiently another three months to find out Tsang's fate...

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Occupation Finally Ends

A yellow umbrella reminder posted on one of the tents in Admiralty
Even though the 79-day Occupy protest ended in mid-December, there are still some diehards camped around Tamar, though they will finally pack up and leave tomorrow.

Now that the political reform package was successfully voted down last Thursday, these remaining dozen or so protesters feel their aim has been achieved and will comply with the police deadline of Wednesday to vacate Tim Mei Avenue.

"Now that the government's reform proposal has been voted down, there is no point staying here any more," said protester Four Lai, who is considered the spokesperson for at least half of "Tim Mei Village".

"We will leave of our own accord. To be fair, the government has been tolerant so far. We won't make things difficult for them."

Many have already moved items like appliances, including solar panels.

It's still hard to believe that Connaught Road Central was completely shut down back on September 28, but seeing the tents on Tim Mei Avenue felt like a defiant gesture, akin to the slogan after former Ming Pao editor Kevin Lau Chun-to was attacked -- "You can't kill us all".

The rag-tag group of tents reminded the public the fight for true universal suffrage is ongoing.

But by tomorrow they will finally be gone, a sad thought, but their job is done.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Losers on Both Sides

The pro-establishment parties are still facing the heat after bungling the vote
The fallout from last Thursday's vote in the Legislative Council on the political reform package that saw it voted down 28-8 continues with the pro-Beijing side bickering amongst themselves today.

The new excuse is that there was not one leader to ensure everyone was in line, when really what happened was that the pro-establishment legislators had a herd mentality and followed their colleagues as they filed out minutes before the crucial vote.

It also shows how diverse the pro-Beijing types are and that they cannot be united under one leader... it would only emphasize how monolithic that side is.

Meanwhile on the pan-democrat side, Ronny Tong Ka-wah resigned today as legislator hours after he told the Civic Party he was leaving the party after he co-founded it nine years ago.

He was tearful at a press conference announcing his departure. "I would like to take this opportunity to say sorry to the people who have supported me. I have barely achieved anything though I have made my greatest efforts in the legislature in the past 11 years," he said.

Ronny Tong got emotional at his press conference today
Tong is considered a moderate pan-democrat. In the past year, especially during the Occupy protests, the political climate became markedly divisive -- you were either pro-Beijing (blue ribbon) or pro-democracy (yellow ribbon).

He didn't agree with what the protesters did for 79 days, saying occupying the streets would not amount to anything. He also felt the pan-democrats were not trying to help the situation by only refusing whatever proposal Beijing put in front of them.

What Tong suggested was that the pan-democrats should make a counter proposal to Beijing, to reach out and initiate some dialogue with China. But some pan-democrats dismissed him as being pro-establishment which made him feel slighted by not only them but also his own party.

He believes that only through engaging Beijing with dialogue can there be some break in the impasse, or at least create some kind of understanding between the two sides. And he still believes it.

"I hope there is a political party in Hong Kong which represents the views of the middle-of-the-road people. Taking the middle ground approach doesn't mean you give up the fight for democracy or are being subservient to the central government," Tong said.

While his resignation comes into effect October 1, Tong will focus his energies on his own think tank -- how many more do we need in this city? -- that he founded two weeks ago.

Called Path of Democracy, the think tank is made up of academics in politics and economics as well as professionals, and the goal is to improve strained relations with the mainland, and possibly train young people into politics.

Hong Kong needs more people like Tong in the Legislative Council to offer a moderate voice, but he is being drowned out and feels he cannot do much politically. This is a sad state of affairs in the city, as the atmosphere has become so divisive that nothing can be achieved because both sides are so far apart and not willing to compromise or at least find some kind of middle ground that Tong was aiming for.

Now with him resigning from Legco, who will speak up for those moderates?

Sunday, 21 June 2015

An App to Crackdown on Corruption

The public can now use a new app to crack down on corrupt officials in China
It's getting harder for Chinese officials to get away with robbing from taxpayer coffers and spending it on themselves.

The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) has just launched a smartphone app that allows the public to anonymously upload pictures and videos they take of officials who may be misusing public funds or government vehicles, or breaking Communist Party rules on lavish entertainment.

Not only is it a way for the public to help the CCDI root out bad elements from the Party, but also perhaps instill some confidence in the people that the government is trying to tackle the problem.

CCDI says the public can anonymously upload text (432 characters), pictures and videos (up to 5MB) that denounce what the Communist Party says are "the four decadent tendencies" that include "hedonism and extravagance".

Wang Qishan (centre) heads the CCDI to root out corruption
Violations that could possibly be lavish spending on entertainment, expensive holidays in China or abroad, handing out funds or gifts that violate Party rules, extravagant wedding banquets, parties or funerals.

According to the Communist Party, some 100,000 people have been punished for disciplinary violations in the past two years, though many received minor disciplinary punishments to avoid going to court.

While some members of the public thing the app is a fantastic idea, even praising anti-corruption czar Wang Qishan as a "great man", others are cynical and wonder if the CCDI has enough manpower to catch all the corrupt officials on the app. Others pondered online if these officials would really be brought to justice, or that others may take revenge through the app...

Nevertheless, it will be much harder for officials to think themselves different from the rest of the people.

In China these days, appearances really are everything.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

The Bickering Continues

The Liaison Office of the Central Government in the HKSAR in Western
The fallout from the crucial vote on the Hong Kong government's political reform package continues to escalate, with members of the pro-Beijing camp bickering amongst themselves over what happened on Thursday.

Thirty-one of them walked out of the Legislative Council chamber moments before the vote was taken, thinking it would help bring a 15-minute delay as they waited for New Territories strongman Lau Wong-fat who was delayed in traffic.

A remorseful Jeffrey Lam apologized for the walkout
Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee couldn't help but cry on Commercial Radio yesterday and business representative and Executive Council member Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung, who initiated the walkout, profusely apologized.

The 28 to 8 vote against the reform package was terribly embarrassing for Beijing. Soon after the vote, the Liaison Office began calling the pro-Beijing lawmakers who dutifully voted for the package, which was confirmed by Liberal Party honorary chairman James Tien Pei-chun.

Others who bungled the vote were summoned to the office in Western to explain what had happened, similar to naughty school children who are called into the principal's office.

Independent lawmaker Ng Leung-sing also went to Western. How did he explain why he was there?

Ng Leung-sing admits regular chats with the liaison office
"I have regular dialogue with the liaison office," Ng said. "Of course it was unavoidable for us to discuss what happened on Thursday."

Ah-ha! So anyone left-leaning has scheduled chats with the liaison office... it really does confirm the on going sardonic saying that "Hong Kong is ruled by Western", as the liaison office is located in Sai Ying Pun.

However, the liaison office calling the shots is considered illegal according to Article 22 of the Basic Law which says:

No department of the Central People's Government and no province, autonomous region, or municipality directly under the Central Government may interfere in the affairs which the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region administers on its own in accordance with this law.

If there is a need for departments of the Central Government, or for provinces, autonomous regions, or municipalities directly under the Central Government to set up offices in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, they must obtain the consent of the government of the Region and the approval of the Central People's Government.

All offices set up in the Hong Kong Administrative Region by departments of the Central Government, or by provinces, autonomous regions, or municipalities directly under the Central Government, and the personnel of these offices shall abide by the laws of the Region.

So -- can we have less interference from the liaison office now that this silly fiasco is all over? Obviously its meddling in Hong Kong affairs has been a disaster.

But the Central Government probably doesn't see it that way and is possibly now doubling or even tripling its efforts to ensure things go its way despite the promise of "one country, two systems"...

Friday, 19 June 2015

Quote of the Day: Regina Ip

Pro-Beijing lawmaker Regina Ip fights back tears on Commercial Radio
It's been a bad 24 hours for Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee.

This morning she appeared on Commercial Radio and became emotional talking about the pro-Beijing establishment bungling their vote for the political reform package by walking out of the Legislative Council chamber minutes before the vote was taken.

Twenty eight voted against the package, versus 8 for it. While 31 pro-Beijing walked out of the chamber, they still wouldn't have had the two-thirds majority to pass it anyway.

But these lawmakers looked silly and are paying for it now.

Ip explained that she didn't sleep well the night before and began to crack up and cry on the radio; someone handed her a tissue.

"I feel very sad and very sorry that we've failed many people's expectations. I saw many of our supporters were scolding us online," she said. "The error this time is very regrettable."

Perhaps she is also crying because she totally blew her chances of ever becoming chief executive of Hong Kong...

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Reform Package Vote: As Expected

The pan-democrats are vindicated in voting down the political reform package
It was a foregone conclusion, but they still had to go through the motions.

The political reform package was voted down, but strangely some 30 pro-establishment lawmakers walked out of the Legislative Council chambers just before the vote was made, with only eight votes for the package.

The pro-Beijing side claimed there was some "miscommunication", saying they were trying to delay the vote by 15 minutes so that rural kingpin leader Lau Wong-fat could make the historic vote.

But Legco President Jasper Tsang Yok-sing went ahead with the vote as more than half the legislators were in the chamber. Twenty eight voted against the package.

Strangely the pro-Beijing lawmakers walk out of the chamber
Lau claimed he was in Kowloon Tong in the morning and was stuck in traffic getting to Admiralty...

But it was expected the political reform package would be voted down, and now the city can breathe a sigh of relief, though what's next no one knows. If the package had been passed, there probably would have been demonstrations and who knows what else.

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor must have been very disappointed after all the hard work she put into this "project". How about all the taxpayer money spent on promoting the political reform package with billboards, television commercials and tour buses?

Before the vote, she claimed the government's work on reform had been "open and transparent".

"Our package is also constitutional, lawful and reasonable. It is the best package under the current situation," she said.

Carrie Lam addresses lawmakers before the vote
And that's what people like the pan-democrats don't agree on -- the current situation. How can Hong Kong accept a package like that, where the candidates must be pre-approved by Beijing and a committee of 1,200 people who are also pro-establishment? How is that fair?

She hoped that people would end the divisiveness in the community and move on.

"Society should also look and think in retrospect, about what happened in the last 20 months, and we should lay down our differences... because we still need to work together to solve our economic and livelihood problems. We need to be rational, pragmatic and understanding in solving problems, and we need to communicate in different ways," she said.

We hope she is referring to the government, because it has not listened to everyone in Hong Kong -- it has only chosen to listen to a select few. If it did hear all sides, it would put more effort into solving the laundry list of issues plaguing the city, from the yawning wealth gap, to putting some kind of rent control in place so that businesses and families can survive, to reforming the education system so that kids don't have to do five hours of homework every night, to giving more resources to the working poor and homeless. It is not like the city is in debt.

If the government had tried to solve these problems and made some headway, then maybe -- just maybe people would trust it. But the political reform package is so blatantly flawed in so many ways that one would have to be a fool to think it's something we should "pocket first".

The ball is now in Beijing's court to rethink how it will deal with this demanding child who only wants the best for its people.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

The Debate Begins

The police brought in lots of equipment into the Legislative Council yesterday
So it has come to this -- today is the start of the debate in the Legislative Council on the political reform package presented by the government.

If all 70 members use their allotted time of 15 minutes, the vote could happen on Friday.

This morning tensions were high. It was reported 200 police officers were stationed inside Legco in case any radicals planned to storm the building. Legco President Jasper Tsang Yok-sing allowed them in, after the police suggested heightened security would ensure people's safety.

Today pan-democrats presented "no" ballot boxes at Legco
Civic Party lawmaker Kwok Ka-ki said the presence of police in the building damaged the council's independence, while Civic Party leader Alan Leong said the security checks made him feel like he was boarding a flight.

Meanwhile there are hundreds of people of various stripes camped outside Legco telling lawmakers to either support or vote down the package.

All we can do is wait to see what happens...