Saturday, 31 October 2015

Fact of the Day: Hong Kong's Trashy Behaviour

Why is Hong Kong's waste output increasing each year and not decreasing?
Us Hong Kong people dump a lot of garbage.

Last year, an average of 14,859 tonnes of solid waste was thrown out every day, an increase of 3.8 percent from 2013. Most of it was a 10 percent increase in construction waste, according to the latest Environmental Protection Department statistics.

So the amount of municipal solid waste dumped in landfills increased 2.5 percent from an average of 9,547 tonnes per day in 2013 to 9,782 tonnes last year. This kind of waste is generated from domestic, commercial and industrial sectors, with one-third of it being food.

Most of the garbage, at one-third, is food waste
When broken down per person, per day, it's 1.35kg last year, 1.33kg in 2013, 1.32kg in 2012 and 1.27kg in 2011.

What are we throwing out? Can't some of it be recycled? And do we have to buy so much in the first place?

This is hardly helping to meet government targets of reducing waste by 20 percent by 2017, and 40 percent by 2022.

Recycling is doing poorly at a pathetic 37 percent last year, with the quantity of recyclable materials increased by 45,000 tonnes compared to 2014. While more metals are being recycled, the collection of paper dropped by 87,000 tonnes, and plastic by 144,000 tonnes.

The government really needs to subsidize recycling in order to make people think of this as a way to reduce their waste. We can always use the recycling for other things. It's not as if the city is poor -- we have the financial resources to support this industry to make it a more viable one and create jobs as well as clean up the environment.

Not everyone uses these recycling bins property...
In the meantime, green groups are calling on the government to implement the waste charging scheme as soon as possible, though they don't anticipate it being implemented until 2018 or 2019.

However, we can already envision people dumping their trash in public waste bins to avoid being charged, and this is being done already. Perhaps the waste management department does too good of a job taking away our garbage so there isn't an appreciation for how much trash we accumulate...

Friday, 30 October 2015

Picture of the Day: Laying Out Halloween

A beautiful Halloween-themed display in New York
When we were in New York a few weeks ago, residents were already in the Halloween spirit. Many apartments decorated their stairs like this one above, with pumpkins and skeletons, cobwebs, spiders and other spooky accessories.

If someone decorated their front door in Hong Kong with decorations like that, they would have been stolen already, which makes it interesting to note how New Yorkers for the most part respect other people's property.

In Hong Kong, it is rare that one could leave out a display like this and not have anyone take anything -- unless someone was watching it all day.

There are the odd instances where someone may turn in a wallet or smartphone to the owner or the authorities in Hong Kong, but for the most part, if something is missing, consider it gone for good.

What does this say about our city and residents? Have we lost our morals in Hong Kong?

Thursday, 29 October 2015

China's Shifting Demographics

Posters like these may be obsolete soon - what's with the red-eyed panda?
Breaking news this afternoon -- China has lifted its one-child policy and now couples are allowed to have more than one without any preconditions.

This is a stark change from when an ex-colleague of mine in Beijing told me quietly that he was the second child born illegally and his parents paid dearly for it.

They were previously quite active in the Communist Party and then they were shunned. Not only that but they had to pay a massive fine.

So this latest announcement is a big step foward in liberalizing family planning restrictions. For the longest time no one could have more than one child except for ethnic minorities. And then it shifted slightly with both only children could have another child, then only one parent who was an only child was necessary to be eligible to have two children, and in the countryside if the first born was a girl, the family could have another child.

The one-child policy has been in place since 1976
But now every family will be allowed to have two children, in the hopes of easing labour shortages and caring for the elderly.

China will "fully implement a policy of allowing each couple to have two children as an active response to an aging population", the Communist Party said in a statement today during the fifth plenum, where party elites are discussing the next five-year plan.

It's caring for the elderly that has made young people stressed out. When I was in Beijing eight years ago, they would talk about how they would have to look after two sets of grandparents and parents. And if they married that would be doubled.

That is too much of a burden for one child, not just financially which is already a huge cost, but physically being able to care for so many people.

Also sad is their lack of experience in having a sibling, of learning to share, and having relatives like cousins, uncles and aunts.

While that all changes soon, though no time frame was announced today, babies won't be popping out overnight.

That's because the cost of having a child, particularly in urban areas, is so expensive, that financially parents are not keen on having another one to raise.

As a result, some critics say the measure is too little, too late.

Having more than one child is too expensive for many families
William Nee, a researcher with China Rights Watch, sees this as an important political and social issue.

"China should immediately and completely end its control over people's decisions to have children. This would not only be good for improving human rights, but would also make sense given the stark demographic challenges that lie ahead," he said.

It really is a human rights issue -- being told you can or cannot have children by the government seems strange to the rest of us, but for the Chinese, it will take time (and money) to get used to this new idea.

What will be interesting to watch is that if this easing with stop the widening sex ratio between men and women. Currently it's at around 118 men for every 100 women which is not good. There are remote villages of single men.

I had previously thought this would give women the edge in choosing their mate, but it's the exact opposite -- females have become commodities in high demand and treated as such, rather than as humans.

There are studies showing higher numbers of kidnappings and sexual assaults against women which is very troubling because there aren't enough of them to marry. And women in the cities with careers aren't necessarily interested in settling down either.

So hopefully with the family planning policy being lifted, there will be a more normal ratio of men to women. Hope demographers will be pressing the reset button when this happens to record this latest change in China's population shift.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Hong Kong's Love of Processed Meat

A typical non-healthy dish in a cha chaan teng always includes panfried spam
There was some surprise today from Hong Kong people reading the news about the World Health Organization saying processed meats are carcinogenic and as dangerous as tobacco and asbestos.

As expected those in the food industry were quick to denounce the findings as "harsh", while others said the study was based on western eating habits, not Asian.

However, look at what a large number of people eat at cha chaan tengs -- panfried spam, sausages, some bacon. Many also eat sandwich meats thinking they're just as good as natural meat. And then there's lap cheong or Chinese sausages...

Some wonder if Chinese sausage is not as healthy as it looks
The study found Hong Kong people eat an average of three-and-half sausages and nearly two slices of ham per week, which is considered to pose a significant cancer risk.

Local demand for processed meats, such as sausages and ham has grown in recent years. Figures show that 23.1 million kg of sausages were imported last year, up 3.9 percent from the previous year, and up 17 percent from the year before that. Some 18 million kg of ham was brought in last year.

That's how WHO came up with an average consumption of 7.9g of sausage, or half a piece, and 6.1g of ham or a quarter slice. This doesn't include other processed meats and red meats

In general Hong Kong people are not knowledgeable about nutrition and think they are eating a balanced diet when they aren't at all. Perusing through supermarkets these days, the vast majority of food for sale are processed one way or another -- in a box.

Many shoppers buy bags and bags of instant noodles, chips, chocolate, and processed meats, and not often fresh meat, vegetables and fruits. I know this because every week when I hit the supermarket, I look at what people are buying and also what's on the shelves and I'm shivering with fear.

Should we be surprised more people in the city are obese, or have high blood pressure or are diabetic?

More markets with fresh vegetables and products are available
The WHO said eating processed meat could lead to bowl cancer, which claims the second most lives in Hong Kong, with lung cancer the number one cancer killer.

Will this report make people change their dietary habits? Probably a small percentage, while the rest will carry on eating processed meats because they don't feel ill from eating them.

But by the same token, vegetarianism or some say "part-time vegetarianism" is starting to gain more interest. There are more vegetarian restaurants in Hong Kong, and more plant-based food products are available.

The government should really be stepping up disseminating important information about what people should be eating. Enough with the "rich man's diet" and eating more vegetables and fruits. At least it would be easier on our wallets too...

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Quote of the Day: Don't get Involved in "Sextortion"

The number of cases of Hong Kong men threatened with blackmail after having online sex chats with women has increased significantly this year compared to last year.

Police figures show 506 local reports of "sextortion" in the first six months of this year, more than eight times the reported 60 cases in 2012; there were 477 cases in 2013, and last year 638.

Could it also be that more men are willing to come forward about their extracurricular activities because they don't have the money to pay up?

The amount victims also paid went up as well, according to police statistics. In the first six months of this year HK$1.6 million was paid out, compared to HK$100,000 in 2012. Meanwhile HK$1.7 million was swindled in 2013, and HK$2.3 million last year.

Yesterday three cases were reported by men ranging in ages 20 to 61, and none of them paid the amounts demanded of them, though they were threatened with lurid photos or videos of them would be released online. Interestingly they all reported the incidents in the morning until around lunchtime.

The police are treating these cases as blackmail, and one veteran police officer said such online scams were carried out by Asian women who demanded the money be paid into Western Union accounts registered in the women's home countries, like the Philippines.

Word of advice from the police? "Do not take your clothes off and perform indecent acts in front of a webcam."

It makes sense, but the sage words maybe harder to remember for those who get caught up in the heat of the moment...

Monday, 26 October 2015

Home At Last

Zheng Fayan (right) reunited with her mother after 18 years
I just read a tragic story from Chongqing.

A woman has been reunited with her family 18 years after she was abducted.

Zheng Fayan was welcomed back to her village in Chongqing last Monday. The last time she saw her family was when she was 16.

However, she was unable to see her father -- he passed away in 2009.

Like many other rural residents in the 1990s, Zheng went to Guangdong province to get a factory job. There she met a woman who took her to a remote village in Chaozhou the following year.

There the woman sold her to a man surnamed Chen, who was about 40 at the time. "I the first few months, I was chained to the door," Zheng said, adding Chen feared she would flee.

In 1998 she gave birth to her first child with Chen and went on to have four more.

Zheng said she tried to send letters to her family back home, but they were all returned.

Finally a chance to escape came when Chen, who was too old to work, sent her to a factory in Dongguan, in Guangdong.

There she met Zhang Dajun, also from Chongqing who helped her get back to her home in Wuxi county.

"In these 18 years, I imagined countless times meeting my family. Today I can finally see my mother and brother," Zheng said after arriving home.

County police have launched an investigation into her abduction, but the chances of finding that woman again are few and far between. They will probably find Chen with the children, and then what? Charge him with abduction and violating the one-child policy?

And how does she feel about leaving behind her five children? Does she have any affection for them despite having them with a man she did not love?

The fact that abductions like this still happens in China shows how people in the cities continue to take advantage of those from the countryside, exploiting them for their own gain.

The government has to stop these abductions and severely punish those who enable this heinous crime.

Zheng is not alone. There are thousands, probably tens of thousands of cases like hers. Even more heartbreaking are babies and children who are abducted and have no idea what their names are, let alone their parents' identities, and where they are from. Finding these children are near impossible.

Hopefully Zheng will make up for lost time with her family and try to piece her life back together again. What happened to her will be a lesson to others in the perils of being too trusting...

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Hong Kong's Financial Secretary Still out of Touch

John Tsang and Gregory So (right) attending the Wine and Dine Festival
Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah is at it again.

On his latest government blog post, he wrote in Chinese despairing that entrepreneurs in Hong Kong were hamstrung from making profits because they had to pay more money for low-skilled labour.

He wrote that workers like dishwashers were making HK$12,000 ($1,548) a month, but that put pressure on small and medium-sized businesses.

Tsang came up with this latest notion after visiting the Wine and Dine Festival which closes tonight at the Central harbourfront.

While he observed the city's low unemployment rate at 3.3 percent this quarter, and for all of last year at 3.4 percent indicated stable employment, but he expressed concern for small and medium-sized businesses in the dining, retail and recycling sectors.

"Hiring staff was their greatest difficulty," Tsang wrote. "A restaurant owner said he couldn't find anyone to do a dishwashing job in the city centre even if he offered HK$12,000 a month.

"The market has a huge demand for such low-skilled labour, causing a continuous rise in salaries for these jobs, and increasing the burden on entrepreneurs."

He warned that businesses could not survive the rising labour costs and the adverse economic situation could collapse, which would lead to an increase in unemployment and less spending power.

Uh, excuse me -- how about telling greedy landlords that they are charging so much rent that they are the ones who are killing these businesses?

It's not the labour costs -- this is the market rate for dishwashers because no one wants to do this job. It's hard work, having to stand in a hot room, cleaning dishes non stop. Oh maybe Tsang has never had to do the dishes in his life and doesn't understand how laborious it is.

Can he blame people for wanting to find less back-breaking work for almost the same salary?

Perhaps Tsang should wash dishes for that restaurant owner for a day to see what it's like, and maybe he'll appreciate why dishwashers have to be paid at least HK$12,000 a month.

Does he not understand that as Hong Kong becomes more of a service industry, particularly in hospitality, that we will need low-skilled workers in restaurants, hotels and retail outlets who can serve guests, prepare food, open doors, and clean up after them?

He is only hearing one side of the story, and not bothering to hear what workers in retail, hospitality and recycling have to say about the long hours they have to work and at times how tedious their job nature can be for little pay.

Can someone explain to me again why Tsang is our financial secretary?

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Temporarily Cut Off

The Kap Shui Mun Bridge and Tsing Ma Bridge link Hong Kong with Lantau
Yesterday evening there was complete chaos around 7.40pm last night after a barge struck the Kap Shui Mun Bridge, which together with the Tsing Ma Bridge, links Hong Kong to Lantau.

The collision set off an alarm that stopped traffic from entering onto both bridges and onto the Airport Express that uses this Lantau link to get to Hong Kong International Airport.

A colleague sent me texts, telling me she was trying to drive her relatives to the airport, when the police stopped them from going onto the bridge and that they had to wait until further notice.

Lots of people milling around Airport Express in Central
Her relatives were frantic because they needed to catch a flight back to London, but there is no other way to the airport -- unless one took the ferry from Central to Discovery Bay or Mui Wo and from there took a taxi to the airport.

I happened to be at IFC mall at the time having dinner and saw lots of passengers mingling at the Airport Express and wondering what to do with no explanation nor instructions on what to do.

While passengers were worried about missing flights, one could also assume that crews were also in the same boat as it were and so flight were inevitably going to be delayed.

This was exactly what happened. About two hours later, the bridge was reopened and everyone began flooding into the airport again. My friend had to settle with seeing off her relatives at Kowloon Station so that they could get to the airport as soon as possible; turns out they made it as their flight was delayed an hour.

In the end less than 100 passengers missed their flights.

Many had to wait around to see what would happen...
The incident has raised some serious questions -- most importantly -- why is there only ONE transport link from Hong Kong to Lantau? Shouldn't there be more than one way to get to the airport? What if the bridge was more severely damaged and completely shut down for days?

Last night director of Highways Peter Lau Ka-keung admitted this was the only direct link to the airport and that planning for it had been done back in the 1980s.

However this morning Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said there is a tunnel between Tuen Mun and Chek Lap Kok, where the airport is located, is being built and will be in operation three years.

But in the meantime what do we do if this happens again?

Though it's quite amazing nothing serious has occurred until now, some 18 years after the bridges were built...

Friday, 23 October 2015

Wining and Dining

Enjoying the live musical entertainment under a giant white tent
Just got back from the second day of the Hong Kong Wine and Dine Festival at Central harbourfront.

It's the seventh year of the event, and this was my first time checking it out! Last year because of the Occupy protests it was hastily moved to Kai Tak cruise terminal but attendance was terrible so admission was waived and then hordes of people went -- if they could get in due to terrible logistics.

This year it's back at Central harbourfront, by Pier 10 and the giant ferris wheel and being a Friday night, the place was swarmed with mostly young people keen on sampling as much as possible and eating a few good bites in between.

Healthy drinking water -- new concept?
There was either a line to pay cash (HK$30/$3.87) to get into the grounds or Octopus; we chose the latter and literally walked in no problem. However, there was a massive line to get drink tokens.

Nevertheless, once this was sorted, we wandered around to see what we could try. There are over 300 booths, mostly organized into countries with Bordeaux having a huge presence, followed by the Italians, Germans, and then every other country like the United States, Chile and even Georgia.

Some booths focused on food, everything from slices of proscuitto, cheese, and popcorn, to yogurt and hamburgers. With the drink tokens we received a wine glass and a book of coupons, some of which could be redeemed for free stuff, like a bag of nuts (only about 10 nuts in there), and a bottle of water that even had the tagline, "Healthy drinking water" -- really?

Most of the wines we tasted were pretty good -- red, white, rose, port and dessert wine. I can't tell you which ones they were because my uncle just went to get some in his wine glass and shared it with us.

So many booths to wander and try, not enough time!
There were also talks on wine and an opportunity to buy wine accessories like glasses and wine fridges, and of course lots of bottles. But most enjoyable was the live entertainment, Chinese singers who sang both Cantonese and English songs, some in a jazzy style, others more pop and rock.

After two hours of wandering around and sipping different wines, I'd had my alcohol quota and made my way home...

Thursday, 22 October 2015

China Recognizes fellow Strongman

Robert Mugabe is the 2015 winner of the Confucius Peace Prize
The Confucius Prize winner was announced on September 28, but the rest of the world didn't hear about it until... three weeks later.

Now such a prestigious prize should have had been highly anticipated, but alas only those in China knew that the winner was... (drum roll please)... Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

Isn't he the perfect person to win China's answer to the Nobel Peace Prize?

The selection committee chose Mugabe, 91, for "working tirelessly to build the political and economic stability of his country, bringing peace to the people of Zimbabwe, strongly supporting pan-Africanism and African independence, and making unparalleled contributions for the renaissance of African Civilization".

Mugabe only got 36 out of 76 votes, with others going to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and South Korean President Park Geun-hype.

And now the Zimbabwean strong leader enters a small circle of winners in which he has good company: fellow strongmen Fidel Castro and Vladimir Putin.

Will he or won't he be the first person to actually come and accept the prize of 100,000 yuan ($15,000)...

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Tragedy of a Tourist

The jewellery store on the left was where the tourist was beaten up
It is shocking to hear that a mainland tourist died yesterday after trying to mediate a dispute between a fellow visitor and their tour guide.

Miao Chunqi, a 53-year-old construction contractor from northeastern Heilongjiang province was allegedly beaten unconscious by a gang of four men, thought to be mainlanders.

Together with 19 other visitors from China, Miao joined a tour that was probably cheap in price, but when they arrived, the group had to pay up the difference by buying up in a jewellery shop. The visitors were forced to stay inside and buy something, but a fellow tourist complained to the tour guide not wanting to purchase anything.

The two had a verbal altercation and Miao tried to mediate, but was attacked by four men believed to be mainlanders. The police source said: "Initial investigations showed he was dragged out of the shop and attacked again.

The "forced shopping" tour guide was arrested yesterday
The news of this tragic death has resulted in the Chinese tourism authority for Hong Kong to tell the local government to protect the rights of mainland visitors.

It goes to show the Leung Chun-ying administration is not doing a good enough job of keeping tabs on the situation. The authorities should be cracking down on cheap tours that rely more on shopping. Instead these nefarious tours seem to continue to exist, and now we've seen the ugly and tragic side of "forced shopping tours".

Now the Hong Kong tourism industry is concerned this incident will leave a dark stain, and already mainlanders have pledged online not to visit here.

The local tourism sector is already struggling, thanks to Chinese President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign that is scaring off big spenders, and now with this horrific incident, one wonders if any tourists from China will want to come here.

"Mainland tourists might lose interest and confidence in coming to Hong Kong," said Josephn Tung Yao-chung, executive director of the Travel Industry Council. He said tours involving shopping were highly sought after.

But tourism sector lawmaker Yiu Si-wing, cautioned against jumping to conclusions. "Maybe it was about coerced shopping, or perhaps, personal remarks. We don't know what provoked the dispute."

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Strange Relations with China

Hopefully PM-designate Justin Trudeau has more skill in dealing with China
After a sojourn to North America, it's time to focus back on Asia, though we are thrilled to see Canadians vote for change in installing Justin Trudeau as the next Prime Minister.

The result of 184 seats to lead a majority government was not expected out of Trudeau early in the campaign, who was thought to be the political lightweight.

But he proved his adversaries wrong, and also public sentiment built up to the point of saying, "enough is enough! Time for change!"

While it will take some time for the 43-year-old charismatic Liberal leader to undo the damage Harper has done in the past almost decade, we hope Trudeau has the wisdom to be pragmatic and nuanced in his dealings with China.

Harper on his first visit to China in 2009 with Wen Jiabao
Harper learned the hard way and paid dearly for it. It was so embarrassing to watch then Premier Wen Jiabao tear a strip off of Harper in 2009 before allowing Canada to have the Approved Destination Status so that more mainlanders could come visit the country as individual tourists.

So while Harper did the grovelling, we hope Trudeau doesn't have to do that and can return Sino-Canadian relations back to a decent, amicable level where the Chinese still rave about Norman Bethune.

At the moment, the UK is bending over backwards in inviting Chinese President Xi Jinping on his first state visit there. Even the Queen has opened the gates at Buckingham Palace to welcome him and wife Peng Liyuan to stay with Her Majesty.

Xi Jinping meeting the Queen and staying in her digs
Have the corgis been locked up to avoid being Xi's supper???

Jokes aside, it's quite astounding how much Prime Minister David Cameron is going all out to ensure Xi and Peng have the royal treatment -- which is ironic considering the Chinese got rid of the imperialist dynasties in 1911.

Does Cameron think that by giving his guests the ultimate kowtow that China is going to open its doors wide open to the UK and let it plunder it again, this time economically?

Does Queen Victoria have to leave the park?
What's also ironic is that at the same time Xi is being hosted by the monarchy, the Chinese are deploring that Hong Kong has too many vestiges of British colonialism and now want them covered up or taken down.

Hong Kong Post is frantically going to cover up the last mail boxes that have the royal insignias on them, but does that also mean getting rid of the statue of Queen Victoria in Victoria Park, and renaming the area, the People's Park, like every other mainland city has?

Does that also mean changing the names of all the British-named streets we have too? Talk about confusion!

For the Chinese trying to get rid of Hong Kong's last bits of colonialism is like whitewashing the city's history. This is a part of who we are -- this is where Hong Kong gets its values, like freedom of speech, freedom of the press, rule of law.

Again, I'm repeating a broken record refrain, but this indicates yet again that the Chinese do not understand Hong Kong and its identity, and how its unique history can be its advantage.

Instead it seems, the Chinese would rather force Hong Kong to bend to its will, while enjoying the scones and afternoon tea with the Queen...

Monday, 19 October 2015

Hanging Out in Central Park

Some leaves had changed colour, but for the most part trees were still green
In New York I got a chance to go through Central Park twice, and it's an amazing green gem for the city to have. I heard that the diameter of the park is 10km and within it there are numerous paths and things to see and do in there.

A tribute to a Massachusetts senator
The first time I went to the park was to cut through from east to west and took the shortest path. I was feeling hungry so I stopped by one of the food carts and got a $2 pretzel, which, by the way, has 440 calories!

It was great not having to worry about car traffic because it was Columbus Day, and so there were only cyclists and runners to watch out for. Along the way I saw a statue of Daniel Webster, who was a Massachusetts senator known for his eloquence and oratory skills, and the beautiful Bethesda Fountain with an angel on top.

In the Gospel of John, an angel blesses the pool of Bethesda and gives it healing powers. And here, the fountain commemorates the Croton water system, which first brought fresh water to New York in 1842.

Crossing directly across only took about 40 minutes, including a quick pit stop to Strawberry Fields and take a picture of the Imagine mosaic while listening to a guy on a guitar sing Beatles songs.

Hanging out in Strawberry Fields... forever...
The second time we went to the park was a circuitous route and tried to find some trees that had their leaves change colour, but that proved to be a bit of a challenge with the relatively warm temperatures but we couldn't complain about the blue skies and fresh air.

Nevertheless we did bump into a guy who made giant bubbles that were lots of fun to watch, and no they weren't free -- he had no shame in expecting a tip. Guess someone has to pay for the bubble solution...

A giant bubble attacking me!

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Revisiting the Highline

The High Line overlooks the meatpacking district in Chelsea
Four years ago my friend took me to see a cool community project called the High Line in the meatpacking district and wrote about it here.

It turns out the start or end of the High Line is at the Whitney and on my last day in New York I took a long stroll along it and was amazed to see how much it had grown the last time I was there.

Flowers are growing nicely in between the cracks
The grasses had grown much taller, and trees had created a natural canopy in parts, and more importantly the path had extended much further. It's not a place to run through, but to walk alone, or with people and meditate on the scenery in front of you.

There are a few stops along the High Line where people can get drinks and snacks. The coffee stand was quite popular, though the others selling empanadas, artisanal popsicles and ice cream sandwiches were quiet.

For souvenir hunters, the High Line has its own gift shop too, with proceeds going towards funding the maintenance of the park/path.

There's lots of green spaces making it a pleasant walk
A nearby plaque explained that the High Line was built between 1929 and 1934 by the New York Central Railroad to take dangerous freight trains off the streets. They carried meat, produce, and dairy products into warehouses and factories on the third floor, and were nicknamed the "lifeline of New York".

However eventually trucks replaced trains in transporting goods and by 1980, the Highline had stopped running. In 1999, the High Line was threatened with demolition and two friends set up the Friends of the High Line to save it.

In 2002 the local government took on the initiative and the High Line was inaugurated seven years later.

A patch of shrubs and flowers that has grown nicely
However it was a massive donation of $20 million from the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation in 2011 that really gave the High Line a shot in the arm. Media mogul Barry Diller's offices in the Frank Gehry-designed IAC building is a stone's throw away from the park, while his fashion designer wife's studio and office is very close by.

The High Line is now a major tourist attraction, and on the day I went, a number of the people passing through were overseas visitors -- Italian was spoken a lot -- while some were locals preferring to take in some greenery on their walk, or avoiding the traffic below.

I walked all the way to around 34th Street by the docks to take in a view of the clouds threatening to take over the sky with rain. Only a few drops fell as somehow the winds managed to disperse the clouds to reveal some clear patches later in the day.

Yutaka Sone's depiction of Manhattan in marble
In one section is a massive marble sculpture -- of Manhattan! It's quite amazing to see it. Called Little Manhattan New York, New York (2007-2009) by Yutaka Sone,  it's a depiction of Manhattan in a nine-feet long piece of marble that captures everything within the two-year time period it was being created. You can't help but let your jaw drop seeing all the detail that went into this piece.

Not only is that amazing but also the fact that developers have quickly jumped in and built condos around the High Line to bump up prices. But do you want to live where people can walk by and look into your apartment? 

Nevertheless, can't wait to see what the High Line looks like the next time I come back!

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Touring the New Whitney

A look at the Whitney's outdoor terraces with great views
This past May the Whitney Museum of American Art moved from Madison Avenue to Chelsea in a multi-terraced building which also happens to be the end or beginning of the Highline.

So, not wanting to miss out on the latest new thing, we headed down there for a look.

Looking down on the Highline from the Whitney
It's a brand new building designed by Renzo Piano and when you enter it looks promising, with sleek modern lines, and outdoor terraces on several floors.

Admission is not cheap -- $22 for adults, $18 for seniors and students -- considering how much there is to see here.

The museum says there are eight floors, but interestingly there's no fourth floor -- was it influenced by the Chinese?

We worked our way from top to bottom, starting with the new show, "Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist".

We knew nothing about Motley (1891-1981) beforehand and it was fascinating to read that he was biracial, African American and European. He struggled with his identity, not being able to fully associate with one or the other.

The Octoroon Girl by Archibald Motley
Racial identity became a theme for him in his work, as he hoped art would bring "a better understanding between the races". He also wanted to help African Americans feel pride and beauty in their looks.

His earlier work featuring portraits mostly women, are wonderful portrayals of people at the time. In particular I liked The Octoroon Girl painted in 1925. She is sitting on a couch, slightly off centre, leaning on the arm rest next to a funny-looking statue of a man with a massive bushy mustache. He seems to act as a counterfoil to her serene elegance, in a black dress with passionate red wide collar, sleeve and button details.

I also enjoyed the portraits of his paternal grandmother, who told him stories about what it was like to be a slave working for a mistress. In one portrait of her called Mending Socks, she sits with a wrap around her shoulders held together by a brooch, mending a sock in a parlour. The portrait above her on the left gives a hint of a white woman, who was her mistress, who his grandmother says treated her well.

Motley paints his grandmother mending a sock
There's another painting of her called Portrait of My Grandmother done in 1922. She wears a white blouse with a brooch, and black skirt underneath. What drew me the most in the work was the detail of her hands, more so than the face. It is evident she is already old as one can see from her facial features, but the hands are a testament to the hard work she did to survive.

Motley's wife was German American, and they were childhood sweethearts before they got married. However the implications of their relationship were huge -- her parents disowned her when she married Motley, and it was difficult for them to walk down the street without being ogled.

The exhibition has two portraits of her, one looking sweet and vulnerable, maybe because she is in the nude. while the other is of her dressed up with a fox stole and looking stern.

The Freedom Tower stands tall, and a tiny Statue of Liberty
After the portraits section of his earlier work, Motley's paintings begin to portray African Americans in a cartoonish way which seems to go against his earlier mission statement. Nevertheless, the earlier paintings of scenes in Chicago are vibrant and lively, dancing and drinking.

He also goes to Paris from 1929-30 on a Guggenheim fellowship and captures the bohemian lifestyle there, like jazz and Josephine Baker.

However, his work becomes more and more cartoon-like, simplified depictions of African Americans that maybe seem OK because they are painted by him and not someone who is white.

Prop by Richard Serra
After the show one can grab a bite to eat at the cafe on this floor, or wander outside to take in the views. From here you can see the Freedom Tower and in the distance, the Statue of Liberty.

We found the views much more absorbing and interesting than the art on show which seems strange, no? We went back inside to cling onto a tour that was happening of the permanent collection and were introduced to some interesting pieces.

One is a piece of lead propped up on the wall by a nine-foot long lead pipe, and not the sheet of lead hung on the wall and then the pipe leaning against it. It's by Richard Serra called Prop that was made in 1967, but was "redone" in 2007 because the lead pipe created a groove not only into the lead sheet but the wall as well thanks to gravity and time.

Another is called Giant Fagends by Claes Oldenburg, featuring giant cigarette butts haphazardly placed in a container, with one or two scattered in the room, as the curator was given permission to place them wherever they wanted.

A lone cigarette butt by Claes Oldenburg
The cigarette butts are about the dangers of smoking and public service announcements trying to get people to butt out, and at the same time they look like legs as it was during the time of the mini skirt era. What a mix.

We were kind of modern art-ed out after covering the two floors of the permanent exhibition and also it was almost closing time. We hit the gift shop, but were disappointed to find there wasn't much in terms of souvenirs that tempted us to dig into our wallets.

Even the Whitney T-shirt -- a white one with thin W's on it was hardly inspiring. And what was Yayoi Kusama's black dotted pumpkins made of fabric doing here for sale at $300 for a small one? She's not even American!

Oh and if you want to eat in the ground floor cafe called Untitled, you have to make a reservation otherwise don't bother. Strange that this is considered the place to dine when the art upstairs doesn't draw much of an appetite...

Whitney Museum of American Art
99 Ganesvoort Street
New York
(212) 570 3600

Friday, 16 October 2015

Reliving 9/11 Memories

The Survivor Tree in front with the new Freedom Tower
The last time I was in New York two years ago, the Freedom Tower and 9/11 Memorial Museum were almost completed.

Today they are both set against the backdrop of the city redeveloping the area, to make it a transportation hub underground for commuters who live in New Jersey or around the city.

A pair of tridents standing in the museum
The museum is expensive -- $24 for adults, $18 for seniors and college students. While there was a line to buy tickets, it didn't take long to get in.

When we came here last, there was a small temporary area in which to display a number of things, looking like a three dimensional scrap book.

But today the exhibition is given a lot of space to breathe and for groups of people to move around relatively easily.

However the subject matter isn't easy to take in, even after all these years. There's a lot of pictures before the event, even one taken minutes before the first plane hit the World Trade Center.

Then there are the voices of people remembering what happened that day, their immediate reactions. What's particularly devastating is hearing the voice mail messages people in the towers sent to their loved ones -- probably the last words they said to them.

Mangled steel columns from the WTC
There are lots of pictures of the explosions in the twin towers, while archival footage is reserved for news footage of the shocking event.

Visitors can see all kinds of objects related to 9/11, from subway cards covered in dust, to handbags people used to protect themselves from the shower of dust, to fire trucks mangled by the intense heat of the explosions, and even the concrete stairwell that helped survivors escape.

Of course there are the 25m-tall "tridents", the original facade of the WTC, eerie skeletons of the world's tallest skyscrapers, complete with the shorn off stubs of where these tridents would have been placed around the two skyscrapers.

Seeing the mangled columns of steel where the planes hit were horrifying, but simultaneously oddly gracefully artistic.

A makeshift shrine for first responders
And then there were the patriotic messages, like the American flag made up of several different ones, a gallery where all the victims' portraits are hung, and relatives talk about them in recorded messages. A large iron tablet left over from the building became a makeshift shrine with first responders' names on it. For some it is emotional because they may have known these people, for others like myself it's hard to comprehend.

It's all a bit much after a while.

The museum has also commissioned short films that we watched. One asked key American figures that day to recall what was going through their heads at the time. And they were of people we didn't really want to hear from again.

President George Bush remembers sitting in a classroom listening to a child read, while former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said the first person she called was Vladimir Putin to say what happened was not a training exercise, and he knew so.

Governor George Pataki and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani also talked about what they did that day, and what they all said wasn't particularly enlightening, especially Bush, who talked in generalities about having to destroy the "enemy"; it made one wonder if he really remembered the events of 9/11 clearly.

A firetruck recovered from September 11
Another documentary included interviews with other world leaders at the time, Pakistani Prime Minister Pervez Musharaff, and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, now people not looked on with pride, so why do these interviews? Perhaps they give a record of what happened that day, but do they really need more publicity?

When you're finally finished going through all the exhibits, the last part of visiting the gift shop, but it feels like the store is taking advantage of people's grief and trying to get them to buy out of solace.This seemed like the crassest part of the otherwise emotionally-driven museum.

If you want to go up the Freedom Tower it'll cost $32 each, but we didn't go up. Imagine how far you could look afar?

One of the two reflecting pools to remember the victims
The two reflection pools are sad but a poignant reminder of over 3,000 who died that day on American soil. There's also the Survivor Tree, the only tree that managed to withstand all the damage that was later replanted back in the area.

It's the only positive part of being there, though looking at the Freedom Tower gives the sense that Americans and their allies have stood up again, however they have yet to defeat "the enemy"...

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Looking Back at the Gilded Age

The entrance to The Marble House once owned by William Vanderbilt
This blog post was written on October 10 and being published now. Thanks for your patience!

Today we landed in Newport, Rhode Island, known for its yachts, glorious homes, and delicious seafood.

Here's the back of the house -- no pictures allowed inside
We didn't have much time but luckily arranged tickets to see two of those amazing homes, both owned by the Vanderbilt family.

Cornelius II and William were the grandsons of Cornelius who founded the Vanderbilt empire on shipping and the railroad.

The first house we saw was the Marble House, owned by William and decorated by his wife Alva Erskine Smith.

One can tell by the d├ęcor how much she wanted to prove that the family Alva married into was one of the most powerful and famous in the world.

The massive gates at The Breakers
It was called the Marble House because practically every room in the house has marble in it. The grand foyer itself is an indication of what's to come, thick slabs of Italian marble that were cut like a book so that the panels mirrored each other.

The home was also one of the first to have electricity installed as well as modern plumbing. Alva hired a French chef to cook gourmet meals for the family and guests, and he was paid $10,000 a month – not a bad salary at the time!

However the story of their daughter Consuelo is sad. Even though she was secretly engaged to someone else, her mother kept her pretty much locked up at home until she relented to marry the Duke of Marlborough.

Chinese-inspired pavilion at the back of Marble House
Incidentally he was the last guest to stay in the only guest room in the massive mansion. While she moved to England and became close with one of her husband's friends, Sir Winston Churchill, she was in a loveless marriage and bore two sons.

It wasn't until after 26 years of marriage did she divorce – and her mother testified that it was she who pushed Consuelo to marry the duke. Soon after Consuelo married a French aviator and seems to have lived a happy life afterwards from the age of 43.

The gorgeous facade of The Breakers
Her mother also turned heads by divorcing her husband in 1895 and then promptly marrying one of her husband's friends Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont who lived nearby. As a result, she apparently used Marble House as her storage or closet.

The other house we visited was The Breakers, and it is also a very impressive mansion with massive wrought iron gates at the entrance. The original Breakers was a wooden home, but was destroyed by a fire in 1892.

Cornelius was determined to learn lessons from this and made sure the kitchen was not close to the main parts of the house. While there's marble from Switzerland and even platinum on the walls of one of the bedrooms, the Breakers isn't as over-the-top, though it's still a home to illicit awe from visitors, particularly the dining room with its two massive Baccarat crystal chandeliers and 22K gold leaf on the walls.

The back of The Breakers on a gorgeous autumn day
The bedrooms on the second floor are elegant, but toned down, with lots of portraits and a few items displayed from the time. Cornelius was known as a hardworking man whose personality wasn't ostentatious, while his wife was keen to entertain.

Apparently women at the time of her stature would change clothes seven times a day.

The Vanderbilts didn't spend much time in these houses – perhaps spending six weeks in the summer here. While the chinaware used stayed in these homes, the family packed up the silverware with them wherever they went – and even locked it up every evening.

Looking out onto the water from the second floor terrace
These two homes give a good indication of what Mark Twain meant by The Gilded Age – conspicuous consumption, using classical architecture or design combined with new technology or the nouveau riche to justify their stature in society.

Both homes and several more are looked after by The Preservation Society of Newport  County and it's no wonder they do well with the stream of visitors who come here to gawk at such opulence that people actually lived over a century ago.