Sunday, 31 January 2016

Creative Food Carts in Causeway Bay

Gregory So (right) seeing what it's like to operate a food truck in Australia
Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah fantasized about Hong Kong having food trucks in the city, and then his colleague, Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Greg So Kam-leung estimated it would take HK$600,000 (US$77,102) in start-up costs, and only 12 of them would be in six tourist spots.

As expected the media and the public ridiculed these government officials for being completely out of touch with the concept of food trucks, how they would be regulated, and that the prohibitive costs would result in only big restaurant groups operating them.

One creative food cart served mini egg waffles to customers
So today some creative designers and hawker groups came out to Causeway Bay to show what they could do -- at a fraction of the cost.

It was their way of sending a message to the government to diversify its food truck offerings and lower start-up costs.

There were 10 small hawker carts, serving snacks like mini egg waffles, Chinese pudding and glutinous rice balls covered in desiccated coconut. The carts were added to old bicycles or small vans, with the construction costs ranging from HK$1,500 to HK$100,000 -- well below So's suggestion of HK$600,000.

"The purpose of the show is to demonstrate that cheaper food trucks could also be unique and artistic, while meeting hygiene requirements," said Chan Ka-hing, who designed some of the food carts.

Another designer, Niles Mak, pointed out the smaller carts would be better because they wouldn't block traffic, compared to a regular food truck.
John Tsang was inspired by the movie Chef to have food trucks

So how about it, Mr So and Mr Tsang? Why not encourage local hawkers to set up shop around town and not necessarily tourist-specific sites, and while we're at it, why not help dai pai dong stalls to flourish in the city?

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Preparing Kids for a Disrupted World

Hong Kong needs to shake up its approach to education to prepare students
At a workshop I attended earlier this week, the theme was disruptors, and how they have challenged traditional business models. These include Airbnb, Uber, and Google, and how things are much cheaper than before, or require less humans to operate them, and hence less employment.

The leader of the workshop contended that by 2018, 80 percent of companies will be disrupted. Currently 80 percent report dealing with disruption already, though only 50 percent of them are doing something about it.

He added there are already major disruptions in finance, law, marketing and human resources.

And then he said, "I don't mean to offend anyone in the room, but I find Hong Kong students boring and unstimulated. They just want to have the highest-paying job at the fastest way possible."

Rote learning will not help kids deal with a disrupted world
That sparked a flurry of opinions in the audience.

Some said it was because parents have made money a priority, and it was also the education system that made the kids boring learning by rote.

Another said that as a mother she didn't know how to prepare her children with how to deal with the world when they graduate and the school system in Hong Kong was all about rote learning and not giving the students skills on adapting to a world full of disruptions.

This is a good point -- how do you prepare your child for today's work force in which nothing is predictable?

How do you explain to them they need to know general knowledge, but that also they need skills on flexibility, creativity, be a team player and be disciplined and hardworking?

It seems like Hong Kong's education system is totally behind on this, and still focused on meeting certain targets that are definitely not related to the students' development.

By the same token, the parents need to stop coddling their children and get them to be independent. Some kids can't even tie shoelaces at the age of 10, or peel apples at the age of 24. They need to be able to fend themselves and having a helper do everything for them is not going to help.

Scheduling every minute of their lives isn't helpful either -- the children don't want to learn anymore and that's the last thing you want to happen. If they are already burned out at seven, how are they going to continue learning the rest of their lives?

Physical activity is also important -- team sports helps them to learn the importance of working together towards a goal as well as make good friends. It's also a good way to keep fit and focus on things other than school work.

While many parents claim to know the benefits of the above-mentioned points, they are too scared to have their child do one less thing because that may hinder him or her from getting into an elite school, or fall behind their peers.

The rat race starts as soon as the child is born in Hong Kong. How fun is that?

And people wonder why Hong Kong's youth are not "hungry"....

Friday, 29 January 2016

Editor's Red-faced Blunder

Hu Xijin's latest blunder was publicly exposed in anti-graft campaign
Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of Global Times, both Chinese and English versions is an interesting character.

For starters he's journalist worth respecting -- he has covered wars in Bosnia and Iraq for People's Daily, though he's hardly a charismatic-looking fellow. He has a kind of bowl haircut and hardly dresses like an editor, wearing jeans from the 1980s and shirts with sleeves that are too long for his stocky body.

At Global Times his goal seems to be to whip up as much nationalistic fervor has possible, which works in certain circumstances (South China Sea, Taiwan).

But some people like the younger generation see through the provoking opinions and stories and find the Global Times the kind of paper that likes to create attention for itself is tiring and self-serving.

So does it come as a surprise that Hu was recently reprimanded for breaching Communist Party rules by using the newspaper's funds for personal travel?

He and his deputy were ordered to pay back 6,417.90 yuan and write a self-criticism for the party disciplinary team at the People's Daily, according to a statement from the paper.

It confirmed a rumour that circulated online in September that Hu had been punished for changing the schedule of a China-Germany media forum in June 2013, where he arranged for guests to travel to Poland for three days. His newspaper covered the expenses.

The rumours led to people mocking Hu for quickly criticizing others, and yet he himself does not set a good example.

The public punishment of Hu was part of a self-inspection campaign at the People's Daily, which began when it was being scrutinized by an inspection team from the Communist Party's anti-corruption agency from June to August last year.

So this time Hu lost some big face, but he will probably recover soon enough -- with his next breaking story.

Having been through war twice, Hu has a pretty thick skin, and will survive to live another day.

The Chinese government seems so keen on showing that the country has more than one story to tell, and when it comes to state media, it's the various shades of red...

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Picture of the Day: Rainy and Foggy Hong Kong

Watching the clouds go by over Hong Kong Island
Today was a drizzling day that wasn't too fun to be out and about. It meant having to be armed with an umbrella and battling out with others to get around them or try to avoid being poked in the eye.

In the afternoon had an appointment up at the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong, and practically every time I go up to the 102nd floor, the weather isn't very good.

Over on Kowloon side there's a thick layer of cloud!
Today was no exception, but it was pretty cool to see thick clouds covering the city, almost like a Chinese painting!

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Ex-ICAC Chief Free from Prosecution

Ex-head of the anti-graft agency won't face further prosecution or investigation
Today there was finally an announcement of former ICAC chief Timothy Tong Hin-ming's fate -- that he would not be further prosecuted, nor further investigated.

Case closed.

What? Really?

When he was commissioner of the Independent Commission Against Corruption from 2007-2012, Tong was found to have spent taxpayer money on lavish gifts and hosting dinners, for not only his mainland counterparts, but other Chinese officials too. He also invited his friends and relatives to dine at these dinners at taxpayers' expense.

For example, Tong hosted 206 meals that were listed as "official entertainment", and overspent on 77 of them. This compares with only two percent of the 460 meals hosted by other ICAC officers that overspent.

Apparently there isn't enough evidence to prosecute him -- or there is no law that he has broken.

ICAC's report says Tong didn't break rules in lavish spending
"With respect to the purchase of hard liquor, it is noted that there were neither regulations nor internal rules within the ICAC prohibiting the consumption or purchase of hard liquor, including Maotai during Mr Tong's tenure," the department for Justice said in a statement.

"It is also noted that even before his tenure, there had been occasions of serving hard liquor at official functions. It is unfortunately that the relevant rules and regulations in this regard at the time were not clear."

Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung said applicable internal ICAC rules, that have since been revamped, made it difficult to prosecute Tong.

Yuen and current ICAC commissioner Simon Peh Yun-lu denied the decision was politically motivated, though Tong was appointed a CPPCC official in 2013; it made some wonder if all that wining and dining he did was to help him get that political position.

It is very disappointing that Tong did not get prosecuted, based on the fact that there were no strict rules in place about entertaining or giving lavish gifts, that it was more based on the officials' sense of morality and responsibility.

Did Tong know that before he bought all that booze? Now that's a question worth asking.

Regardless, the optics of this whole fiasco make the ICAC and the justice department look bad.

Who is the public supposed to believe?

A former ICAC investigator as well as several lawmakers are calling for full disclosure of the legal advice given to the justice department to lead it to today's announcement.

We shall see how the request is received...

Meanwhile today Transparency International released its latest Corruption Perceptions Index, where Hong Kong was ranked 18th along with Ireland and Japan. Hong Kong's score was 75 for 2015, up one from 2014. It was at 75 for 2013, and 77 for 2012.

It's intriguing that Hong Kong is thought to have improved on becoming less corrupt, though the number of complaints about corruption increased by 20 percent last year.

Is it me, or is it coincidence that the announcement about Tong is the same day Transparency International's report comes out? Makes one wonder what's really going on...

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Fact of the Day: HK's Homes Most Expensive

For the 6th year, Hong Kong has the the least affordable homes in the world 
For the sixth consecutive year, Hong Kong has been rated the most expensive place to buy a home globally. The average flat prices at 19 times the gross annual median income, the highest ever in US-based Demographia's survey over 12 years.

The survey looked at 367 cities, but no mainland cities were included. Sydney was the second most unaffordable market at 12.2 times compared to 9.8 in 2014, while Vancouver was third at 10.8. San Jose was fourth at 9.7 and London in eighth place at 8.5.

The ratio of 19 was determined according to home prices in September when they peaked, compared to 17 times in 2014.

"This is the least affordable median multiple ever recorded in the survey," said the international consultancy.

Demographia classifies any region with a median multiple of more than 5.1 as "severely unaffordable".

This alarming figure contrasts with property agents saying housing prices should drop 15 percent this year, though people are waiting for prices to possibly fall even further before jumping into the market.

While 15 percent is not a big drop, Midland Realty chief analyst Buggle Lau Ka-fai said the affordability ratio for a flat costing HK$4 million had improved to 37 percent from 30 percent during the market peak last September.

Nevertheless, the historic high ratio gives a clear indication at how homes are more and more expensive, and how people's salaries have hardly kept up with the cost of living.

One wonders if the Hong Kong government even cares to comment on a pronouncement that hardly shines a favourable light on the city. It attracts the uber rich, who snap up ultra luxe flats and they keep our service sector busy, though good help is hard to find these days. But that's another story...

Monday, 25 January 2016

Beauty Trumps Brains in HK

Jennifer Coosemans crowned Miss Chinese International 2016
On Saturday night I watched the Miss Chinese International Pageant on TVB Jade, and it was a clear demonstration of how Hong Kong objectifies women.

Every time a candidate had a close-up on television, their name, where they were from, but more importantly, their measurements would flash up on the screen. Is her bust size what's going to help her win?

The swim suit competition bared a lot of skin during rehearsal
Of course there was a swim suit section, though many of them didn't have much to show off. But as if to give a sense of equity to the proceedings, the male dancers accompanying the women on stage were shirtless...

Watching the women parade in costumes that reflected where they came from was fun, but the competition to show off their talent was cringe-worthy.

One did a short ballet rendition of Swan Lake, a woman from Thailand sang an English song, while a contestant who speaks Putonghua thought she'd get extra points by playing the piano and singing in Cantonese. Not. It was already nerve-wracking for her to not flub up on the piano and then to sing in Cantonese with a Putonghua accent...

The questions the hosts asked the contestants were hardly challenging. For one of them, they showed a picture of a Chinese door god and asked the contestant which judge looked most like the menacing-looking deity.

Miss Bangkok sang an English song in this stunning dress
Oh and can we add that all the judges were handsome men, one of which is a very wealthy businessman in the society pages?

Off to the side was a bevy of women in evening gowns who were previous pageant winners and seemed to take part in the judging but had no major role.

There were no hard-hitting questions, like explaining one thing the candidate would do to make the world a better place, or what what is your favourite book to read and why?

The contestants, who were pageant winners from their hometowns, came from all over, such as the United States, Canada, Thailand, China, South Africa, Australia, and of course Hong Kong. As a result, English, Cantonese and Mandarin had to be spoken simultaneously by the three hosts, Carol Cheng Yu-ling, Janis Chan and Lawrence Cheng.

Miss Jiangsu danced a section of Swan Lake for the audience
The winner this year? Jennifer Coosemans (Chu Ah-lam), 21, of Vancouver, who is half Belgian, half Chinese. Originally from Terrace, British Columbia, she was crowned Miss Vancouver Chinatown last month.

Coosemans has one more year of university before she graduates. And with her model looks, she'll surely be roped into a modeling career here; and if she can brush up on her Cantonese and Mandarin, there will surely be some acting roles for her too...

Sunday, 24 January 2016

"Frost Tourists" in Hong Kong

Some "frost tourists" checking out frost on the bushes up at Tai Mo Shan
Temperatures in Hong Kong dropped even lower today to 3.1 degrees Celsius and even closing all my windows and bundling up and staying next to the heater was how I survived inside most of the day.

However there were some adventurous spirits who wanted to see if there really was snow on Tai Mo Shan, the city's highest peak. Some "frost tourists" went up there in the early hours, but got a bit more than what they bargained for.

While they definitely did see frost and icicles, the slippery conditions up there resulted in many "frost chasers" falling on the icy roads and injuring themselves. In total 111 people were injured and 45 hospitalized, some with hypothermia.

These people obviously have not experienced very cold weather and were not prepared for what North Americans fondly call "black ice".

Some 85 injured people were rescued on Tai Mo Shan
Because many were stranded on the roads up to Tai Mo Shan, this hampered rescue efforts, four ambulances and three fire trucks were blocked from reaching the top at 9.30am.

The Fire Services Department confirmed 85 injured people were rescued up on Tai Mo Shan, and 130 trapped on Kowloon Peak.

New Territories South divisional commander Wong Ka-wing urged people to stay away from the mountain.

"I would like to take this opportunity to tell the public: do not go up the hill anymore," he said. "The cold weather has caused roads to be covered in frost. Whether it is vehicles or people, anyone passing through is likely to face slippery and dangerous conditions."

There's a video on Apple Daily's website of a young woman arguing with a policeman about wanting to continue her trek even though police had cordoned off the area. While he was trying to tell her it was not safe and she had to turn back, she felt it was her right to keep going.


She sounds like those skiers who like to ski out of bounds just because they think they can...

Other videos showed people sliding in the car park up on the mountain, a new novelty for them.

From the sheer numbers of people injured up on Tai Mo Shan indicates how selfish and naive they are when it comes to dealing with cold weather. While temperatures drop, Hong Kong is still relatively humid, which means moisture will be on the roads, which will freeze overnight and create icy conditions. Obviously they had not thought of that possibility.

Even more crazy was that on Tai Mo Shan, the Vibram Hong Kong 100 trail run race was held today and wasn't called off until the race was already underway. It seems some runners were completely unprepared for the frigid conditions, while others were bogged down by "frost chasers" they encountered on their path.

Perhaps race organizers should have just cancelled or postponed the ultra-endurance race? While 3.1 degrees is not a record low temperature -- the lowest was 0 degrees in 1893 -- it's still damn cold and slippery to be out there running 100km...

The next few days will continue to be cold... brrrrrrrrrr

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Snow? No...

A screen grab of the Fanling video. Look like snowflakes to you?
Today the hot topic was the weather! It dipped into the single digits today, around 8 degrees Celsius.

My flat faces north and is by the water so when I walked outside this morning it was very windy which made it feel very cold.

Everyone seemed to be out early today to stock up in case it gets too cold to go out tomorrow when it's expected to drop to 6 degrees! The wet market was bustling with people, and the nearby Park n Shop had massive lines waiting at the cashier.

It was only made worse by people buying so much stuff, partly because they were celebrating their Chinese New Year eve dinners early too.

Taking pictures of frost at Tai Mo Shan
Nevertheless, on Facebook a video apparently taken in Fanling on the rooftop and showing what looked at first glance like snowflakes, but the Hong Kong Observatory quashed the possibility, as it was too warm to snow, despite issuing a frost warning around 1pm today.

However, many people were very surprised to see the video and believed it to be true...

I've been bundled up too and sitting next to the heater to keep warm! If only Hong Kong's flats were better built with some kind of insulation then we'd be a tad warmer...

And everyone thinks because I am from Canada that I am used to this weather. I am not. I don't like the cold!

The Hong Kong Observatory says it'll warm up later this week, though it'll be rainy...

Friday, 22 January 2016

Jobs Drying up in China

Chinese technology companies, like Alibaba, aren't hiring this year
With China's economy slowing, there are fears there will be lots of layoffs and university graduates not being hired.

Previously the mainland's technology companies were the main employers, but now they are hiring fewer people. The big three internet giants, Tencent, Baidu and Alibaba employ tens of thousands of people, but are now freezing recruitment.

Although the Chinese government had hoped the online industry and internet entrepreneurs could create jobs, there aren't enough to keep the economy afloat. Millions of other jobs are expected to be cut in industries with excess capacity as China goes through structural reforms.

Those in the coal industry may see massive layoffs
Cao Lei, director of Hangzhou-based China E-Commerce Research Centre, said internet companies over-hired last year.

"There were many acquisitions and mergers in the industry last year, like and, and and, which led to job cuts in some departments that overlapped," he added.

It is expected that 3 million workers will be laid off in the next few years in five industries, including coal, iron, and cement, due to excess capacity.

Professor Liu Erduo of Renmin University says fewer than half of those laid off in traditional sectors would be able to get jobs in the new sectors.

He said the unemployment rate, which is now at 5.1 percent, would probably rise 1 percentage point this year.

Then Premier Wen chose to procrastinate on China's economy
"Various social problems could result. But the situation should not be as serious as in the 1990s, because today, most of the younger generation are their family's only child and they will likely rely on their parents if they're unable to find a job," Liu said.

That's really naive of Liu to say this -- for many families, their only child is their sole breadwinner -- or at least they were counting on them to be. While many of the previous generation has scrimped and saved, much of their money was invested in their child and they are now probably disappointed they aren't getting their returns back in spades.

And with the rising cost of living in China these days, coupled with the requirement to buy a flat before getting married, the economic and societal pressures must be even tougher now.

However, these economic structural reforms could have been done back in 2008 when the global financial crisis hit.

Instead of taking the opportunity to implement reforms at the time, particularly cutting the excess fat of state-owned enterprises, and letting companies face the fate of market forces, then Premier Wen Jiabao threw US$586 billion into the Chinese economy to prop it up, which only fueled corruption to great heights until President Xi Jinping took over in 2012.

One can only speculate what would have happened if structural reforms had happened eight years ago, but procrastinating on what to do with the second-largest economy in the world was not a good idea...

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Picture of the Day: Snake Soup

A bowl of delicious snake soup can keep the winter chills at bay
The news of temperatures dropping to single digits this weekend has been a major conversation topic these days in Hong Kong.

People are wondering how they are going to survive this damp cold, particularly at home, where flats aren't properly insulated, and they have to resort to wearing winter jackets inside.

But another way to beat the cold is by having a bowl of snake soup -- this one is available at The Chinese Restaurant in the Hyatt Regency Hong Kong for HK$280 (US$36). To compare, a snake shop in Sham Shui Po called Se Wong Hip sells a bowl for under HK$100. Just don't expect a refined-looking soup.

The one at the Hyatt Regency comes choc full of ingredients, including several different snake meat, chicken, pork, mandarin peel, wood fungus, mushrooms, bamboo shoots and lots of finely sliced ginger.

Diners can garnish their soup with chrysanthemum petals, julienne of kaffir lime leaves and deep-fried wonton skins.

The soup is so hearty, I need to use chopsticks to pick up the ingredients in the soup, and piping hot, it was the perfect way to keep warm.

I may need a few more bowls of this on the weekend to keep the winter chills at bay...

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Reported Graft Cases in HK up 18%

ICAC's committee chairmen, Chow Chung-kong and Maria Tam Wai-chu
The Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) reports a surge in corruption complaints last year, 18 percent more at 2,798.

Among the complaints (all of which were not election-related), 1,831 were against the private sector, a 22 percent jump, from 2014; those against the public sector increased 15 percent to 200, and those against government departments was up 11 percent to 767 cases at 221.

The watchdog's advisory committee on corruption claimed the surge was due to the increased trust in the ICAC and more public service announcements on urging residents to report graft.

Former ICAC head Timothy Tong's investigation is ongoing
"I don't think we need to go into too much interpretation because of the past few years, corruption-related complaints ranged from 2,100 to 4,000," said committee chairman Chow Chung-kong.

"When we judge the situation of corruption in Hong Kong, we should look at the comprehensive set of factors, such as the nature of the complaints and the success rate in prosecutions."

Chow stressed that corruption had not worsened, and was under control.

He instead hit out at politicians for publicizing cases they reported to the ICAC, which may have given the public the impression that the watchdog had become a political tool.

However, last year, 213 people were convicted for corruption, a 24 percent increase.

How can Chow say that corruption has not gotten more severe compared to last year?

In addition, there is still the case of the ICAC's own former head, Timothy Tong Hin-ming, who has been alleged to have spent public money excessively. The investigation has been going on for three years without any sign of an end in sight.

"With regard to the time required for the investigation, it depends on many factors," Chow said.

What kind of vague statement is this?

If anything the ICAC should be the most critical of all public institutions, not be afraid to be blunt, especially when it comes to people or organizations that break the law. To say that Tong's case is still ongoing shows how things are moving so slowly and no one wants to take responsibility for it.

How can people have faith in the ICAC when it seems to be sidestepping its core values?

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Wild Boars in the City

One of the wild boars wandering around Hong Kong Park...
When you're walking the streets of Hong Kong, beware of wild boars!

Last week there were two boars incidents above Admiralty, with one wandering outside the Conrad Hong Kong before disappearing into the trees, and the other spotted two days later nearby in Hong Kong Park. That one was tranquilized and returned to the wild.

.... another was scampering around the Conrad Hong Kong
These wild boars have also been seen in shopping malls, housing estates and theme parks across Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories.

"They're very funny animals.... whenever there is change, they just don't want to be there," says Dr Gary Ades, head of fauna conservation at the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden near Taipo.

"They create these beautiful animal highways in the dirt, which they use to get around, but the moment a new tree is planted nearby there is confusion."

Some theories as to why they are wandering closer to urban areas could be because people are feeding them, which is illegal, or the drier winters make it harder for pigs to unearth worms that they feed on.

A boar trapped in a children's clothing store in a mall last May
Whenever there are rainstorms, the wild boars have an increased risk of falling into storm drains, and may end up out on the coast.

Ades says with more rural development, there is a higher chance of conflicts between boars and humans.

So if you see a wild boar running around your neighbourhood, don't feed it, but report it to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (call 1823) so that they can hopefully contain the situation as soon as possible.

They're not too dangerous, but they are wild animals...

Monday, 18 January 2016

Reality Stranger than Fiction

Gui on state media apparently admitting guilt to a fatal drunk driving incident
The case of the missing booksellers has taken a bizarre twist, as one of them, Gui Minhai, who holds a Swedish passport, suddenly emerged on Sunday on Chinese state television.

The co-owner of Mighty Current publishing company looked pained as he seemed to read from a statement admitting he fled the mainland to flee from a suspended two-year sentence for killing a 23-year-old woman while driving drunk in Ningbo, Zhejiang province in 2004.

One of the conditions of the sentence was that he had to stay in China.

"I was afraid of going to jail, and there was no way I could develop on the mainland, so I thought I better run," Gui said.

Causeway Bay book store is behind Sogo department store
He apparently surrendered to mainland Chinese police in October last year, though he has been missing since November.

"I have to shoulder my own liability, and I'm willing to be punished," he added, while sobbing.

However, while it is confirmed by his friend that Gui was involved in a drunk driving fatal accident, it is not clear exactly which year it was. While Gui said it was 2004, state media said it was 2003, though CCTV carried reports of the crash in April 2005 when Gui was 46 at the time.

But Gui was born in 1964 so he would have been 40 when the incident happened.

Some basic fact-checking was not done properly on this report.

Nevertheless, his daughter Angela has never heard about this drunk driving case before, and questions the authenticity of his supposed confession.

Gui's friend Bei Ling, co-founder and president of the Independent Chinese Pen Center, says it is highly unlikely Gui returned to the mainland to face charges.

Gui's Pattaya apartment where four men tried to take computers
"What has happened to him is abduction conducted by a country," Bei, a dissident poet said from Boston. "the Chinese government needs to come out and offer an explanation."

He also doubts the video-taped confession, saying it looked like Gui was reading from a "scripted speech".

Bei adds some men tried to go into Gui's apartment in Pattaya, Thailand and seize his computers, but the management office refused to let them in.

Reality seems stranger than fiction here. Meanwhile people in Hong Kong continue to be gripped by this case and wonder what this all means for the rest of us...

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Terry Richardson's Portraits

Amy Winehouse looks like she's having fun with a rooster here shot in 2007
I realized that in the last few months I haven't been following up on including more doses of the arts in my life and tried to amend this by seeing photographer Terry Richardson's work in a show called "Portraits" that just started at Galerie Perrotin in Central.

Richardson is known as a fashion photographer, taking off-kilter pictures of models where the lighting is off or the poses look strange.

Terry Richardson is primarily a fashion photographer
He has shot for Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, and Yves Saint Laurent, and done work for magazines like Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, GQ, Harper's Bazaar and Vice.

I have to admit I'm not too familiar with Richardson's work, so I didn't know quite what to expect when I entered the gallery.

There are 24 images on show including three lifesize cut-outs where gallery goers can stick their heads in the holes provided and be a Terry Richardson portrait...

First there are the celebrity portraits, like "Dennis and Leo", which is Dennis Hopper in a baseball cap and a T-shirt with Leonardo di Caprio's face on it, or Lady Gaga in a leather trench coat and boots sitting in a garbage can.

There's Cindy Crawford spraying a bottle of champagne in the air against a background of the Hollywood sign, or Kate Moss supposedly unaware she is being photographed as she puts on lipstick with one hand, holding a lit cigarette in the other.

"Marilyn and his Father" photographed in 2014
"Amy Winehouse" is a fun portrait of the singer with a rooster. Is she singing to it or amused by the absurdity of the shoot? A curious portrait is with Marilyn Manson and his father, Hugh Angus Warner, both in makeup. It's endearing in a way, father and son, though kind of disturbing.

James Franco also wears makeup in one portrait, and one wonders why he agreed to do that, but is it because it's Richardson? In another Liza Minnelli seems to want to show she still has it, wearing a jacket falling off her shoulders, legs apart as she sits astride on a chair with thigh-high boots. Desperation or a woman who defies the ages?

Richardson shows some of his personal photographs too. "Mom Laughing" shows his mother Annie Lomax having a good laugh, almost topless and a cigarette in hand; she died in 2012 and her last days were documented by her son.

Meanwhile his portrait of his father, Bob Richardson, also a fashion photographer, is hardly spontaneous, but quietly assured.

"Mom Laughing", one of several portraits Richardson took of her
Some of the images were a display of excess, or people's inner desires to expose themselves is cranked open by Richardson.They are arresting images, but also unnerving, at least to me.

Terry Richardson "Portraits"
Galerie Perrotin
17/F, 50 Connaught Road Central
On now until February 20, 2016c

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Taiwan has Spoken!

Tsai Ing-wen will help Taiwan become a more a more independent state
Taiwan has gone one better than the United States by electing its first female president.

Tsai Ing-wen, opposition leader of the Democratic Progressive Party won a landslide victory against the incumbent Kuomintang, with a clear indication that Taiwanese are tired of President Ma Ying-jeou kowtowing to Beijing and want a more independent island state.

In her victory speech tonight, Tsai said the election outcome clearly indicated how ingrained democracy had become in Taiwan, adding: "The people of Taiwan have elected a government that will defend Taiwan's sovereignty."

The election was contentious, but the DPP won decisively
She also warned China that "suppression" would harm cross-strait ties. "Our democratic system, national identity and international space must be respected. Any forms of suppression will harm the stability of cross-strait relations," she said.

The ball is now in Beijing's corner and it will be interesting to see how it reacts to this definitive election result.

One wonders if this is seen as a slap in the face to the mainland after the historic meeting between the two leaders, Xi Jinping and Ma in November in Singapore.

With Tsai in charge, it looks like Beijing will have to cool things for a while and perhaps secretly hope she self destructs... or will the mainland engineer a political hot potato that will destroy her political career?

She comes from an academic background, which is apparently why she appealed to a lot of young voters, and perhaps the Sunflower movement -- made up of students -- had something to do with sweeping Tsai to power.
How will China react to the Kuomintang loss?

While the political pundits crunch the numbers to see how voters voted, it will be fascinating to watch this new dynamic with Tsai's presidency. Will she be strong enough to stand up to Xi and his growing influence regionally and globally? How will the male-dominated Zhongnanhai deal with a leader who is a woman?

We're excited to watch from the sidelines...

Friday, 15 January 2016

5-Year-Old Foresight

Eric Lau encourages people to pursue their passions for a happy life
I read an article about an award-winning designer and art director born and raised in Hong Kong. Eric Lau Kwan-tai wasn't the smartest kid in class, and even wondered what the point of studying was.

"When I was five, I asked my parents why I had to study and they said, 'So you can get into university.' I asked them, 'Then what?', and they said, 'That would lead to a good career, so you can get married, and have children and then they can go to a good school and get a career.' I said, 'That sounds terrible.'"

He is so right.

Why do Chinese parents tell their kids that?

From a young age Lau knew he wanted to go into design and in secondary school designed his school yearbook, Wah Yan College. The cover looks like a record player with the tone arm made from Lego. The concept is that secondary school is like Lego: you can try all sorts of things, such as sports or music, and if you don't like the result, you can always start again and try something else.

He entered the cover design in the prestigious Graphis international design competition and won silver in the books category. It was the first time a secondary school student had won a Graphis award.

Lau went on to study at Parsons School of Design in New York and is now senior art director at ad agency Sparks & Honey.

One of his most memorable ad campaigns so far was one for Lego and Star Wars in May 2013. His team built a life-size X-wing fighter from more than 5.3 million bricks, making it the largest Lego sculpture in history.

He says students in Hong Kong shouldn't feel pressured to study subjects they aren't interested in.

"A lot of my accounting friends tell me they don't like what they are doing. Once they started pursuing this line of work, they should have already known that they didn't like it. At every stage, you know what the result is going to be.

"My friends all talk about what Rolex to buy, or what car to drive. But if you ask them what their dreams are, they can't answer. I don't have concrete answers either, but I'm working on it."

From traveling a lot, Lau makes an interesting observation about his hometown.

"Hong Kong has a lot of material riches, but we don't have a lot of freedom. Not freedom in the sense of people in China not having access to Facebook, but society puts invisible pressure on all of us, which is scarier, in a way.

"It inundates us with messages, like if you can't make enough money, you're screwed; if you don't own property by a certain age, you're screwed.

"Everyone in Hong Kong is working on the means to live, but no one has stopped to figure out the meaning of their lives, and that's sad. It's a kind of spiritual poverty. If you had unlimited money and you could achieve your dreams right away, then it's not really a dream. If you won the lottery, does that mean you've done all you want to do in life?"

He's asking some big questions, but they are all true. Hong Kong people really need to stop and ask themselves what they want out of their lives. Even when he was five, Lau knew the rat race sounded "terrible".

What foresight!

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Dragging HK to "Belt and Road"

One Belt, One Road is Xi Jinping's plan to create trade links with 65 countries
Yesterday Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying delivered his last policy address and a good chunk of the two-hour speech was devoted to the "One Belt, One Road" trade strategy that was initiated by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Leung, who has abbreviated it to "Belt and Road", mentioned these two words an unprecedented 48 times. It was much more than "education" (31), "innovation" (30), "sustainable" (12) and "recycling" (0).

What is this "Belt and Road" you ask?

Xi presented this initiative in 2013 and was highlighted in the 13th five-year plan last year. The proposal is to develop two trade routes -- the New Silk Road linking China with Europe, and the Maritime Silk Road linking China with Southeast Asia, Africa and Europe.

Leung wants Hong Kong to take join One Belt, One Road
As a result it will span 65 countries, including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Russia, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

With links so expansive, Leung thinks Hong Kong should get in on the game. Or rather because he hopes to be re-elected next year, he wants to be in Xi's good books.

As a result, Leung is establishing a "Belt and Road" office with a committee of which he will be chairman in order to determine strategies on how Hong Kong can take advantage of these new trade links.

He has allocated HK$200 million for the professional service sector to build ties and cooperation with One Belt, One Road countries, and there will be tax incentives for those companies that set up treasury units in Hong Kong.

Not only are Leung's plans business-oriented, but education-related too. He wants students from these countries to come to Hong Kong to study, while educating local students about One Belt, One Road through study and cultural exchanges.

Is this the best Leung and his team can think of in terms of taking advantage of the One Belt, One Road strategy?

There are already stories from entrepreneurs trying to break into central Asia and having a lot of trouble doing business there.

Tom Lee, a product engineer for an electronics company, travelled to Kazakhstan in 2014 in a trip organized by the Trade Development Council. He was hoping to explore opportunities there and reached a US$30,000 deal with a local company, only to find it failed to pay up.

"Its business model is hard for Hong Kong companies to understand, and the customs system is extremely complicated," he said. Language is also a barrier. As a result Lee said his company was more focused on traditional markets like Europe and North America.

So how will Leung be able to help companies overcome these hurdles? And the committee is going to spend how many months and how much money to figure this out?

And educationally, what can students get out of this strategy? What is there for them in central Asia and Southeast Asia? Does Leung mean universities here will start providing courses on learning these languages or will there be lessons on Islam?

One parent commented, "I don't understand why the government is so generous to others but not willing to change the quality of our own education."

Point taken.

In the end it all sounds really vague, and one wonders how much he can really achieve on this initiative in one year.

Even more ironic is that people in Hong Kong aren't enthusiastic about this project, and yet Leung insists on dragging us into this plan.

While it makes sense for Hong Kong to try to find some way to benefit from these potentially big trade links, who's got an appetite for some adventure?

As Hong Kong goes through rocky economic times, most people are too scared of risking too much and would rather be close to home and bet on a sure thing.

Leung just might be biting off much more than he can chew.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

A Tale of Two Leaders

Leung Chun-ying's speech was read out like a laundry list for two hours...
This morning our time, the President of the United States, Barack Obama gave his last State of the Union address. While he noted the differences between the Democrats and the Republicans is more divisive than ever, he also praised the country for its diversity, and how the rest of the world looks to America for leadership.

He also talked about the country's future: how to ensure equal opportunities for everyone, how to harness technological change, how to keep the country safe, and how to bridge the political divide.

...while Barack Obama talked big ideas in his speech
This is Obama's vision for the country in his last year in office, and the way he spoke instilled pride and inspiration in the audience.

Contrast this to Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's policy address this morning, his last one before the election next year.

He spoke at the Legislative Council for two hours -- even taking a 10-minute break in between --  to read out a laundry list of initiatives his administration has done or will do, from free kindergarten for some families (details to be ironed out), give HK$2 billion to startups, double the number of wifi hotspots to 34,000 in three years, make the city more accessible for the elderly, and free admission to permanent exhibitions in museums.


More interesting were the four times Leung was interrupted by lawmakers who complained the chief executive was not fulfilling election promises, how the government would destroy the environment when developing Lantau, and demanding to know where missing bookseller Lee Bo and his four associates are.

Leung's speech hardly contained any vision. While he is concerned about the growing aging population, with nearly one-third of the population will be seniors within 20 years, Leung only proposes making public areas more accessible and extra hospital beds for them.

Lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan demands to know where Lee Bo is
Why not look far into the future and propose more preventive health measures, like encouraging seniors to exercise more, give them more money so they can eat better, and build more assisted living facilities.

And for kindergartens, it is only free for those who attend half day, and even then, the scheme looks to be more complicated with various conditions. As a result some families will be shut out. If 70 to 80 percent of kindergartens are supposed to be free under this scheme, why not just make all of them free of charge?

While throwing HK$2 billion to startups is generous, will that actually lead to something Hong Kong will be famous for globally? What startups have been successful here so far? Seems like a long shot bet that may not result in much except for an easy grab for startups desperate for funds. Is this the most effective way to spend our taxpayer dollars?

Perhaps the only bold initiative on Leung's part is banning the ivory trade "as quickly as possible" he said in the press conference afterwards. Again details need to be worked out, but at least the government is taking a strong stand on this issue.

Other than that, as Leung's critics have pointed out -- including Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee -- the speech only talked about piecemeal items that don't show any sign of looking at Hong Kong's long term future. There are no big ideas, only small initiatives to try to win quick points.

We don't want a government that only picks the low-hanging fruit. We want a vision of the city's future. And today was far from inspiring...

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Octopus Still Leads the Pack

Commuter uses the Compass card to "tap in" on the bus in Greater Vancouver
When I was in Vancouver over the holidays, I saw commuters on public transit using Compass cards to "tap in" on buses and the Sky Train.

It has been years in the making for Translink, the public transit system for Metro Vancouver to finally switch from paper monthly passes to plastic ones, similar to Octopus cards in Hong Kong, that have been in use since 1997.

The MTR's Octopus cards have been around since 1997
The deadline to completely move to Compass cards was January 1, and so tens of thousands of people were not only purchasing the cards but also trying to add money on them in order to use them.

However, unlike Octopus cards where you can add cash and the value is immediately transferred to the card, it takes commuters in Vancouver two hours for this transaction to be processed on Compass cards by paying with cash, debit or credit.

And because of the exceptionally high volume of new users in the first few days of 2016, it took much more than two hours for people's Compass cards to load up with money before they could actually use it, resulting in a lot of frustration.

Can you imagine if that situation happened in Hong Kong?

People here wouldn't even stand having to wait two hours before being able to use their Octopus cards. They are already at the end of their patience waiting in line to add money to their card.

There was a rush to buy Compass cards in Vancouver
It's an interesting contrast to find that Octopus cards pretty much still reign supreme when it comes to public transit. And with a on-time performance rating of over 99 percent, how can anyone complain about practically one of the world's most efficient transit systems in the world?

Vancouver's got some catching up to do. Two hours to add value to a card? Not an efficient step in the right direction...

Monday, 11 January 2016

Justice Secretary Promises Investigation

Thousands came out to protest Lee Bo and his associates' disappearance
How many days has it been since bookseller Lee Bo has disappeared and finally Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung says something.

During a speech at City Hall before judges and lawyers to mark the start of the new legal year, Yuen said the public's concern about Lee and his four associates' disappearance was "understandable" and promised a thorough investigation.

"Except properly permitted under our laws, neither unauthorized criminal investigations nor unlawful arrests within the jurisdiction by anyone or any authority shall be tolerated," he said.

"Any suspected case of infringement deserves full and thorough investigation, and this is what the government is seeking to achieve," he added, saying concerns in the community were "understandable" and should be properly addressed.

Will Rimsky Yuen find the answers we are looking for?
Surely Yuen can pick up the phone and call Beijing to demand some answers? So far it's the media and public that are driving this story, not the government, which seems to have a passive reaction to what Hong Kong people think is a shocking erosion of rights in the city.

And as the Secretary for Justice, one would think Yuen should be just as concerned as us, and would be leading the charge, trying to find out answers for the rest of us?

Or perhaps he does know, but is not at liberty to say?

It's maddening how the Leung administration has a delayed response to every incident -- it's as if the senior officials are waiting for instructions from above before they decide on their own game plan.

One would think after the Occupy protests, lead in the water issue, housing, depressed salaries and so on, that the government would try to work harder to earn the public's trust.

Time is off the essence here. We need to know where Lee and his associates are. Now.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Hong Kong People fear for their Freedoms

The five people, including Lee Bo (bottom right) have disappeared so far
This afternoon around 6,000 people gathered at Hong Kong government headquarters at Tamar in Admiralty to march to the central liaison office in Western to protest against the disappearances of publisher Lee Bo and his four associates.

Many in Hong Kong now fear that anything they say or do that may anger Beijing will result in them being forcibly taken away to the mainland.

A video featuring these four talk about their fears for HK
Chanvinci is one of the producers of the local film Ten Years, that gives a bleak prediction of what the city will be like. He made a new video, interviewing a range of notable people in Hong Kong about the Lee Bo incident, including former Chief Secretary Anson Chan Fong An-sang, Scholarism founder Joshua Wong Chi-fung, barrister Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee, law professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting, actor Gregory Wong Chung-yiu, and singer Anthony Wong Yiu-ming.

They all voice their concerns about Hong Kong's future that has supposedly run on the premise of "one country, two systems" since 1997.

The disappearances of the five people show China's disregard for the Basic Law, and Gregory Wong painted a frightening scenario reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, where one never knows if they are safe talking to their friends or relatives, while Anthony Wong wonders if he might be next to disappear.

Chan, Lee and Ng plead for the international community to take notice and speak out on Hong Kong's behalf, otherwise the city's reputation as an international one will be tarnished forever.

The rally today protests against Lee Bo's disappearance
Many Hong Kong people wonder what kind of consular protection they will get depending on what government-issued documents they carry. It seems a Hong Kong passport or BNO don't give much protection, and one wonders if this will renew people's interest in immigrating to Canada, the United States or Australia.

Meanwhile, the Chinese side seems to be crumbling with regards to its handling of the situation.

The latest is that a pro-Beijing newspaper claims Lee Bo's wife received a video and letter in which he repeated going to the mainland was "a personal conduct". He also said he "didn't understand why it was made into such a big deal".

Lee apparently says everyone should respect his decision to go to the mainland and that it is none of anyone's business.

The paper, Headline News, didn't show any evidence of this purported video, in which Lee also allegedly says that taking part in today's protest would not be a good idea.

How contrived is this message?

Perhaps even more bizarre is how the Global Times, a nationalistic paper on the mainland has written its editorial. It claimed it was not problematic for mainland authorities to probe Causeway Bay Books because it "publishes and sells political books targeting mainland readers", and creates "special interference to the maintenance of order in the mainland".

A publisher finds a market in selling books that digs up dirt about senior Chinese officials. In this case it is possibly linked to the latest book that talks about Chinese President Xi Jinping's previous amorous relationships. If the mainland finds these books  a problem, then it should search every suitcase arriving from Hong Kong and punish those people for bringing them in.

Lee Bo is only doing what every other publisher is trying to do -- make money. And he can do it with the backing of freedom of the press in Hong Kong.

However, the Global Times article continues to say it would be "in accordance with Chinese laws" for the mainland to initiate an investigation. The editorial said it was constitutional for mainland authorities to find ways to "get around" local laws, and make one comply with their investigations "without breaching systemic bottom lines".

How is this possible, when, according to Basic Law, only Hong Kong police can investigate matters within the city. For the paper to say it was permissible for mainland authorities to go around local law is shocking and illegal.

We can continue going through the semantics, but it's very clear Beijing seems to think it can have an even tighter grip on Hong Kong and do whatever it wants with it and its people.

The longer the five do not show up, the more we wonder where they are, and fears for our own safety continue to magnify.

Seems like we're already getting a taste of what life in Hong Kong will be like after June 30, 2046...