Saturday, 30 April 2016

Remembering Harry Wu

Harry Wu was a tireless critic of China after he became an American citizen
I read in the International New York Times yesterday that human rights activist Harry Wu had died last Tuesday. He was 79.

Wu had a very compelling story -- at the age of 23 in Shanghai he was accused of criticizing the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and being insufficiently supportive of Mao Zedong's regime.

He was forced into hard labour in farms, mines and prison camps for 42 years and was released three years after Mao died.

A picture of Wu paraded on TV in 1995 after he was arrested
In 1985 Wu moved to the United States and after becoming an American citizen in 1994, he began exposing the laogai or "reform through labour" system. He compared them to the Soviet gulag and Nazi concentration camps, claiming hard labour caused the deaths of many political prisoners.

A year later he returned to China undercover many times to expose prison conditions as well as the sale of organs from executed inmates. He was originally sentenced to 15 years in prison, but thanks to pressure by human rights advocates and then First Lady Hillary Clinton, Wu was released after 66 days.

Soon after he was released, I was in Vancouver trying to bide my time as my Hong Kong employer applied for my work visa. To keep myself occupied, I tried to pitch the odd story and one of them was an opportunity to interview Wu.

I called long distance to ask my colleague if someone would be interested in the story and I could hear him relay the message to a senior editor.

One of two books Wu wrote about China
That editor said something to the effect that Wu was not a big deal -- that even he had Wu's number in his wallet and could call him at anytime.

I just remember my heart sinking, because I had thought it would have been a good story, and it was shot down as a silly notion.

Was it because Wu was overexposed in the media? Did he make comments that people considered were outrageous and over the top?

And so reading his obituary, I remember wanting to do a story on Wu, but was denied the opportunity. It's one of the few times I regret not being able to talk to him.

Wu may have been what journalists call a "media whore", for doing whatever it took to get press attention, but no one can deny that he made the world more aware of human rights violations that happened then and are still continuing in China.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Singapore's Curious Book Culture

Walking into Books Actually has a lot of books covering many genres
Today my cousin took us to an area called Tiong Bahru which is one of the oldest residential areas in Singapore.

And because the place is oozing with retro design, it's achingly hot now with hipsters.

The store carries many works by Singapore writers
One neat shop is Books Actually, one of the few independent booksellers in the Lion City.

The front part of the store is covered in books, many featuring Singaporean writers, or subject matter, including the political elections last year and random facts about the city. There are also classics like Jane Eyre, but also books on how to draw practically anything, and even poetry using Singlish.

At the back there's a curious treasure trove of random old school items, like beer glasses, rulers from China, even blank cassette tapes -- remember those? -- and I even saw stickers of animals with googly eyes from my youth.

It was so bizarre to see such an eclectic accumulation of things, but also was there a market for these items? Did people really buy them or was this a nostalgia corner for people to reminisce?

At the back are an odd assortment of "vintage" items
Books Actually
9 Yong Siak Street
Tiong Bahru Estate
+65 6222 9195

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Picture of the Day: Panoramic Singapore

Our panoramic view of Singapore from the National Gallery of Singapore
I'm in Singapore for a few days and today we checked out the latest attraction in the Lion City, the National Gallery of Singapore.

A friend had suggested we first go to the top floor to check out the view and we were not disappointed. Next to a bar area is where you can look out on Marina Bay Sands in the distance, Fullerton Hotel on the right, the financial district, and also the Esplanade -- Theatres on the Bay that look like the outside of durians, and on the left numerous top hotels like the Mandarin Oriental and Swissotel The Stamford.

Just below us were several pitches for rugby and football, not being used. Talk about prime land in such a fantastic location.

Looking out onto this view kind of encapsulates most of Singapore in one picture. Pretty neat!

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Luggage Gate with CY Leung Continues...

The saga over Leung Chung-yan (far right) and her left luggage continues
Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's luggage-gate will not go away.

The Airport Authority issued a report Monday saying his wife Regina Leung Tong Ching-yee tried to take her daughter Chung-yan's luggage to the boarding gate but was refused entry (of course).

However, Leung denies she even tried to do that.

Today ahead of a weekly Executive Council meeting, he said there may have been some confusion at the time, which may have led to some having the impression that his wife wanted to deliver the luggage to her daughter directly.

The Airport Authority issued its report on Monday
"My wife had no boarding pass. So it's impossible for her to go to the boarding gate," Leung said. He explained that she only wanted to go to the pre-immigration clearance area.

The Airport Authority's report said Regina Leung "appeared upset" and asked why no one could deliver the luggage to her daughter.

"Then, Mrs Leung started to walk to L7 North Pre-Immigration stating that she would take the bag to the boarding gate herself," the report said.

"Avesco staff tried to stop Mrs Leung, but Mrs Leung kept walking to L7 North Pre-immigration," it continued.

The authority denied that the Leungs received any special privileges, as the bag was eventually delivered to Chung-yan just before she boarded her flight to San Francisco.

Leung added that, as per the report states, over 500 similar deliveries were made in the past year, so his daughter's case was not unusual.

Was it or wasn't it?

Chung-yan left her luggage somewhere around here...
We still can't understand how she could have left her luggage on the trolley at the Cathay Pacific check-in counter. Did she have a lot of luggage or is completely absent-minded? And wasn't her mother there to see her off? Didn't she notice her daughter didn't have all her things with her?

The only way to tell the actual sequence of events is to go back to the video surveillance recordings to see. But probably those were already wiped out...

The more Leung tries to deny his family got special treatment, the more the public finds it hard to believe... how will he dig himself out of this one?

Monday, 25 April 2016

Too Many Births, Too Little Money

About 400 pregnant mainland mothers show up at Hong Kong emergency wards
There were news reports today saying three years after Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced a "zero-quota" policy banning mainland women from having babies in the city, there were still about 800 cross-border births each year.

Almost have of the babies were born in already overcrowded public hospitals so that they could get right of abode in the city.

Before Leung's announcement, there were some 200,000 babies born to mainland parents here. This followed the 2001 ruling that newborns should be given right of abode status.

Babies in the nursery of a public hospital
However 800 babies born of mainland parents seems like a lot, and the policy needs to change.

Last year there were 755 babies born to non-local parents last year among a total of 60,083 births. Half of the 755 births took place in public hospitals, the rest in private ones.

Doctors say with mainlanders gatecrashing Hong Kong hospitals, these mothers are putting not only themselves and their babies at risk, but also compromises local mothers who are waiting to use such urgent hospital services.

What's probably even more interesting is that while mainlanders may gate crash public hospitals to give birth, they even avoid paying hospital fees.

A record HK$52 million in debts were racked up last year by public hospitals -- mostly due to mainland couples who refused to pay for treatment. In 2014, the amount was HK$45 million.

Public hospital debts rose to HK$52 million this year
Around HK$7.6 million of the HK$52 million in debt were mainlanders who went to Hong Kong accident and emergency units. For non-local mothers to give birth it costs them HK$100,000 for the delivery and three days' hospital stay.

"Even though there is no way to turn away mainland parents with urgent medical needs due to humanity reasons, there should be more administrative measures to make them pay," said lawmaker and doctor Kwok Ka-ki.

Public hospitals depend on subventions to provide an almost free service to Hong Kong people.

It is believed mainlanders use public hospitals by registering with fake addresses, and then skip town.

Critics say the government is being too passive -- that it sends medical bills to these defunct addresses, and when nothing happens, legal action is taken, but they're not going to catch anyone who gave a fake address.

Kwok says the authorities should be more stringent by forcing mainland parents to pay up before issuing birth certificates.

One would have thought these mainlanders would not mind paying up for good medical service, especially for their children, but it seems like they know they can evade the hospital bill and do so.

How embarrassing is that, that the Hong Kong government does nothing about this serious loophole?

It just gives the impression the city is too rich to even acknowledge this serious oversight and so yet another mainland baby is born in Hong Kong with right of abode, and for free! Talk about a double bonus!

It's too embarrassing and guess who has to foot the bill?

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Blank Protest Full with Meaning

Ming Pao ran a picture of ginger, alluding to Keung Kwok-yuen
We appreciate that three Ming Pao columnists protested against the sacking of executive editor Keung Kwok-yuen earlier this week by submitting blank column spaces that ran.

In today's Life section, the paper ran empty spots by Audrey Eu Yuet-mee, founding leader of the Civic Party, and Eva Chan Sik-chee, a former Ming Pao journalist, with just headlines criticizing the decision to fire Keung on Wednesday.

Ng Chi-sum, a veteran media personality, also left his column blank, save for a line to explain his headline. It was quoted from a poem written by demonstrators of the 1976 Tiananmen Incident in protesting the removal of displays of mourning following Premier Zhou Enlai's death.

Today's blank spaces where columns should have ran
The line reads: "In my grief I hear demons shriek; I weep while wolves and jackals laugh."

The Ming Pao Staff Association reports that chief editor Chong Tien Siong had tried to stop running the blank columns.

In the association's Facebook post, it said Chong, who had been on leave, suddenly returned to work Saturday night and did not want to feature the blank columns, but this was already an hour after the pages had been typeset.

After discussions, the blank columns were kept, but an editor's note was included, reiterating the paper's decision to sack Keung was for cost-cutting purposes, and that the paper's editorial stance had not changed.

Because of this additional note, the pages had to be reprinted.

Blank pages in 2014 protested against Kevin Lau's dismissal
The association says it was very "angry" and "disappointed" with Chong's alleged attempt to obstruct freedom of expression, adding his decision to stop the printing process resulted in economic losses for Ming Pao.

The front page of the paper also featured a large piece of ginger, alluding to Keung, as his name in Cantonese is similar to the word ginger.

This is not the first time Ming Pao has run columns blank in protest.

When Chong replaced former chief editor Kevin Lau Chun-to in 2014, several writers, including Chan and Ng protested with empty spaces where their columns should have been.

It sounds like troubling times at Ming Pao have just escalated several notches -- a war between the chief editor and its staff are not a good thing. In the end, who will prevail?

Saturday, 23 April 2016

HK Financial Secretary Promotes Tourism

John Tsang (right) with some fencing students at La Salle College
Tourism is down in Hong Kong, with hotels offering cut rates on rooms -- even Disneyland is slashing its room rates in half -- and there are lots of shopping incentives -- if you have the money to spend.

To pitch in and do his part, Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah is starring in a new mildly amusing video encouraging people to visit the city.

It starts off in his alma mater La Salle College where he is a fencing coach -- who knew Tsang was a fencer! -- and then he asks a group of students if they are talking about him.

They reply they talking about Hong Kong and one asks the senior official in a Cantonese pun, "Sir, would you tai sou?" which means "shave", referring to his moustache.

He doesn't miss a beat and instead says, "No, but I'll definitely tai show", or "watch a show".


Then the video continues much like any other tourism video with flashy nightlife scenes, mouthwatering food, verdant hills, famous landmarks and so on.

Should we be impressed? Amused? Proud?

Just seems weird the Financial Secretary would do this, but then again practically everyone else in the administration is mired in mini scandals (Paul Chan Mo-po, Gregory So Kam-yuen), or burned out (Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor).

Then again Tsang is the one trying to promote his food truck idea too which is somewhat touristy...

Friday, 22 April 2016

Picture of the Day: Dramatic Weather

At Wan Chai looking back on Central along the waterfront
This morning the weather didn't look too promising. I was surprised to see the Hong Kong Observatory had raised the amber rainstorm warning and thunderstorm warning.

Then the sky went completely gray, with lots of mist in Kennedy Town, blowing eastwards in huge gusts of wind. At one point I saw a piece of paper blown up to the height of my flat (very high up), which was quite scary.

And then came the rain, but for my area, it wasn't heavy rain, though I heard other parts of the city there was a heavy downpours.

I luckily managed to evade the rain and in the afternoon the skies finally decided to cooperate and by late afternoon patches of blue skies could be seen through the clouds.

I had an appointment at IFC and afterwards dinner at the Hong Kong Convention Centre.

Instead of taking the MTR, I decided to walk along the waterfront which was a good decision as the temperature was slightly cool. Along the way I took a few pictures, and this one was the best, though if I waited a bit longer, the sky would have turned more pink and mauve.

Nevertheless it kind of encapsulates the moody weather we had today -- it was as if it couldn't make up its mind on what to throw at us. Hopefully the weekend will be better.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

HK Gov't Not Quite Tech Savvy

So many government apps, but not very useful
Some Hong Kong government bureaucrats are desperate to demonstrate they're cool by developing mobile apps for their respective departments.

MyObservatory most popular
However, not all of them seem useful, at least according to the government's auditor.

The Audit Commission found last year there were 127 apps launched by 36 government departments at a cost of HK$38 million.

The commission concludes some lacked any useful features, were virtual copies of their department websites, and cost tens of millions of dollars to develop.

As expected, the most popular app is MyObservatory launched by the Hong Kong Observatory in 2010 to give users the most up to date weather information. It was the first government app and had more than 5 million downloads last year.

On the other end of the scale the poorest download rate was the Education Bureau's Eye Care for Hong Kong Students, with only 89 downloads last year. The next worst were a series of apps developed by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department.

Hardly any people downloaded this app
The commission sad the departments with a lacklustre showing needed to "enhance the app content to attract more people" to use them.

In addition, the auditor examined 31 apps by government departments for one-off events, of the 31, 23 had already been decommissioned, mainly because of low download rates.

So it looks like the government doesn't quite know how to make effective mobile apps which is ironic considering it is pushing for Hong Kong to be an innovative technology hub...

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

HK Press Freedom Under Threat?

Chong (holding microphone) talked to staff this morning about the layoffs
Today is yet another bad day for press freedom in Hong Kong.

Ming Pao abruptly fired one of its top editors as well as some other editorial staff apparently because of budget cuts, but many don't see the financial excuse as the real reason.

Executive editor Keung Kwok-yuen and others were let go, and some staffers wondered if the move was meant to punish "dissidents of editorial decisions" like Keung.

Keung Kwok-yuen was a highly respected editor at Ming Pao
A Ming Pao Staff Association spokesperson said Keung was fired by his boss, chief editor Chong Tien Siong at midnight this morning with immediate effect.

"We are extremely angry and upset about it," the spokesperson said.

Keung could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile a Ming Pao Group spokesperson explained the company had little choice but to lay off staff, including senior personnel in business and editorial departments.

The cut in staff is a recurring refrain in Hong Kong media these days, particularly print. Earlier this month Sing Tao News Corporation announced a pay cut of up to 20 percent of its senior news executives.

During a meeting with Ming Pao staff, Chong described Keung as his "most competent aide", and that he and Keung were the best paid employees in the newsroom, and that he was prepared to go if management decided so.

Editor Kevin Lau Chun-to was also let go, back in 2014
Keung is known for covering politically sensitive issues, such as the July 1 protest march in 2003 against Article 23 where some half a million people came out to the streets, and the campaign against national education in 2012.

"We express our utmost regret that a veteran and objective journalist like Keung... was no longer [welcome] at Ming Pao," said a joint statement from the Hong Kong Journalists Association and six industry unions.

His dismissal comes after more news about Hong Kong tycoons named in the Panama Papers was reported on the front page of Ming Pao today.

Chong took over Ming Pao in 2014 and is said to be a close ally to owner, fellow Malaysian Tiong Hiew King, a pro-Beijing businessman. The staff were surprised by Chong's appointment because of his lack of local knowledge.

He replaced Kevin Lau Chun-to who was chief editor at the time; you may recall Lau was later attacked by men with choppers.

Newspaper staff held a "pens down" protest earlier this year
On Chong's first day, staff surrounded his office and asked him to sign a charter of press freedom. Reporters asked him if Ming Pao would turn into a pro-government newspaper, but he replied he didn't know because he wasn't the chief editor at the time.

Then in February last year, Chong changed the front page of the paper after midnight, from a report on confidential documents about Tiananmen in 1989 that was already approved by top-level editors -- to a story about Alibaba chief Jack Ma Yun.

He later explained the decision was made according to "the logic of news", that the report on the Tiananmen documents was unchanged and published on other pages. Chong never explained what he meant by "the logic of news"...

The union didn't accept this explanation and held a one-hour "pens down" protest.

It doesn't sound like Chong has made many friends at Ming Pao since he was brought in about two years ago. And firing yet another respected editor is not the way to win brownie points.

Is this the tipping point to lead to a mass exodus of staff? Or are economic conditions such that people don't have much choice, but to stay because they at least have a job?

Tough times.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Lesson Learned?

Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai was at the Admiralty protest site every day
When the Occupy protests were in full swing in November 2014, Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai Chee-ying visited the Admiralty site everyday -- and even had his own tent to hold court.

But on November 12, around 4.30pm, just as Lai, 67, was about to leave the area, two men shouted his name along with some swear words and hurled plastic bags filled with animal entrails at him.

Today the two men, kitchen employee Chan Kwok-hung, 31 and restaurant owner Yip Wing-chi, 44 were convicted of common assault and will face jail time.

Their co-defendant businessman Li Siu-lung, 46, denied the charge of common assault of throwing entrails at Lai.

One of the men arrested at the scene; the animal organs
Yip and Chan were further convicted of assault when two Occupy marshals tried to stop the trio from getting away.

In court, the defense said Yip was not a man of strong political views.

"But he absolutely hated the umbrella movement because, ironically, his son had participated with enthusiasm. [Yip] felt the entire incident was instigated by [Lai]."

The defense tried to suggest his client was at the protest site to look for his son, but the magistrate didn't buy it, because why would he be walking around with bags of animal entrails then?

The irony in all of this is that while Yip wanted to get back at Lai for supposedly influencing his son to join the umbrella movement, Yip himself will be behind bars for a while...

All three have had previous convictions for violence.

They will find out their fate on May 3.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Hong Kong's Plunging English Standards

People in Causeway Bay and Mongkok were asked to pronounce English words
It is not surprising that English standards have fallen in Hong Kong in the past 20 years.

When I first arrived in the mid 1990s, secretaries spoke perfect English on the phone. Now you must speak Cantonese to ensure you are understood.

And the latest news is that the average person's pronunciation of basic English words is described as "shocking" and "disappointing".

A recent test asked 300 people above the age of 18 who had an educational level of at least Secondary Five, including some undergraduates and postgraduates, in Causeway Bay and Mongkok to pronounce 10 commonly used words, like admirable, southern, estate, suite and fiance.

The company says falling English standards is "shocking"
Nearly half of them scored zero.

No one got them all right, while only five got 50 percent right.

The study was funded by Prime English Learning Centre -- obviously a ploy to market itself as the place to improve one's English skills -- and its head Wennita Fong was horrified by the results.

Fong said many of the mistakes came from placing the stress on the wrong syllable, using hte wrong vowels and not being familiar with loan words, or words adopted from a foreign language.

She said the standard of English pronunciation had fallen, probably because of incorrect pronunciation by primary and secondary teachers, and the prevalence of internet slang.

Fong warned Hong Kong people's job competitiveness would be hampered if English pronunciation was not improved, as the centre's students cited being at a disadvantage in job interviews and passed over for promotion because of their poor English pronunciation.

"One student even pointed out he felt threatened by his mainland colleagues' better English standards," she added.

Children must understand the importance of learning English
One Hong Kong senior manager at a multinational bank said impressions counted and speaking good English was a criterion when hiring.

"Recently, I was hiring a management trainee and interviewed seven candidates. There were three local graduates but they all could not pass my interview. One of the reasons was that their English was not so good," he said.

Meanwhile lawmaker Claudia Mo Man-ching, who has been critical of falling English standards and usage in the city, said English education in Hong Kong focused too much on grammar and writing, and not much emphasis on speaking the language.

It also depends on the willingness of the person to learn English -- if they are keen to make foreign friends or improve their job prospects, then they will try hard to improve their language skills.

But if they don't see the importance of learning English, they will just learn enough to get by. While Hong Kong claims to be an international city, there's a vast majority of locals who hardly every interact with foreigners or use English in their daily lives.

When people don't see the importance of English -- or worse -- see it as a vestige of Hong Kong's colonial past -- that will be the beginning of the end of the city's future.

Hong Kong people need to know English at a minimum, and other languages like French, Spanish and even Japanese or Korean would be a plus.

This also indicates local residents' attitude towards others -- that they are very insular and don't look outwards, which is also sad.

So in the meantime can we get our English pronunciation right at least? That way we can least communicate with others more effectively? Maybe then we'd get more tourists coming our way?

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Shanghainese Lands in Kennedy Town

According to this promo image, the noodles at Shanghai Lao Lao are handmade
A new Chinese restaurant has appeared in Kennedy Town and already it's a hit with residents.

On Friday my mom and I wanted to try Shanghai Lao Lao, but by the time we got there around 7.30pm, there was a crowd milling around the entrance and we were told it would be at least a half hour wait.

We gave up and hit the wet market across the street at closing time and got a good deal on fresh fish we steamed up around the time we would have waited for a table.

Braised wheat gluten, pork knuckle and drunken chicken
Then today after visiting the Chi Lin Nunnery and the Lian Nian Garden across the street (oh yes and a bit of shopping at Uniqlo too!) we headed home and decided to give it a shot.

Again there were people standing outside at 2pm, but not as many. We waited about 15, 20 minutes and then were finally allowed inside.

The store that used to be in the space was 759, and I remember it being quite a deep area, but it was completely unrecognizable now as a restaurant. We were shown a small narrow area in the back where we sat on stools by the dish washing station.

We had studied the menu while waiting for our table. There's a choice of three appetizers in small portions for HK$88, and we particularly enjoyed the cold pork knuckle marinated in Chinese wine, munching on the crunchy cartilage, followed by the drunken chicken that was fully immersed in wine, and the braised wheat gluten with wood ear fungus, bamboo shoots and Chinese mushrooms.

A trio of potstickers that had quite thick skins
Next came the cabbage and pork potstickers which were probably the weakest dish of the meal because the skins were so thick, but had a nice crunch to them. Soon after the xiaolongbao (HK$32) arrived and they were not bad, though the pork filling inside seemed flat and needed the ginger and vinegar for a pick-me-up.

One main dish was the claypot with diced salted pork, tofu skin wrapped in knots, bamboo shoots and vegetables in a cloudy fish soup. We had been forewarned it would be a large portion, and so we tried to eat as much of it as we could before being able to put almost all of it into a plastic box -- including the broth) to take home.

This one would have been even better with noodles to soak up the seasoning in the soup, but it was still delicious nonetheless. The fresh bamboo shoots were crunchy, though some pork pieces were a bit on the tough side.

The xiaolongbao had thin wrappers, the fillings were bland
But what can you expect when the bill comes to HK$254 for two?

I've since found out that Shanghai Lao Lao is owned by Cafe de Coral, which explains why it's next door to the fast food chain; they probably got some deal with the landlord.

Nevertheless when we came out around 3pm, we were surprised to see a handful of people outside waiting to eat.

Maybe everyone in Kennedy Town is craving Shanghainese...

Shanghai Lao Lao
G/F, Kin Liong Mansion
16-30 North Street, Kennedy Town

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Picture of the Day: Steps to Better Health

Seen these signs around the MTR station before?
Ah... the MTR Corporation is trying to get people more physically active, which is probably why some of the newer MTR stations have such long corridors.

If you enter HKU MTR station at The Westwood (Exit C2), there's a stairwell to get down to a very long corridor that takes at least five minutes to walk (because there's a sign on the wall that says so, counting down the minutes depending on how far you've walked).

While we walked down to get to the station (the escalator going down was out of order), at the bottom of the stairs there's a poster that indicates there are 64 steps to get to the top, with the slogan, "Climb steps everyday for good health and happiness".

Since when does climbing stairs lead to happiness?

Is this a new way to enlightenment we haven't heard of before?

Friday, 15 April 2016

Eat Like a Gourmand

Fine Chinese dining in a very classic English environment
Howard's Gourmet opened in Central last November and it has generated positive and negative buzz. While many rave about the food, there are critics who scoff at the high prices for the set lunch and dinner menus. But I have been entranced by the dishes here, and find them innovative and above all, delicious.

Stewed sea cucumber was the highlight of the meal
Howard Cai is the restaurateur behind it, having opened Howard's Gourmet in Guangzhou for 10 years. He quit his job as a civil servant and studied in the United States. While he was there he didn't like the food he ate in restaurants and began cooking his own.

For him the temperature of the food is very important and even calculates the amount of time it would take for the dish to go from the kitchen to the diners' table, because the food is still technically cooking on the way there.

Not only that, Cai tries to create interesting flavours with a dish. He doesn't want to cook, say abalone in the typical Chinese way; he decides how he wants the ingredient to taste and the figures out how it should be cooked, mainly to bring out the natural flavours and not hide it under heavy sauces.

Deep-fried crab meat cake with seaweed was creative
The end result is modern Chinese cuisine that has a more scientific basis, and also rooted in traditional culture in terms of the quality of the ingredients and how to balance them in a dish.

I took my mom and aunt to try the set lunch menu because they would not be able to taste anything like this in Vancouver.

We started with small appetizers in small bowls. One was fish cakes sliced into mini diamond shapes with also miniaturized beans, the other mountain yam with wood ear fungus, and a small cup of full-flavoured vegetable broth .

Delicate simmered seasonal vegetables in bouillon
Next came two relatively small slices of mackerel cooked and marinated Chiu Chow style with a dab of a miso sauce that was very refreshing and delicate.

Stewed sea cucumber was next and was the highlight of the meal. It was braised for such a long time that the pieces practically melted in the mouth they were so smooth. The thick broth they came in was fantastic and full of flavour too that we finished it to the last drop.

An intriguing dish came next -- deep-fried crab meat cake with seaweed. Perhaps it was meant to emulate home-style steamed meat cakes, but with a crunchy outer layer, in this case made from seaweed. The result was a slight crunch and soft on the inside, with a hint of crab taste in the middle. Again the broth here was cleaned up.

The slice of braised pork belly was good, though we preferred the accompanying large piece of bitter melon, while simmered golgi berry leaves in bouillon were so delicate and had subtle flavours from the garlic.

Homemade noodles are in this hot and sour soup
A signature dish is the hot and sour noodles, and we were forewarned they could be spicy. The noodles are homemade and have a bouncy texture, while the sauce is a slow-burn spicy with a strong sour taste. The spiciness is such that it entices diners to whet their appetites and eat more.

Finally to balance things out, dessert was almond soup with lotus seeds, but not what one would expect. Instead they were cooked to the point of melting into a kind of jelly that we found at the bottom of the bowl.

At the end of the meal I was just full, and this is the point Cai wants his diners to be at -- not too full and their taste buds sated.

It was such an elegant treat to be eating such a fine meal in a traditional English-style surroundings designed by David Tang. Who knew he could be such a great interior decorator?

For dessert, almond soup with lotus seeds that are like jelly
Howard's Gourmet
5/F, CCB Tower
3 Connaught Road Central
2115 3388

Thursday, 14 April 2016

US Report says Hong Kong's Freedoms Declining

The US State Department has observed a decline in freedoms in Hong Kong
The US State Department has issued its latest report on human rights practices around the world and notes a fall in freedoms in Hong Kong.

Compiled by the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, the annual document called Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, and Hong Kong is reported as a section under China.

The report cites the missing booksellers case as a concern
In it, the report mentions the five missing booksellers, saying that "credible reports" point to the involvement of "mainland security officials" in the disappearance of five booksellers who disappeared between October and December in Hong Kong and Thailand.

The report claims "credible reports gave rise to widespread suspicions" that mainland security officials were involved in their disappearance and that the incident "has raised concerns about the activities of mainland security forces in Hong Kong".

In addition, it cited "international and local media reports in late 2014", suggesting that mainland's Ministry of State Security "deployed operatives in Hong Kong to surveil critics of the central government's policies".

Another is rejecting Johannes Chan's appointment at HKU
This is not new, but interesting the report points this out now, and says targets included pro-democracy figures, activists, lawyers, academics, businessmen and religious leaders. "In one reported case, police arrested men alleged to have been part of a ministry surveillance team that was following a pro-democracy legislator, but released them shortly thereafter," the report says.

In response, the Hong Kong government said law enforcement officers outside the special administrative region did not have authority to enforce laws locally unless properly authorized.

We're not talking about enforcing local laws -- we're talking about mainland agents coming to the city and doing outright surveillance for information gathering. Is there something in the Basic Law about that?

The report also cites concerns for academic freedom when the University of Hong Kong rejected the appointment of law professor Johannes Chan Man-mun to a senior managerial post because of his close ties with Benny Tai Yiu-ting, a co-founder of the Occupy Central Movement.

Chan was rejected due to his ties with Benny Tai (above)
In addition, there are observations in the report that the city has declined in its position in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index and verbal and physical attacks on journalists, including the firebombing last year of former Apple Daily boss Jimmy Lai Chee-ying and the 2014 stabbing of former Ming Pao editor Kevin Lau Chun-to.

At least someone is closely observing what's going on in Hong Kong and reporting it... but will something be done about it?

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Growing Chorus Around Luggage Saga

Can we get to the bottom of the luggage saga to find out what really happened?
Momentum is growing, with more voices calling for the truth to be revealed around Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's daughter's luggage being brought to her in a restricted area of the airport.

The Hong Kong Cabin Crew Federation is calling all pilots, flight attendants and the public to take part in a protest march on Sunday in the arrivals area from 3pm to 6pm.

The group is "extremely disappointed and angry" that Civil Aviation Director-General Norman Lo Shung-man has so far refused to fully explain the matter.

There are plans for protests in the arrivals hall on Sunday
This comes a day after the union and Jeremy Tam Man-ho of Civic Party, filed a complaint and more than 30,000 signatures to three international aviation regulatory bodies to demand a full investigation.

Meanwhile Transport and Housing Secretary Anthony Cheung Bing-leung said airport security was not breached at all. While he acknowledged public concern over the incident, he said the government would take up any necessary action, based on the results of a report from the Civil Aviation Department.

Cheung insisted that everyone and their items must be checked by security before going into restricted areas.

No one disagrees with this but are wondering in which circumstances would passengers be able to get aviation staff to collect their luggage for them, instead of having it with them when going through security.

This is the real crux of the matter.

How did Leung Chung-yan (right) forget her bag?
Leung's daughter, Chung-yan, should have gone back through security herself to pick up the bag like anyone else. Her father can plead innocence, that he didn't know about the incident until she told him about it when he called her to say good bye, but rules are rules.

And the stipulations are, one must be with their personal items at all times. She is not a five-year-old child who has never flown on an airplane before. How can she forget her own bag?

While Leung's people are trying hard to spin the story to deflect it from him as much as possible, the optics are working against him.

He may be trying to hard to show he is not taking advantage of his position, but it looks like his other family members are...

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Fact of the Day: 80 Percent of China's Groundwater Polluted

Discoloured water isn't a good sign, especially near factories in China...
It's depressing though not surprising to find about 80 percent of the groundwater in China's major river basins is unsafe for human consumption, according to a survey by the Ministry of Water Resources.

Last year the ministry tested 2,103 wells in the basins of the Yangtze, Yellow River, Huai River and Hai River, and found exploitation and pollution from industrial and agricultural emissions threatened water standards.

The results covered 18 provinces and was the first time -- the first time -- the ministry published water quality information in its monthly update on its website.

Too much algae in this water due to phosphates
Nitrate pollution was common, and in some cases water was contaminated due to heavy metals and organic pollutants, which are more difficult to remove.

Nearly half, or 47.3 percent of the wells tested were found to have fifth grade or "extremely bad" water quality, about one-third had fourth grade, or "bad" water quality. None of the wells had "excellent" water quality.

Fourth or fifth grade groundwater is so polluted that it is unfit for human consumption.

The water ministry's finding that 80 percent of China's groundwater is polluted is higher than the 60 percent figure issued by the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

The environment ministry looked at data from nearly 4,900 monitoring sites in 202 cities, though it wasn't clear if the two ministries overlapped in their data collection.

Critics say groundwater monitoring standards are outdated and that monitoring is insufficient, suggesting surveys may not reflect the full scale of pollution.

Groundwater keep dropping in this photo taken in Kunming
Does that not sound like the government is in denial about wanting to know the  actual quality of the groundwater? After over 30 years of fast-paced economic development at any price, the reality of devastation comes back to bite.

How are people supposed to live productive lives if they are sickened by the water they drink?

Access to clean drinking water is essential to realizing human rights, according to the United Nations.

China could blame the west for imposing all of its polluting businesses on it -- but really it could have said no, or forced foreign companies to conform to strict environmental guidelines.

Regardless of the blame game, something needs to be done now to rectify the issue. Does anyone have any bright ideas besides moving people to the cities?