Sunday, 30 April 2017

Trying to Make Homes Better

People living in subdivided flats try to hoard as much furniture as they can
Many pictures of subdivided flats in Hong Kong show extremely cramped conditions with the room covered in stuff.

"Many grassroots families don't have the extra cash to spend on furniture. Instead they'll hoard a lot of second-hand furniture even if it's not very practical because they don't know if they'll be able to afford it in the future," says social worker Angela Lui Yi-shan.

Having to constantly worry about having enough money for basic necessities is a stressful situation to be in.

A picture before of a mother and child with a temporary desk
And not having proper spaces for children to study and play in such tiny living spaces doesn't help either.

As a result, Lui has teamed up with human rights advocacy group Society for Community Organization that helps design and build custom-made furniture for low-income families so they can have a better living environment.

Furniture can range from desks, shelves, and cupboards, and they can be easily moved out of the flat when the family moves to another place.

A team of architects from DOMAT, a not-for-profit architecture firm that designs the furniture, work with the families individually by visiting their subdivided flats see what existing furniture they want to keep and what their needs are.

"Most of the children we work with lie on the ground or bed to do their homework, and it's not good for their health or development, but this project can help change that," says Lui.

Many impoverished families live in old tenement buildings that have high ceilings, so the aim is to build floor-to-ceiling cupboards instead of stacking storage boxes, while children can have a proper desk and be able to store toys underneath.

Afterwards there is a dedicated desk and more space to move
"Based on their daily habits, we see how our designs can match their needs. We want to use furniture as a tool to improve their space, rather than just providing new furniture," says architect Maggie Ma.

She adds this project has helped her to understand more about how people live and what is most important to them.

Ma's partner and fellow architect Mark Kingsley says these makeovers are not like the ones on TV shows where a home is completely transformed. "The ambition of the project is much more modest -- to make small changes that can have a big impact on the family."

We need more architecture and design firms doing projects like this to help others make their lives better. And as Ma says, it helps her understand what people want and need in their homes, particularly those who are struggling everyday.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Moving Goal Posts Again

Wang Zhenmin warns "one country, two systems" means something ese
Ah, yet another mainland quasi official warning Hong Kong people not to get out of line.

This time it's Wang Zhenmin, legal head of the central government's liaison office. He says "one country, two systems" could be scrapped if it is used as a tool against Beijing.

He said this at a seminar, where outgoing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying spoke earlier that the assurance there would be no change for 50 years under the city's mini constitution, the Basic Law, only referred to the capitalist system and did not mean Beijing's sovereignty over Hong Kong would change.

In commemorating the 27th anniversary of the Basic Law, Leung said the autonomy Hong Kong was enjoying was authorized by Beijing and wasn't "full autonomy", and the careful implementation of the governing formula was the best arrangement for both Hong Kong and the nation.

CY Leung has a warped view of "one country, two systems"
What? Is Leung saying the goal posts have been moved again? And how could "one country, two systems" only refer to our financial system?

Meanwhile Wang, a former Tsinghua University law dean, focused his keynote speech on attacking what he says is the rising separatist sentiment in the city, and that "one country" comes before "two systems".

Again, someone is redefining what we have always known as "one country, two systems"...

"If the 'two systems' part... is severely distorted or even [becomes a tool] to confront and damage 'one country', then the reasons and conditions for the 'two systems' to exist would be lost," Wang said.

He claimed the nation was "disappointed and disheartened" to see separatists enter school campuses and the establishment, he said, urging Hong Kong people to wholeheartedly accept that the sovereignty of the city had been returned to China for good.

Under Article 2 of the Basic Law, China's top legislature authorizes the former British colony to exercise a high degree of autonomy and enjoy executive, legislature and independent judicial power. However, Wang warned that room for that autonomy could shrink if Hong Kong people continued to challenge national security.

"The more Hong Kong fails to actively defend the sovereignty, national security and development interests of the country in accordance with law, the more wary the country might be on Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy and the 'two systems'. There would be less room for its autonomy."

We are grappling with the reality that our autonomy is fast disappearing -- once you have freedoms and then start losing them it's hard to accept. But Wang wouldn't understand that...

He also denied that Beijing was "interfering in the city's internal affairs" -- a long-held complaint by pro-democracy activists.

"The country is only exercising its sovereignty in accordance with the law and that should not be regarded as 'interference'," he said. "Just like we cannot say your brain is interfering with your limbs as they have always been part of your body. [The brain] is only carrying out its own functions."

Huh??? Sounds like a really bad comparison.

In any event we're dismayed by the continual shifting of the goal posts that does nobody any favours except perhaps mainland or pro-establishment officials who feel the need to puff their chests with authority...

Friday, 28 April 2017

Hong Kong Landmark Ruling on Same-Sex Marriage

There is a strong gay community in Hong Kong, along with its supporters
Breaking News -- A married gay civil servant is now entitled to the same spousal benefits as a heterosexual couple in Hong Kong.

The landmark ruling came down today which could have a massive ripple effect in all sectors, as for a long time the government refused to acknowledge benefits in same-sex marriages.

The High Court refused the Civil Service Bureau's argument that it was denying benefits for same-sex spouses to protect "the integrity of the institution of marriage".

In 2014, senior immigration officer Leung Chun-kwong married his partner Scott Adams in New Zealand. But when Leung tried to change his marital status to be eligible for spousal benefits back in Hong Kong, he was refused, and so he launched a lawsuit against the secretary for the civil service and the commissioner of the Inland Revenue Department.

The High Court ruled a gay couple is entitled to benefits
While the court ruled in favour with Leung with regards to the CSB, he lost his case with the Revenue Department.

In his 44-page judgment, Mr Justice Anderson Chow Ka-ming called the bureau's policy "indirect discrimination" and rejected its assertion that the secretary had a justifiable aim "to act in line with the prevailing marriage law of Hong Kong" and not to "undermine the integrity of the institution of marriage... hence safeguarding public order".

Chow wrote: "I am unable to see how denial of 'spousal' benefits to homosexual couples... legally married under foreign laws could or would serve the purpose of not undermining the integrity of the institution of marriage in Hong Kong, or protecting the institution of the traditional family."

Leung said the court's decision had wide-ranging implications. "The government is the biggest employer. The whole of Hong Kong will follow [this decision]."

He urged the government to review its policies and update them instead of wait for legal challenges, a process, he said was stressful, expensive and time consuming.

Rainbow-coloured lions have conservatives very worried!
"We were not asking for special treatment. We simply wanted to be treated fairly and with dignity," he said, adding that the court had "recognized and rectified a fundamental unfairness".

The bureau says it is reviewing the decision with the Justice Department, while the Equal Opportunities Commission urges the government to review its policies and extend equal rights to sexual minorities.

However, when it came to the Inland Revenue Department, Leung was unable to change his marital status to same-sex marriage because a provision in the Inland Revenue Ordinance states clearly that a marriage is between a man and a woman.

Nevertheless, we finally a decision that drags Hong Kong into the 21st century. The city is a fiscally liberal one, and so should its society. Christian conservatives are going to be terrified by this ruling -- they can't even stand having rainbow-coloured replica lions at HSBC in Central.

But this is the reality -- there are same-sex couples in Hong Kong and they deserve to be treated equally under the law. And now they do legally.

Case closed? We hope so.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Arrests in Fight for Democracy

Last November's stand off with police in front of the Liaison Office
This morning nine activists were rounded up on suspected charges of unlawful assembly and disorderly conduct following a rally outside the central government's liaison office last November over the Legislative Council's oath-taking controversy.

The nine included those from Demosisto (Derek Lam Shun-hin and Ivan Lam Long-yin), the League of Social Democrats (Avery Ng Man-yuen and Dickson Chau Ka-faat), and Students Fight for Democracy (Lo Tak-cheung and Sammy Ip Chi-hin).

Avery Ng is dismayed by more arrests of activists like himself
"This is the third time doorstep arrests have been made this year. The political suppression is not over yet!" Ng wrote in a Facebook post. He claimed he had been arrested on two charges of "inciting others to cause disorder in a public place".

This follows the arrest of Youngspiration duo Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang, who were charged with unlawful assembly when they tried to force their way into Legco in order to try to retake their oaths on November 2.

It looks like in the last few months of his leadership, Leung Chun-ying doesn't want to show that he's weak, only being able to rule for one term. Or maybe he's promised Beijing to snuff out any kind of pro-independence movement by using the law to shut them up.

By trying to scare people with jail, others may think twice about continuing the fight for democracy in Hong Kong.

Youngspiration's Sixtus Leung & Yau Wai-ching were charged
It's something Amnesty International has pointed out, commenting after the nine arrests this morning.

"The repeated use of vague charges against prominent figures in Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement reeks of an orchestrated and retaliatory campaign by the authorities to punish those that advocate for democracy in Hong Kong," said Mabel Au, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong.

"The Hong Kong government should be protecting freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, but instead appears intent on intimidating people who are challenging the authorities," she added.

The first test will be on July 1, the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China, and Chinese President Xi Jinping will be in town for the festivities. Maybe Leung is tasked with getting rid of dissent during Xi's visit, but whatever happened to "one country, two systems"?

Deng Xiaoping himself coined the phrase so why can't the central leadership accept it?

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Even Border Town Flats Cost $$$

Sha Tau Kok is mostly closed off to the 3,000 people living there
Sha Tau Kok is a rural town that is very close to the mainland border, 11 kilometres northeast of Fanling. It was known for being the place where goods and people were smuggled across the border in the 1950s.

But the town was sealed off from the rest of Hong Kong in 1951 onwards when the Communists took power in China, and access to the town was only restricted to local residents until February 2012 when it was partially reopened.

Marin Point is the first development in 17 years
And now developers have come in and are building flats, and starting to sell them.

Far East Consortium International has unveiled its project called Marin Point, the first development in 17 years, and prices range from HK$10,196 to HK$17,815 per square foot.

These are comparable to flats -- both first and second hand -- closer to town.

There are 57 units for sale, with the average price of HK$10,175 per square foot after discounts, while the most expensive flat is a 593-square-foot flat priced at HK$9.6 million. They will be completed in October next year.

Are three-storey houses still relatively cheap in Sha Tau Kok?
To put this into perspective, existing three-storey village houses there went for HK$4,500 to HK$5,000 per square foot in December last year.

However not every one can buy these flats -- only existing Sha Tau Kok residents are allowed to purchase these units, but they are going to make a killing because eventually the frontier town will be fully opened up, and also rising housing prices in Shenzhen at HK$23,000 per square foot in Shenzhen Bay make Marin Point and other flats in Hong Kong look cheap.

How scary is that?

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

At the Mercy of Landlords

This hotel has a good location, so why does it need to be knocked down?
A property investment company that owns a hotel in Causeway Bay wants to tear it down and turn it into an office building.

SEA Holdings, a publicly-listed company, recently applied to the Town Planning Board to demolish the 29-storey hotel and turn it into a 22-storey office tower with restaurants and shops.

Why? Because it is more profitable to rent out space on a monthly basis than hire staff to look after hotel rooms and guests, and try to fill them on a daily basis.

Remember the Ritz-Carlton and the Furama in Central?
What's also contentious is that the hotel, the Crowne Plaza Hong Kong Causeway Bay is only eight years old so knocking it down would not only mean more waste in our landfills, but more importantly less rooms for visitors to stay in.

In Central there used to be a handful of hotels like the Hilton, Furama, and Ritz-Carlton; now it's only the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong and the Landmark Mandarin Oriental.

How can the Hong Kong Tourism Board lure more visitors to the city if more hotels get torn down?

But it seems like there is actually a glut in the market when it comes to hotel rooms in Hong Kong -- many low to mid-range ones are struggling to be able to charge HK$1,000 a night.

The Murray Building will be turned into a hotel by 2018
For example Ibis Hong Kong in Sheung Wan,  charges just under HK$1,000 a night on weekends, but come weekdays, it's just over HK$600 a night.

One critic of the plans to knock down the Crowne Plaza says property developers don't lose a night's sleep squeezing as much as they can out of us, neither do landlords who double our rents -- they think someone else will take it.

That's why these people are called psychopaths.

But in the meantime, The Murray Building in Central used to be an office building and is now being refurbished into a hotel by keeping the outer shell intact.

Quick fixes aren't what we need in Hong Kong. We need a more visonary, steady approach to development. Knocking down an eight-year-old building is not the way to go.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Gabriela Montero Living with Music

Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero is a whiz at the ivories
Today I had the opportunity to interview an amazing pianist who is classically trained, but can also improvise, much like a jazz musician -- on the spot.

Gabriela Montero is a Venezuelan pianist who will be performing tomorrow night at City Hall Concert Hall, playing Schubert and Schumann in the first half, and then after the intermission, she will take suggestions from the audience of what to play -- as long as they hum it to her.

She explained that improvisation was something classical musicians did in the 16th and 17th centuries, when composers would write "cadenza", and expect the musician to add their own flourish.

But later on, musicians didn't know what to play, and eventually it was written out, which is why people like me have always thought that classical music was about playing the piece exactly as the composer had intended, down to every last note.

Here she is riffing off of Bach's Goldberg Variations:

As someone who learned classical music on the piano, I could never even dream of improvising -- I thought it was something only those who were well versed in music could do, but Montero is in an league of her own.

When she was a baby she was already playing a toy piano in her crib. By the age of five she gave her first public performance and at eight performed her first piano concerto.

She likes to connect with the audience with improvisation
I brought up the description of being a prodigy, but she doesn't like the word, saying it separates her from others. She also frankly admitted she quit piano twice, one time not touching the piano for two-and-a-half years because she didn't want music to dictate her life.

"Just because I'm good at it doesn't mean I like it," she said. It took her years to reconcile with her talent and also the fact that she was a single mother meant that she had to use her skills as a musician to support her family.

Now she seems very happy to be making music on her own terms, and using it has a platform to speak out about her home country that is falling apart due to the corrupt government, with people starving from not being able to get access to food.

In 2011 she wrote Ex Patria as an emotional musical picture of what is going on in Venezuela, and while she has performed it 10 times, including a recording, she hopes she doesn't have to play it again.

The following year Amnesty International made her an honorary consul, where she uses the position to talk about Venezuela, and she is now basically in self-imposed exile; if she were to return, she says she would be put in jail. She now lives in Barcelona with her husband and two daughters.

But back to the improvisation -- I hummed her Teresa Teng's famous song, The Moon Represents My Heart.

She played what I hummed perfectly on the piano, dabbled a bit with it and then began to play. And watching her riff off the phrase in various styles was amazing. We were just spellbound watching her play.

After she finished, she said that when she improvises, it has to be recorded because she cannot play it exactly the same again -- the music flows through her onto the keys and once it's over, that's it.

Montero seems at peace with her spellbinding talent, probably thanks to age and having tried to quit twice and then coming to terms with it, but also determined to use it the way she wants to.

She has a warm spirit and eager to share her music with everyone.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Trying to Emulate China's Bike Culture

Recreational cyclists out pedaling in the New Territories
A non-local entrepreneur has taken the idea of bike sharing from China to Hong Kong, but it's had a rough start. feature lime green bikes with a logo of a bee on two wheels. It's the brainchild of Raphael Cohen, who launched the service this past Wednesday.

People basically download the app -- but currently it's only available on Android phones -- and then they can sign up with their credit card. They scan the bike to unlock it, and then ride it for HK$5 per half hour. Other offline bike rental shops will lease bikes for HK$40 a day.

Bike sharing is now available in Hong Kong...
The other hitch is that while the bikes are available in Sha Tin, though you can leave the bikes afterwards in any public place, where else are you going to ride the bike except along the bike paths in the New Territories where it's flat?

One would have to be crazy to ride a bike on the main streets of Hong Kong as there are no bike lanes. Only when you have bike lanes, like they do in China will you have more people feeling safe enough to ride two wheelers.

Now a few days after the service was launched, there are reports that three bicycles were found in the Shing Mun River in Sha Tin, while six others were damaged or had parts like handles, brakes and lights stolen.

...But some bikes have been damaged since its launch
"They are trying to make [the bikes] unsafe to use," Cohen said. "It feels pretty sad. I thought Hong Kong was a very safe city."

A safe city doesn't mean its residents don't steal things.

My cyclist friends tell me they can barely leave their own bikes alone for a minute -- locked -- without some part of the bike or the whole thing being stolen.

Maybe Cohen should have studied Hong Kong a bit more before deciding to launch the service, but it's admirable of him to try to get people out exercising more...

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Food Trucks Prove a Tough Business

Food truck locations focus on tourists than locals for business
Looks like food trucks in Hong Kong aren't working out as well as the government had hoped.

The 12 food trucks -- one dropped out before it even started -- were not allowed to stray from its location, were not allowed to adjust the menu, and had to draw a lottery for where they would next be, which meant they could be back in the same place due to their own bad luck instead of being evenly rotated around eight sites.

But now it seems there is an easing of the food truck restrictions with two more locations, Science Park in Sha Tin and AsiaWorld-Expo near the airport when there are events held there.

Yesterday Greg So sampled some food truck dishes
"Some of these venues, in certain time periods, have very little business. So we want to enrich the program, by giving them [the operators] more choices," says commerce minister Greg So Kam-leung, who was sampling food at the most popular food truck destination just outside Disneyland. It's popular because people don't want to pay the exorbitant prices inside the theme park.

The least popular sites are at Ocean Park, Salisbury Garden in Tsim Sha Tsui, Central Harbourfront and Energizing Kowloon East in Kwun Tong.

So reported that daily revenue from the 12 food trucks ranged from HK$3,000 to HK$25,000. As a result, the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau decided to allow operators in locations with slow business to go to other locations for a short period of time. In addition, food trucks at Kowloon East could go to Tsim Sha Tsui in the evenings.

Science Park is expected to have 250,000 visitors next year, while AsiaWorld-Expo is booked for 66 days a year.

"We think these two locations are worth a try," So said.

Is this grilled squid a dish that can be eaten as a street food?
But lawmaker Kwok Wai-keung, of the Federation of Trade Unions, said adding new tourist sites just repeated previous mistakes.

"The scheme should focus on residents and encourage small businesses instead of giving tourists priority," he said.

Last month, Capital Cafe quit the food truck business before it even started, citing concerns over the profitability of the scheme, blaming costs and government requirements.

We tend to agree with Kwok. Having visited many of the food trucks myself for a story and seen the situation, the food trucks are just a gimmick, instead of what they are really meant to be -- a platform for chefs to try new culinary ideas and create snacks or food that are easy to eat while standing on the street.

Some dishes were hard to eat standing up or consume using one hand, or they were just too bizarre like fish maw soup. Who buys such a product from a food truck? Many featured pineapple buns made into hamburgers. It's novel, but does it actually taste good? (not really). And price-wise they were hardly value for money.

It's another government scheme that has no imagination and not well thought-out either, as the restrictions are just ridiculous. The whole point of food trucks is having several together in one spot for consumers to choose what they want to eat. And the food trucks should be able to move around to whatever locations will bring them business.

Why not food trucks in Causeway Bay like Victoria Park or on a pedestrian-only street in Central to catch the office crowd?

But the government doesn't seem to understand that...

Friday, 21 April 2017

Restaurant Flogging its Michelin Past

A Michelin-recommended restaurant is on this street in Tsim Sha Tsui!
Yesterday a friend visiting from Beijing sent me a message on WeChat about where we should meet for dinner.

It was a Korean restaurant on a small street in Tsim Sha Tsui, both of which I had never heard of.

Thanks to Google Maps I was able to locate the place, and while I waited for my friend who was running late, I did some people watching. The restaurant is in a building full of restaurants on Hau Fook Street and there were many small local shops, such as old school stationary stores, small boutiques, a hip crafts store.

Finally my friend arrived with two others in tow -- including the local guy who suggested we eat here.

It turns out the Korean restaurant was mentioned in the 2013 and 2014 Michelin guide -- how did the inspectors even know about this place in an obscure street in Tsim Sha Tsui?

Here's how the guide described this restaurant:

Steam rather than smoke is more likely to fill the air at this bright, contemporary Korean restaurant because hotpot is the popular dish here, with the seafood hotpot being a particular highlight. Other attractively presented dishes include grilled yellow corvine, kimchee and pork pancake, and the noodles are good too. The restaurant is housed within a new building, standing in juxtaposition to its more traditional surroundings.

But when we arrived, the staff were sitting at the tables waiting for customers to show up, and even when we arrived, they gave us the impression we were going to be a burden for them.

When we asked for recommendations to choose between two dishes, the waitress (who gave the impression she didn't want to be there) looked sullen and just picked one or the two to just settle the matter than giving an enthusiastic or honest answer.

She must also be annoyed when people speak Chinese to her, because she would immediately say I speak English, not Chinese.

How could this place be mentioned in the Michelin guide?! Not only was the attitude lacklustre, but the service itself wasn't very good. And authentic Korean? Ban chan, or the small dishes didn't include kim chi, and there was even potato salad smothered in mayonnaise!

Admittedly I didn't take any pictures, maybe because I was so taken aback by how this place was run. And by the way copies of Michelin guides were placed haphazardly around the room just in case you'd want to flick through...

We ordered a kind of seafood salad that came on a massive platter covered in a red (but luckily not too spicy) sauce, while the other was a giant hotpot filled with sausages. Sausages?

These were the supermarket kind, sliced on an angle, and there were even those small weiners with fake cheese sauce injected into them! Again I could not help thinking, this is a Michelin-recommended restaurant?

Aside from the overdose of sausages in the hotpot, there were a lot of rice cakes in there too, as well as lots of cabbage, onions and mushrooms. The broth wasn't too spicy and made less so when more broth was added.

In the end we couldn't finish everything. Our dessert? Nestle vanilla ice cream in individual plastic containers. How classy is that?

I don't know how much the bill was, but it must have been quite reasonable, four of us sharing two main dishes, and only drinking tea and water.

Maybe the restaurant was good in 2013 and 2014, but what we ate and experienced last night was hardly Michelin worthy...

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Miscellaneous Items on the MTR

Walking onto the MTR train, you don't know what you'll see on your commute
Hong Kong's MTR is arguably the most efficient form of public transport in the world. Not only is it a fast network, but also very clean, thanks to its policy of not eating drinking.

However there are people who violate this rule, many non-Chinese carrying takeaway coffee cups to help them wake up before going to work, while locals carry water bottles or juice.

MTR staff have seen people eat fast-food breakfasts on the train, and even cases of commuters freely eating durian and drinking beer! I have yet to witness this myself.

There have been reports of bizarre items brought onto trains too. One person carried a replica of the Green Dragon Crescent Blade [weapon used by Guan Yu in the historical novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms], and long spears, while some others seemed to move house using the MTR.

Someone seemed to have a relaxing ride on the MTR...
They have carried washing machines, refrigerators, big mattresses and even wardrobes onto the train. Guess they didn't even want to hire a Go-Go Van or a taxi...

Again I haven't seen that either, though I have seen people bring small mattresses on the MTR one late evening when it wasn't too busy.

But there was someone who strung a hammock between two poles and lay in it!

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Perils of being Overpaid

Carrie Lam paid a dozen students HK$100 an hour to work on her campaign
It's been revealed that chief executive-elect Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor paid students up to HK$100 an hour to help her on her campaign. That amounts to HK$20,000 a month.

That salary amount is about 33 percent higher than the average starting salary for fresh graduates, or three times the minimum wage.

Not only were there students visible on stage with her to show that she was in touch with young people as part of her "We Connect" campaign, there were several working behind the scenes, a dozen in total that were paid.

One of them made HK$20,000 a month.

Laurence Li Lu-jen, deputy director of Lam's campaign office, defended paying the students, saying they did a lot of work, from filing documents to data compilation.

"Paying them is a recognized token for their commitments. It is wrong to undervalue our youngsters," Li said. He added that the other young people at Lam's rally were volunteers, and no one was paid just to show up at the event.

While John Tsang Chun-wah's campaign office claimed they did not recruit students, there were some student volunteers who were not paid.

It is believed Lam's campaign cost more than HK$11 million, under the maximum of HK$15.7 million for campaign expenses.

Nevertheless we question why students should be paid up to HK$20,000, when the market rate is much less.

The reason is that these students will think they are worth HK$20,000 and will be severely disappointed when they find out the reality is that their salary should be much less.

It's much like a friend of mine who is looking to hire someone under her, and the company had an "internal reference", which is code for a son or daughter whose parents are friends of the owners.

She did interview this fresh graduate who was found to be suitable for the job, but my friend's bosses will pay this person HK$20,000 for a job that should be around $12,000-HK$15,000.

Hopefully this "internal reference" will be a good employee, but when he or she tries to find another job, they will wonder why they can't find a better paying job.

Jacking up salaries for young people does a disservice to them and to the employer.

But alas these kinds of "internal references" are common in Hong Kong... we can only hope these kids understand the reality of the situation, that they are very lucky to have really good paying jobs that people with more qualifications and experience should be doing...

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Taking Water for Granted

A scenic view of the Dongjiang dam in Guangdong province
Why is Hong Kong so dependent on China for our water supply?

The Hong Kong government seems to think it has a good deal, getting 80 percent of our water from Dongjiang in Guangdong since 1965 for a lump sum each year.

But now the cost is going up 20 percent to HK$13.4 billion for three years, as the current agreement expires later this year.

Hong Kong lawmakers visited Dongjiang last week
On a recent trip to the river, pan-democratic lawmakers determined this is too expensive and too much water. We annually get 820 million cubic metres, but Democratic Party lawmaker Helena Wong Pik-wan says Hong Kong only used 75 percent of the water last year, 80 percent most years.

"No matter how much you use, you are paying for this fixed amount. But in reality, do we really need that much water? In the past 10 years, there was only one year when we used up some 90 percent of the guaranteed water supply."

She added it was unfair that Shenzhen was paying less than HK$1 per cubic metre of Dongjiang water, while Hong Kong was paying about five times the amount.

Wong felt the current agreement needs to be changed. But will the Guangdong authorities adjust the rate and volume?

In reality we are paying too little for the water. The only way we can get people to conserve water is to make the commodity more expensive. For example, restaurants pay the same water rate as residents which is ridiculously cheap for them.

Massive pipes transporting water to Hong Kong
We also need to find our own sources of water -- why are we so dependent on China for our water? The country itself doesn't have enough clean water, meanwhile we are frittering the resource away and paying too much for it.

It makes no sense.

Singapore used to be dependent on Malaysia for water, with an 80-20 ratio much like Hong Kong and Guangdong. But it's since been reversed, with the Lion City capturing more rain water in reservoirs and having water treatment plants to recycle waste water.

Why aren't we doing the same?

Or is this a political kowtow to the motherland?

Monday, 17 April 2017

Pitch in for Cleaner Seas

Lots of garbage gets washed up  -- imagine how much is in the sea!
One of my friends, YTSL regularly joins a group to do beach clean-ups around Hong Kong. She is dismayed to find each time there is the same amount of garbage or even more sometimes. But she hopes that each time she pitches in she is doing her small but significant part in improving the environment.

Part of the problem is old school thinking by people who don't seem interested in trying to make the environment better for the next generation and beyond.

Case in point are the styrofoam boxes used by fishermen to transport their catches to wholesale markets.

WWF-Hong Kong's corrugated plastic boxes
"We see many of these boxes floating along the coastline and in places like Aberdeen typhoon shelter, which may have been dumped or blown into the water," says WWF-Hong Kong's project manager for marine affairs, Patrick Yeung Chung-wing.

"This has a huge impact on the environment as foam is very brittle and light, making it very hard to clean up once it's in the sea."

Not only do they pollute the water, but also the fish mistake the small white bits as food. These non-digestible things make the fish think it's full, but really it's not.

About a year ago, some scientists did biopsies of local fish and found lots of plastic and styrofoam in their stomachs. How gross is that!

According to a 2015 report compiled by the Environmental Protection Department, foam plastic makes up for one-fifth of marine refuse.

Marine life may mistaken floating plastic as food
WWF-Hong Kong is now launching a trial scheme with local fisheries representatives to use sturdy crates made from cheap, lightweight corrugated plastic.

What was the reaction? One would have thought the fishing industry would welcome the chance to improve the environment.

Instead Hong Kong Fishermen Consortium chairman Cheung Siu-keung says they would only consider the corrugated plastic crates if they were cheap, functional and durable.

"The most important consideration will be the ability to maintain the temperature of its contents," he said. "Reliable supply will also be important."

Yeung also hopes the fishermen will consider deploying special trawler nets to scoop up floating refuse more efficiently, and even bring back refuse in their nets back to shore instead of dumping them into the sea.

"Rubbish should be cleaned up in the sea and sorted onshore and given a new product life. In Hong Kong, there are no groups or companies doing this," he says.

We all need to pitch in to make the harbour cleaner. And it seems just trying to get the right attitude from stakeholders is the biggest challenge of all...

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Aussie Brunch Feast

Little Creatures is right by the waterfront, and caters to large groups
Yesterday I met up with my relatives for our belated grave-sweeping day in Pokfulam. In the morning it was overcast, but by the time we met up in the late morning, the sun was poking out and hardly any clouds in sight. Many other people had the same idea as us, and even the police was on standby in case there were any incidents.

Afterwards we headed to Kennedy Town, and the request from the younger generation was to eat anything not Chinese. This wasn't too hard to fulfill, with several options in mind.

The amiable uni carbonara with very fresh sea urchin on top
My first choice was Little Creatures since two in the party are interested in beer (or alcohol). Little Creatures is an Australian craft beef place and as the restaurant is very deep inside, they had no problems accommodating our group of nine.

The menu had a lot of options and we decided to share some dishes. We quite liked the beetroot and goat cheese salad (HK$95), that came with hazelnuts, greens and a sherry vinaigrette. Another straight-forward salad is the Romaine lettuce one (HK$90) with anchovy dressing and Parmesan.

The pizzas were geared more for one or two people sharing, not nine. However, we enjoyed the thin crusts and how they were quite light. I didn't get to try the mushroom one (HK$110) with truffle paste, rocket leaves, emmental and mozzarella, but the prawn one (HK$145) featured random bits of prawn with cajun spice, sweet peppers, emmental and mozzarella.

Everyone was impressed by the uni carbonara (HK$160). They were surprised a western restaurant would have sea urchin on the menu... which kind of demonstrates how locals who eat mostly Chinese food don't know that uni sells whatever cuisine you're serving.

The sinfully delicious brownie with ice cream on top
The sea urchin was very fresh, and the creaminess added another dimension to the otherwise straightforward carbonara with pancetta. The pappardelle bolognese (HK$140) was delicious too, combining lamb, beef and pork with pecorino cheese with wide pasta noodles.

A fun dish to share is the smash avocado bowl (HK$90), where the avocado is whipped up in a processor, and seasoned with lemon, coriander and bits of tomato and paprika, served with deep-fried tortillas. Corn chips would have been fine, as we had to break up the large tortillas ourselves, and you either got a big chunk or a tiny morsel.

I caught the tail end of the grilled merguez sausage (HK$120), a slightly spicy sausage, accompanied with an onsen egg, and new potatoes seasoned with harissa. This would have been my brunch choice if I ordered my own plate...

On the whole we all enjoyed the food, the portions were OK and nicely seasoned.

A ginormous house made cake with marscapone
To finish the meal we ordered three desserts, one of them being waffles (HK$95) that's part of the brunch menu. But more impressive were the brownie and house made cake.

The brownie came with a scoop of ice cream on top and then the server poured thick hot chocolate sauce on top. Oh boy. And it was sweet as expected, but had a rich chocolately taste.

A slice of house made cake is enormous! Luckily there were many of us to share it! It was a chocolate marbled cake that wasn't too sweet and came with a scoop of marscarpone.

After that I had a nap and then proceeded to hit the treadmill to burn off those calories! I'd eaten at Little Creatures when it first opened, and then again a few months ago so it's good to know the consistency and quality is still there.

Little Creatures
Shop 1, G/F, New Fortune House
5A New Praya
Kennedy Town
2833 5611

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Number of the Day: HK$640 Million

The 10th handover anniversary is nine times cheaper than this year's bash
Can you believe it's almost 20 years ago when the British formally handed Hong Kong to China?

A decade ago we spent HK$69 million, so how come another 10 years later it has ballooned to HK$640 million?

Perhaps just as infuriating is that the money is going to events and activities that hardly have anything to do with the handover anniversary with the theme "Together, Progress, Opportunity".

We'll see more steps beautified like this with taxpayer money
The Leisure and Cultural Services Department will have a whopping HK$194 million budget and it will splash out on a "City Dress Up" project, where stairs in different districts will be painted. Shouldn't that just go under maintenance?

The Development Bureau gets to spend HK$14.67 million and part of it will be splurged on a Backstreet Art and Run project. Sounds like a gentrified graffiti project.

Meanwhile the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department has HK$9 million and is spending the money on tree planting, hiking and camping facilities that it would normally budget for in its costs. So why does it need this extra money?

Similarly, how are International Fire Instructors Workshop; Fire, Ambulance Services Academy Open Day: Hong Kong Cup Diplomatic Knowledge Contest and Inter-school Cross-curricular Project Competition on Climate Change have anything to do with the 20th anniversary of the handover?

Lau Kong-wah says the events "spread care and joy". Huh?
Some critics are already questioning the use of the money, adding that government officials don't seem to have any imagination for better ideas.

However, Secretary for Home Affairs Lau Kong-wah said the events were meant to engage the public and "spread care and joy".

If Lau wants the government to spread "care and joy", how about revamping the education system to get rid of the rote system, making more financial resources available for the poor, developing more social housing, setting a decent minimum wage, stop kowtowing to tycoons, giving young entrepreneurs a break and so on.

Does an exhibition about Egyptian mummies and art pieces from the Louvre have anything to do with Hong Kong?

Works for Paris' Louvre Museum have no HK connection
There is already an uproar about spending HK$190,000 on making the song, "Hong Kong Our Home" that has been mocked by anti-establishment musicians.

It's an outright mess, but it's too late to voice our concerns.

It seems the Hong Kong government is keen to spend an outrageous amount of our hard-earned taxpayer dollars to please Beijing. But does it care really? And it does seem ripe for corruption opportunities.

Oh wait -- opportunity is one of the themes of the 20th anniversary of the handover this year.

It all makes sense now...

Friday, 14 April 2017

Symphonic Rhapsody

A quick panoramic shot of the stage before the concert

Just got back from a fantastic concert by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and violinist Ning Feng.

My friend YTSL is a big fan of his and bought our tickets two months ago. Turns out they were for the front row!

What's interesting is that these tickets were not the most expensive ones, probably because the sound seems to go over your head, though we sat right by the cellists and got a good dose of their warm sound, but we couldn't see beyond the string section.

Nevertheless it's a good place to be when you want to watch one of your favourite musicians as close as possible.

Ning Feng is always a crowd pleaser in Hong Kong
The concert started with a commissioned work by Fung Lam called Quintessence that was sponsored by The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation. Quintessence refers to the fifth and highest essence after the four elements of earth, air, fire and water.

The 10-minute piece was lively with bursts of energy here and there. In one section, the violinists repeated a phrase one after another, literally making the sound carry back like ripples in the water.

Next was the main event. YTSL has watched Ning six times, this was my third. We both observed he had lost some weight but none of his finesse. He performed Bela Bartok's Violin Concerto no. 2 with gusto.

He had the music in front of him, so perhaps it wasn't a showcase piece for him, but it didn't matter. We were swayed by his energy, and when he finished, he seemed to be wiped out.

But he was energized again by the appreciative audience who wouldn't stop clapping. Eventually he performed an encore -- JS Bach's Violin Sonata No. 3 in C Major - Largo. Here he played with no music, his eyes closed, his eyebrows constantly moving up and down expressively.

Meanwhile his playing was just exquisite, so quiet and yet every note was clear (or maybe because we were in the front row!).

Here's a sample of what he played, though here it's performed by Hilary Hahn:

We clapped loudly again, but sadly no second encore.

After the intermission, we settled in for the 45-minute Symphony no. 1 in C minor, op. 68 by Johannes Brahms.

HKPO's musical director Jaap van Zweden
It's interesting that the program notes say Brahms worked on this piece and then revised it again within a 10-year period. He apparently kept reworking his music and so it's not surprising this piece sounded like everything was well thought out with a rich, full sound.

By the end we were all swept up into the climax and couldn't help but clap loudly with a few shouts from the audience for the orchestra's music director Jaap van Zweden, who will be the next music director of the New York Philharmonic in 2018.

Fung Lam, Quintessence
Bela Bartok, Violin Concerto no. 2
Johannes Brahms, Symphony no. 1 in C minor, op. 68

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Closing Loopholes Too Late?

A potential buyer checks out the models for Harbour Glory in the showroom
The Leung Chun-ying administration thought it was clever when it announced Tuesday evening that first-time home buyers could not purchase multiple flats without paying the 15 percent stamp duty.

Starting midnight on Wednesday morning, it has changed to one flat per person, but now buyers are skirting the issue by having entire families show up and buying a flat in each of their names.

On Wednesday, a family bought three flats at Harbour Glory, Cheung Kong's latest project in North Point. The three units together totaled HK$170 million (US$21.8 million), and to avoid paying the 15 percent stamp duty, the purchases were put under three individual names.

"It's not illegal, but it's creative," said Sammy Po, chief executive of Midland Realty's residential department. "Whenever there's a new policy, buyers and sellers always come up with a new way to minimize the impact."

A show flat demonstrating one of the bedrooms
His firm brokered two groups of customers each buying two units of three-bedroom apartments at Harbour Glory.

One group was a father and son, they had never bought HK flats before, and each bought 1,062 sq-ft flats at Harbour Glory for a total of HK$60 million, after a 34 percent discount from the developer.

"As the two flats were bought in two separate contracts, and neither of them owned properties under their names, they are not subject to the 15 percent stamp duty," said Po. Each buyer had to pay 4.25 percent duty, or HK$1.27 million.

The Hong Kong government had hoped that this latest measure would curb the number of flats being sold, which some critics said was too little too late.

Secretary for Transport and Housing Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung said the introduction of the 15 percent stamp duty was an attempt to curb the rise of housing prices, but they soon realized some buyers took advantage of buying multiple flats under one purchase.

He claimed the government was aware of the issue all along, but needed time to gather more data and monitor the situation.

Harbour Glory is Cheung Kong's project in North Point
"We have adopted the most cautious approach to handling [the issue]. We did not leave the loopholes unattended," Cheung added.

The percentage of such cases increased to 4.7 percent between December last year and March this year, up from 3.4 percent in 2013 and 2014.

Just last month alone there were 184 cases of multiple flats bought under one transaction, involving a total of 435 flats.

"Before November, such trends were not something to be concerned about," Cheung said.

But pan-democrat lawmaker James To Kun-sun, who first warned of the need for cooling measures back in 2013, said the latest measures were "too late".

It's funny how the Hong Kong government doesn't question where people get gobs of cash to buy multiple flats, and thinks it needs to monitor the situation for a while? Meanwhile the prices of flats continue to rise, effectively making the government's measures seem half-hearted, at worse a joke.

This is an indication of how government officials have no idea how the average Hong Kong person lives, or don't have the ordinary resident's best interests at heart.

How is chief executive-elect Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor going to deal with the issue? Judging from her toilet paper buying fiasco, one thinks she also has her head up in the clouds...

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Manila Impressions

Hitching a ride on the back of an already full Jeepney in Manila
I recently got back from a five-day trip to Manila for work and it being my first trip to the Philippines it was an eye opener.

Before I went, I was told horror stories about the notorious traffic jams -- an acquaintance recalled being stuck in a car for two hours and it hardly moved. He gave up going to his destination and instead asked the driver to take him back to his hotel.

Another friend warned me to bring reading material and download a bunch of podcasts to listen to to while away the time stuck in traffic.

But on the whole we were lucky because the distance between our hotel and the conference venue was not too far -- it wasn't close enough to walk, but it took say 20 minutes by car when it probably took 10 minutes without traffic.

On our first day, a pair begging for money from cars idling
We were ferried everywhere by car, and the main reason is safety. A woman who escorted us has Chinese relatives living in Manila. She told us their house is surrounded by a two-storey tall fence and her uncle packs a gun with him every time they go out.

She says that many years ago things were worse -- her two young cousins were almost kidnapped while their chauffeur was driving them, but luckily knew he was being followed and managed to shake off the shady characters.

I asked if Rodrigo Duterte had anything to do with the country being safer, but our Filipina fixer said it was more because the economy was improving and people were earning more money.

Nevertheless, I saw many cars and Jeepneys -- pimped up long vehicles where people sat in the back -- a kind of cramped minibus -- had Duterte stickers on them.

They would like to believe that he represents them, and not the super rich.

When I was in high school in the 1980s, I had a few Filipina friends. At first they didn't explain why they were in Vancouver, but later I found out one of the families was anti-Marcos and was waiting for him to go. The others probably had the same political leanings.

In the business district, Manila is sleek and modern
I later found out on this trip that when Marcos came to power, he immediately started going after the powerful families that lived in the south who made their money through sugar cane plantations.

I heard that these families run the plantation like fiefdoms, paying their workers low wages so their children couldn't be well educated, but always making sure they give each family a turkey for Christmas.

This uneven development and the wealth gap is very similar to China's, though the Philippines have democracy, and China does not. In both cases, however, corruption still hasn't been eradicated.

Philippine culture is a mixed-up one, thanks to the colonization of the Spanish for over 300 years. As one Fliipina put it, the Spanish only pushed religion on the colony, and so the Philippines is the largest population of Roman Catholics in the world, thanks to birth control being illegal...

After the Spanish, the Americans came for about 50 years, and gave them American English, rule of law, Spam and democracy. It is only in the last few years that the Philippines is starting to figure out its own identity and move away from its colonial mentality and become proud of its heritage.

This is reflected in the food, that has a combination of Spanish, American, Japanese and Chinese influences. And now some progressive chefs are looking to indigenous ingredients to find new flavours.

A craft beer bar in Poblacion with friendly staff
It's interesting to see young Filipino chefs keen on coming back home after having learned abroad, and wanting to start a restaurant, cafe or a bar. Perhaps it's because rents are cheap and so is labour. But perhaps those are the best conditions to be able to experiment and take some risks.

In Hong Kong the start-up costs are so prohibitive that it's way too risky to even try.

The ironic thing is that rich Filipinos like to go to Hong Kong to see what the trends are, when we ourselves look elsewhere!

So I am well aware that my trip was the sanitized version of Manila, and that we haven't even seen how the other side lives. But we managed to try a few trendy places in Poblacion, a red light district that is becoming more gentrified, and the food was not only delicious but very cheap compared to Hong Kong.

Therefore if someone has a decent-paying job, they can afford to eat relatively well.

The people are nice on the whole, but not very bright at times. And things do go on Philippine time -- ie. at least 30 minutes later. It requires a lot of patience and gentle pushing to get things done -- berating them does nothing.

Another thing is that during this conference, I saw a lot of women making high-level decisions. They seem to be the ones getting things done. A Filipina explained to me that it's because the Philippines is a matriarchal society, and so things are done from a practical standpoint because the men are too lazy, and also women make decisions behind the scenes, which is totally acceptable.

It's fascinating to watch these movers and shakers, and I wonder if I'll be back again to discover more of this city and its people.