Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Picture of the Day: Sunset from the Harbour

Looking back at Hong Kong Island (left) and Kowloon close together
A work contact I met in Manila came to Hong Kong for a short trip and invited me on a boat trip around the harbour.

She was amused that I and two other Hong Kong-based guests had never done this before -- but it is expensive, and also something we wouldn't think of doing.

However, if you have the means, it's a fantastic way to appreciate the city.

The weather cooperated too -- originally it was forecast for sunny periods and isolated showers. But in the end it was sunny and hot, with hardly any clouds in the sky.

The boat was docked at Central Harbourfront Pier 9 and then we set off eastwards practically to Shaukeiwan, hung around the Kai Tak cruise terminal, then towards Tsim Sha Tsui before finishing in the evening in Causeway Bay.

Here's my sunset shot looking back on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.

We appreciated the opportunity to see the city from the perspective of the water, while our hostess kept exclaiming how pretty Hong Kong's skyline was.

We never tire of looking at it, but we sometimes don't stop to look because we're so busy. But today was a memorable day to do nothing else but take it all in.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Spare Change could Make you Rich

Check your spare change to see if you have any old coins of value
Do you still have Hong Kong coins that bear Queen Elizabeth II's head on them? If you do, they could be worth more than face value.

Coins with the queen's head were phased out in 1993
An interesting fact to know is that coins with the queen's head were phased out before 1997 -- four years earlier to be exact.

Another intriguing piece of trivia is that by 2015, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority had collected 880 million pieces of queen's head coins worth HK$1 billion.

But there are still some in circulation, which the HKMA estimates is about 10 percent.
Coins with Queen Victoria could be worth a lot at auction

If you do have some old coins, pay attention!

A 5-cent coin bearing the queen's head recently sold at auction for HK$5,000 -- about 100,000 times its value.

Cheng Po-hung, a coin and stamp collector with his own shop, says some coins bearing the queen's head could be worth five to 10 times their face value, depending on how rare they are.

Those bearing the head of the Queen's father, King George VI, or earlier ones including that of King George V, Edward VII or Queen Victoria could also crop up and could fetch some handsome prices, he says.

Same also goes for coins with King George V and VI
I definitely don't have those much older coins from over a century ago, but maybe I'll have to wait a few more decades before selling my stash of queen's head coins... nevertheless it would be fun to look out for the older ones!

Monday, 29 May 2017

China Names and Shames Outrageous Capital Outflows

People and companies have creative ways to get money out of China
The State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE) in China has uncovered some creative ways people and companies are moving money out of the country.

It released a list of 10 top covert cases, naming and shaming five companies, accusing them of forging contracts or invoices to remit a combined US$226 million offshore since 2015.

One of the alleged offenders was Ningbo Big Fortune International Trade, which SAFE claimed colluded with several overseas companies, forged trade contracts, inflated prices to 5-20 times the market price, and moved US$119 million overseas between August and September 2015.

The Chinese government is still trying to stem capital outflow
As a result the company was fined 22.8 million yuan for "seriously disturbing foreign exchange market order".

Sounds intense if the withdrawals disturbed "foreign exchange market order"...

There were five individuals who were also fined for moving up to US$4.35 million through underground banks to their foreign accounts.

In one case, a Guangdong resident enlisted 84 people to use each of their US$50,000 annual foreign exchange purchase quota to remit US$4.35 million to his own accounts in Australia and Hong Kong from December 2015 to January this year. He was fined 1 million yuan, according to SAFE.

But how else is someone supposed to move money overseas if they want to buy property or a company when they have the money? It's not like he stole it, though getting 84 people to help out is excessive.

Beijing continues to be concerned about capital outflows and regulators are discouraging companies from too much outbound investment and tightening checks on people exchanging foreign currency.

The extensive impact has led to the devaluation of the yuan
From July 1, the government will also tighten rules for banks to report cross-border customer transactions to curb money laundering and funding terrorism. That's a good cover to try to stem money from flowing out -- but will it?

Li Youhuan from the Guangdong Academy of Social Sciences, said capital outflow was undeterred by stricter scrutiny "given the robust business I've seen by underground banks".

"Measures to hold back company transactions definitely cannot work," he said. "Such demand cannot be eliminated as long as China opens its door to trade and exchange with other countries."

Finance professor Zhao Xijun at Remin University seems to think SAFE is sending a message of punishment, that financial institutions will be held responsible if they collude.

However, Andrew Collier of Oriental Capital Research says it's impossible to stop capital outflow altogether because companies need to conduct external transactions.

"I expect China will need to depreciate the currency in 2018 to reduce the pressure on capital flows," he said.

Will that be when US President Donald Trump will brand China as a "currency manipulator"? China seems to have too many domestic financial problems of its own to worry about what The Donald says...

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Hong Kong's Backward Ways

Some of the Uber cars that were impounded during a undercover operation
Earlier this week the Hong Kong police swooped down and arrested 22 Uber drivers for allegedly not having a hire car permit or third party insurance. Apparently it was the biggest raid of its kind, a three-week undercover operation.

It seems the government is intent on shutting the app-driven car service that offers clean vehicles, polite drivers and rides at a decent cost.

What happened to Hong Kong's hallmark of fair competition?

The taxi associations are threatened by Uber and claim they will improve drivers' service, help them learn more English and so on.

Hong Kong taxi associations wield a lot of political power
But that doesn't help replace the old vehicles they have with seats that sink a foot down as soon as you sit down, the smell of cigarette smoke and drivers looking like they just rolled out of bed five minutes before they picked you up.

It also doesn't fix the problem of them refusing cab fare because they will only roll down their window and ask where you're going -- this is illegal, but having to take down their license plate and driver name is too much of a hassle to bother to register with the police so you just give up and try to find another taxi.

There's also the issue of them not being available around 4pm, when they universally disappear because it's time to change drivers. Can't this exchange be staggered? It's outrageous and outdated.

And why not pay by credit card or Octopus at least? Again not with the times and doesn't work for the rest of us who are trying to keep up with Hong Kong's fast pace.

But the public likes the services Uber provides
Yet Hong Kong's taxi drivers refuse to move with the times. And the government is enabling them to stay the way they are.

That's because they have 42 taxi associations, 28 of which are in Hong Kong and Kowloon, the rest in the New Territories. They also have a big say when it comes to choosing the chief executive. So you can imagine the candidates wanted to make sure he or she got their vote...

Meanwhile the government likes to brand the city as supporting start-ups and especially ones that involve technology. Doesn't Uber fit the bill?

And yet authorities seem intent on suppressing the transport service that the public is demanding and for the most part enjoying. How ironic is that? People can place an order via their smartphone, pay remotely and even rate their driver.

How would Hong Kong taxi drivers fare if the same was done to them?

There's enough demand for hired car services since taxi driver seem to reject many potential customers. And this encourages people to work part time for extra money, thus stimulating the local economy.

So what's the problem?

We can only guess...

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Culture Clash

Zhang says Hong Kong's civil servants must be loyal to Beijing...
The mainlandization of Hong Kong continues with Zhang Dejiang, one of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee now saying that the city's civil servants must be Chinese loyalists in order to do their jobs.

During a speech at the Great Hall of the People Saturday, Zhang said Beijing would invoke a number of "implicit powers" -- which have so far not been paid close attention to during the first 20 years of the city's handover.

"It should be stressed that [Hong Kong's] governing teams... must be made up of patriots who respect the Chinese people, sincerely support [China's] resumption of sovereignty and pose no threat to [Hong Kong's] prosperity and stability,' he said, referring to late leader Deng Xiaoping.

Hong Kong's values are under threat again by Beijing
"The central government is responsible for supervising whether [Hong Kong's] public officers uphold the Basic Law, and whether they pledge allegiance to the country and [Hong Kong]."

This is a blatant desire to encroach upon the city's values and way of life we hold dearly. Our civil servants may be bureaucratically difficult to deal with, but they have always been politically neutral. But now China plans to ensure Hong Kong is made and run in the same way as every other mainland city -- through political loyalty and guanxi.

Leung Chau-ting, head of the Federation of Civil Service Unions, said he was concerned about Zhang's suggestion that understanding of the Basic Law could carry weight when civil servants' jobs are assessed.

"The focus should always be professionalism and the willingness to serve the public," he said. "It is not our daily work to explain the Basic Law to fellow Hongkongers."

Zhang also called for a closer look at other powers that the central government could use to scrutinize the city's affairs, including that of instructing the chief executive and assessing legislation reported by the Legislative Council.

Does this mean Legco will mean nothing anymore? That lawmakers we elected into the Legislative Council will be moot?

How will this affect Hong Kong's rule of law?
Up until now, the power to assess legislation was considered a ceremonial power, as the National People's Congress has never objected to any reported laws.

Zhang also urged academics to spend more time studying the Basic Law and instill the "correct" national views in Hong Kong teens. Sounds like a veiled demand to institute national education of some sort.

Veteran democrat Martin Lee Chu-ming, who helped draft the Basic Law in the late 1980s, said Zhang's remarks regarding the "supervisory" role over Hong Kong officials, were not in the Basic Law, and they could even deter talent from taking on important roles.

"It's a completely different picture to what was depicted by Deng Xiaoping... also the Sino-British Joint Declaration and Basic Law," he said.

"Good lawyers would not dare be judges then... You have to become a puppet [of Beijing] and probably face against the public of Hong Kong," he said.

Is Zhang hinting the days of non-Chinese judges and lawyers are over now? Is this the beginning of the end of rule of law in Hong Kong?

His declarations show impatience on Beijing's part in seeing how reticent Hong Kong is about falling into line with China. It feels that 20 years have passed and attitudes should have changed by now.

But they haven't and now Zhang believes he now needs to crack the whip to make integration even faster.

However most Hong Kong people will not do this without dragging their feet...

Hopefully this will spur more people to come out for the June 4 candlelight vigil and the July 1 march...

Friday, 26 May 2017

Yang's Life Lesson

Yang Shuping talks about learning new things, like fresh air, freedom of speech

Mainland Chinese student Yang Shuping gave a graduation speech on Sunday at the University of Maryland praising the United States, which instead of receiving praise from her fellow countrymen, was scathingly scorned at.

During her speech, she recalled how she felt when she arrived in the US.

"When I took my first breath of American air, I put my mask away," she said. "The air was so sweet and fresh, and oddly luxurious. Democracy and freedom are the fresh air that is worth fighting for."

She is a psychology and theatre graduate from Yunnan province and came to study at the university five years ago.

Yang quickly learned to appreciate the air quality in the US
From her experience of living in the US she appreciated being able to speak freely.

"I have learned [that] the right to freely express oneself is sacred in America... I could even rate my professors online," she said. "My voice matters. Your voice matters. Our voices matter."

Yang also talked about watching her fellow students vote in elections, take part in political protests, and even watch a play about the 1992 LA riots that talked about the issues of racism, sexism and politics.

"I was shocked, I never thought such topics could be discussed openly... I have always had the burning desire to tell these kinds of stories, but I was convinced that only authorities owned the narrative, only authorities could define the truth," she said.

"Freedom is oxygen. Freedom is passion. Freedom is love. As the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once said: 'Freedom is a choice'."

One might think it was wonderful that a Chinese student not only received a good education, but also learned some values and culture that helped her to further understand the differences between the US and China.

The University of Maryland sticks by what Yang said
However, people back home were not impressed, criticizing her speech, saying she was kowtowing to the US, or that she already came from Yunnan, a relatively clean province in terms of air quality. The backlash resulted in tarring Yang as a traitor, that she did not love her country.

A group of Chinese students at the university were offended by Yang's speech and set up a social media campaign showing their support for their country.

The students behind the #ProudofChina effort said they hoped to correct "wrong stereotypes" of the country and show their "courage to speak up".

But patriots, particularly The Global Times claimed the university should never have given Yang the opportunity to speak at such event, and for sticking by her.

Even the foreign ministry weighed in.

I believe China will encourage and welcome the students as long as they love their motherland from the heart and are willing to make a contribution," ministry spokesman Lu Kang said, without directly criticizing what Yang said in her speech.

"Any comparable Chinese citizen should make responsible comments on any issue, not only about China but everything."

Yang is in her early 20s and has learned so much in the past five years that she couldn't wait to tell others what she had observed. But she mistakenly thought everyone else was on the same page as her.

Meanwhile her critics were so overly sensitive about her observations, but for the most part they are true. It just reveals yet again how the Chinese are so insecure about their country and its faults, but don't have the courage to face them because their government insists that everything is fine.

Eventually Yang had to back down, apologizing on Monday.

"The speech is just to share my overseas experience and comes with no intention to negate or belittle my country," she said on Weibo.

China needs more people like Yang to help develop the country from within; ostracizing her is not the way. And from now on, no Chinese student will dare speak out again, for fear of the wrath of the online patriotic police. It's all too easy to destroy someone when there is strength in numbers.

But Yang is the strong one who has the courage to speak for herself and her own thoughts.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Will Taiwan's Same-Sex Ruling Liberalize China?

Taiwan is the first place in Asia to recognize same-sex marriage
The news yesterday that Taiwan is the first place in Asia to legalize same-sex marriages was an euphoric moment for the LGBT community on the island.

Taiwan's top court, the Council of Grand Justices, ruled the current law barring same-sex marriage was a violation of the constitution, as everybody -- regardless of gender -- should enjoy the same marriage rights.

Now the government has two years to revise the civil code. "Even if the authorities fail to revise the law at the end of the two-year period, gay couples can always register with local household offices to make their marriages legal and... enjoy the same rights as heterosexual couples," said Lu Tai-lang, secretary general of the Council of Grand Justices.

Chi Chia-wei (in rainbow top) launched the suit in 2015
A statement issued by the Marriage Equality Grand Platform after the court's decision said, "the ruling will make Taiwan Asia's model of [same-sex] unions".

The suit was launched by veteran gay rights activist Chi Chia-wei, 59, two years ago. He asked if the current law violated the constitution after his attempt to register a marriage to another man was rejected by a Taipei household registration office in 2013, and subsequent appeals failed.

While there are the usual groups that oppose the ruling, we can't help but wonder what China thinks of it, considering how repressive it is when it comes to human rights. That said, eminent legal scholar Jerome Cohen seems to think the news won't be complete censored on the mainland.

"The Mainland's strict censorship and manipulation of the media will not entirely prevent people from knowing about the decision and its meaning," he writes in his blog.

"Although many in the Mainland may not welcome the decision, China traditionally has been more open to same sex relations than more Christian-dominated countries, and the more educated classes will appreciate not only the wisdom and fairness of the decision on the merits, but also the significance of the role of the judiciary in a genuine government under law country."

How will Taiwan's ruling affect China's views on gay unions?
And then today, there was news that the operations of the gay dating app Grindr will be taken over by a mainland Chinese company after it pays a total of US$240 million, and it will build expansion in and beyond China.

Game developer Beijing Kunlun Tech is owned by 38-year-old billionaire Zhou Yahui, and the company plans to pay another US$152 million to by the remaining 38 percent of Grindr it doesn't yet own.

By the way it paid US$88 million for the company last January for a 62 percent stake, which shows the social media app's valuation has gained 161 percent.

"[With the deal,] we also aim to be a world leading social media company in the future, and to expand our plaforms into film, streaming and animation," Kulun said in a statement.

It'll be interesting to see where Kunlun takes Grindr, while its main competition will be Blued, a Chinese gay-dating app that has over 27 million registered users -- almost on par with Grindr.

Blued was founded in 2012 by former policeman Ma Baoli, and last year its latest round of fundraising boosted its net worth to US$300 million, more than Grindr's HK$240 million.

So will more of these gay-dating apps push China to be even more gay friendly and possibly lead to allowing same-sex marriages? Stay tuned.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Pictures of the Day: Black Rain

Water rushing down two gulleys and flows to the ground
Today the weather did not look good. There were thunderstorms, lightning, and then amber rainstorm warning, followed by red and the black!

I called my contact if we were still having lunch at 12.30pm. He said, "It's inside!" But I was thinking that we still had to get there.

Dressing for the rain calls for wearing clothes that will look fine even in a downpour. That means cotton is out of the question, but polyester is definitely in. And wearing old shoes you don't mind getting wet.

Water spewing out of these holes in the wall!
But every time it gets this wet I think I should invest in rubber boots, but then the practical side of me thinks what's the point of wearing these boots three times a year?

In any event I ventured out into the rain and went to the MTR station. Right at the entrance there were two holes with water pouring out of them!

And at the other part of the entrance there was a slope with a concrete passage for water to flow down and it was coming down at a really fast pace. Turns out later in the day it was so bad that the water started flowing down onto the floor of the entrance to the MTR, creating a flood!

In the end I made it to the appointment but very wet, and after the lunch rushed to my next appointment. Luckily I managed to catch a bus that took me quickly to my destination, and after that appointment, the rain stopped for the rest of the day.

Now the sky is so clear I can see the Kowloon side very clearly. Or is it because my windows got a good wash?!

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Increased Parking Fines get Honks of Protest

There needs to be increased enforcement of parking penalties and higher fines
Talk about backtracking.

Hong Kong has a lot of traffic jams during rush hour, and it's mostly due to private cars and vans waiting for their masters and mistresses to whisk them off to their next appointment. These vehicles are usually idling and clogging up roads where traffic should be moving.

And so the government submitted a proposal to raise fixed penalties for illegal parking and related offenses from HK$320 and HK$450 to HK$480 and HK$680 respectively.

But in a bizarre turn of events, lawmakers of all political stripes as well as those from the transport sector were so opposed to this that the government has backed down and lowered the fines to HK$400 and HK$560 instead.

Opposition claims there aren't enough parking spots
Under the revised proposal, making U-turn causing an obstruction and an unauthorized stopping at a bus stop, public light bus stand or taxi stand will be slapped with a fixed penalty of HK$400, while offenses like loading or unloading goods or picking up passengers in a restricted zone will face a fixed penalty of HK$560.

The proposal will be voted on at the end of June and are expected to take effect June 1 next year.

The revision came after feedback from the transport subcommittee and individuals claimed that an increase of 50 percent for illegal parking was "hefty" and that a phased approach should be considered.

In addition, lawmakers from across the political spectrum said there was an acute shortage of parking spaces for commercial vehicles, arguing the city should tackle this problem before penalizing those in the transport sector.

But isn't that the point of raising penalties to prevent illegal parking and other infractions? It's not about making the fines affordable. And besides, in the case of private car owners, if they can buy a car, they can surely afford a several hundred dollar fine.

Vehicles, like this one, clog up streets waiting for owners
As the government also notes, even when there are vacant parking spaces, motorists still choose to park their vehicles illegally "for their own convenience, or to save parking fees".

The number of penalty tickets issued last year was 1.6 million, almost double 820,000 in 2011. The number of licensed vehicles in Hong Kong is 710,000 as of February.

Meanwhile Liberal Party lawmaker Frankie Yick Chi-ming, who represents the transport sector, says he opposes the proposed rises in illegal parking fines, saying the government should be stepping up enforcement at black spots by towing away illegally parked cars.

"The government is barking up the wrong tree. Increasing fines can't deter illegal parking when the shortage of parking spaces is not resolved. Only strict enforcement such as towing away illegally parked cars can be a deterrent."

We agree with the government -- it's about selfishness and thinking they can get away with parking illegally in the hopes they won't get caught.

There definitely needs to be more enforcement and higher fines, but halving the proposed rise in fines is such a cop-out. Why bend to such pressure?

Don't we want more efficient traffic in the city?

Monday, 22 May 2017

A Teacher's Life Lesson for All

Ada Tsang is the first Hong Kong woman to conquer Mount Everest
A Hong Kong school teacher is literally showing her students that they can achieve their dreams, no matter how big they are.

Ada Tsang Yin-hung, 40, has become the first Hong Kong woman to reach the summit at Mount Everest after three attempts.

She along with fellow Hongkonger Elton Ng, a physiotherapist and Zhang Jianguo, an amateur mountaineer from Jiangsu province made it up to the world's highest peak yesterday with the help of two sherpa guides.

The former teacher shows students they too can reach goals
Earlier on her blog Tsang wrote: "For students, every dream seems so far away and words of encouragement are not enough to conquer the frustration of failed attempts. Many would easily give up their dreams... a dream is not defined by the way you think of it, but by the actual efforts you put in.

"I could share my experiences with them only by recollecting events from my past... But what are my own future goals in life? How will I best teach these students how to pursue their goals?"

The secondary teacher quit her job to give her pupils a "life lesson" by scaling the top of the 8,848-metre tall mountain.

On her first attempt in 2014, Tsang was forced to abandon her trek after an avalanche killed 16 Nepali sherpa guides, which resulted in the suspension of all expeditions that season.

Then the following year, she was caught up in a deadly avalanche triggered by a 7.9-magnitude earthquake that killed 17 climbers and left Tsang with a fractured skull and multiple injuries.

The head injury Tsang sustained in 2015 after an earthquake
"She had lost two litres of blood from her injuries in that last attempt," says Catharine Leung, a former pupil. "A lot of people asked her if she wanted to give up, but the thought never once crossed her mind. She said: 'As long as my body can handle it, I will try to do it'."

Many of her former students were ecstatic over the news of Tsang reaching the summit, as her seven years of hard work had finally paid off.

"There were pupils who had dreams of becoming lawyers but they were failing in English," Leung says. "She was telling her students to chase after their dreams, but she didn't want to just talk the talk -- she wanted to walk the talk."

If that's not inspiring enough to prove to Hong Kong students that really, nothing is impossible, I don't know what is.

There is no excuse now for anyone not to at least try to reach their goals. Tsang is a huge inspiration to all of us -- dream big and with determination and hard work, you can do it.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Can Lam Tackle HK's Land Shortage?

David Akers-Jones says Carrie Lam must tackle land shortages firmly
Former chief secretary David Akers-Jones has some advice for incoming chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor -- get tough on tackling Hong Kong's problems, in particular land shortages, describing it as a "shame and disgrace".

Now 90, Akers-Jones was a supporter of Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee during the CE race, but says Lam is "a determined person who has a gentle side to her nature".

While he would not comment on if the civil service produced better leaders than businessmen turned politicians, like Leung Chun-ying who (who he supported), Akers-Jones admits Hong Kong's colonial past was partly to blame for a lack of "clear assumption of responsibility".

He said the colonial civil service took a "positive non-intervention" approach, and left the task of finding solutions to social problems with the private sector.

There are a number of brownfield sites in the New Territories
No wonder the government today has such a laissez-faire approach to what are now very serious social issues, particularly low-income housing, education, and skyrocketing rents.

However, he noted Leung had a more interventionist approach when it came to increased welfare spending.

"I feel Carrie Lam would have to deal with... social problems with a strong hand," he suggested.

Akers-Jones said land supply needed urgent solutions, as it was a "shame" that much of Hong Kong's 1,192 hectares of brownfield sites are now owned by major developers.

"Management of land is a disgrace of the government. When I went to Yuen Long in 1962, it was surrounded by paddy fields... now look at it," he said, referring to where there are a lot of brownfield sites.

"We must reach an amicable agreement between ourselves and the owners of the brownfields, [as] we reached an amicable agreement in the 1960s in the building of new town."

Is Lam CY 2.0 or not? We shall find out in the coming months
That was then, this is now. The issues are more complex, and also residents are more outspoken and concerned about their living environment and of course property values. The stakes are much higher, but the housing problem definitely needs to be tackled.

Other issues Akers-Jones is concerned about including poverty and the ageing population, which he describes as "extremely difficult problems" to be solved.

But he is optimistic Lam will find creative solutions if she and her administration look at problems honestly and listen to the people.

However, from seeing how she performed as chief secretary under Leung, Lam will have to radically change the way she does things to convince us she is really honest about wanting to make Hong Kong better.

Many of us have yet to be convinced she won't be another CY 2.0...

Saturday, 20 May 2017

A Very Chunky Monkey

Uncle Fat needs to lose weight, as he weighs three times the average monkey
Meet Uncle Fat.

He's a chunky monkey who was found on the side of the road in Thailand and is morbidly obese.

A video shows him walking on the road and practically dragging his stomach, and when he sits up, well, it's not a pretty sight.

His stomach is so large that it practically drags on the ground
Nicknamed "Uncle Fat" by locals, the monkey had been feasting on junk food and soft drinks that tourists gave him and others on the roadside. Most of the monkeys are macques who usually weigh 9kg, but Uncle Fat is triple that number, tipping the scales at around 26kg.

He was caught by wildlife officials when pictures of him circulated on social media.

"It was not easy to catch him," says Kacha Phukem, the wildlife official who orchestrated Fat Uncle's capture late last month. "He was the leader of the pack and when I tried to go in, I had to fight off a flock of them with sticks."

As the leader who was not only protected, Uncle Fat was also well fed.

"He had minions and other monkeys bringing food for him, but he would also redistribute it to younger monkeys," says Supakarn Kaewchot, a veterinarian in charge of the monkey's diet. "He's now in a critical condition where there is a high-risk of heart disease and diabetes."

Vet Supakarn prepares his meals of fruits and vegetables
Currently he's on a very strict diet that limits him to 400g of lean protein, fruits and vegetables twice a day. Supakam hopes that in a few months he'll be trim enough to be released back into the wild.

"I understand that people feel sorry for the monkeys and want to feed them when they see them," says Supakam. "But please don't feed them food that people like to eat like snacks and soda. It is very bad for their health and the problem is entirely man-made."

Poor Uncle Fat. But we hope he'll get better soon.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Keeping Traditional Transport Alive

An iconic picture of the Star Ferry with Hong Kong Island in the distance
The tram and Star Ferry are iconic public transport in Hong Kong, and while tourists love to ride them and take photographs, and locals like the inexpensive fares, there are fewer and fewer young people willing to work in these two areas.

In the case of the Star Ferry, chief coxwain Chan Tsu-wing is 61 years old and has returned from retirement twice to help out the company.

Because he is the longest-serving employee, he has to manage subordinates, but he'd much rather be out in the water steering the ferry back and forth between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.

Chief coxwain Chan Tsu-wing at the helm of the Star Ferry
"If we want to protect this cultural symbol of Hong Kong, we have to have successors," he says. "Fewer young people want to work in this field and we have no one to take our place. The most difficult thing for us is the lack of fresh talent. Nowadays, we would need to urge people to take license examinations. People today are not as hardworking as in the past."

While driving trams isn't as monotonous, as drivers need to keep a constant look out for pedestrians darting out into the street, while having to deal with all kinds of vehicles on the roads, not many young people are interested in this job either, preferring to work in an air conditioned office and make more money.

These jobs may seem monotonous, but imagine if Hong Kong didn't have the Star Ferry or trams anymore? That's why they need to be supported.

And this is where the Hong Kong government needs to step in. It should be subsidizing these two means of transport because they are a crucial part of the city's landscape.

Most people think it's easy to drive a tram -- think again
That way fares don't necessarily have to increase all the time, and people might have more incentive to appreciate them more. If people have decent salaries doing these jobs, then maybe they won't mind doing them so much?

Currently it's hard to find people willing to sit by the docks all day in all weather conditions to help dock and undock ferries, while tram drivers also have to deal with all kinds of weather conditions and mostly have to bundle up for winter, or sweat it out in the summer as most trams don't have air conditioning.

Ridership for both have dropped off considerably -- the Star Ferry when its Central location was moved several hundred metres away, and trams were hurt when three more stops on the MTR were added westward towards Kennedy Town.

Hong Kong and its people don't have enough appreciation for these old school means of transport. Will the government just let the companies kill off the trams and Star Ferries because one day they won't be feasible anymore?

"It is a pity that Hong Kong is not the sort of place that credits people for their knowledge and passion if it can't make money, says tram enthusiast Joseph Tse Yiu-hon, 36.

"Passengers are often happy with the low fare if HK$2.30 a ride and appreciate the fact that the century-old transport is still running on the streets, but it is easy to forget the faces of those who are actually continuing the legacy," he says.

The government should really look at subsidies to ensure the existence of these two means of public transport keep going well into the future.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Contentious Plan for Country Park Housing

Can you imagine housing blocks near here in Tai Lam Country Park?
The Hong Kong government has announced that the not-for-profit Housing Society will conduct an 18-month study in the feasibility of building public flats and homes for the elderly on two 20-hectare sites on the edges of Tai Lam and Ma On Shan country parks.

It's a controversial move, following the proposal made by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying in his policy address in January, and now the first steps are being taken two months before he leaves office.

"We are not saying we are going to build flats in country parks now," says Housing Society CEO Wong Kit-loong. "But the study will facilitate public discussion. We hope to also understand why people disagree [with the proposal]."

This is an interesting development -- the government is getting someone else to do the study, so that it doesn't get the blame in case the study concludes building housing on protected country park land is a good idea.

Or how about here at Ma On Shan Country Park?
Some lawmakers and conservationists are opposed to it, saying there is no public consensus on the matter and it may set a bad precedent.

Roy Tam Hoi-pong of activist group Green Sense says "pitting environmental conservation against the public's need for housing" was "deplorable and unfair".

According to the Planning Department, country parks make up 41 percent of Hong Kong's land area, while residential land use was only 7 percent.

Wong seems to hint the housing proposal would be a good idea, saying the total size of designated country park land had increased by 6 percent over the past few years to 43,000 hectares.

How could country park land grow, unless someone donated land back, or some rezoning has taken place?

"Hong Kong is still short of 200 hectares for building public flats, according to [the planning strategy beyond 2030]... The queue for building public flats is getting longer. The problem is immediate," he says.

One of many brownfield sites (front) that can be redeveloped
Thousands of families currently have to wait an average of four years and seven months for a public rental flat, according to the Housing Authority.

Seniors must wait about two years and seven months for housing, as there are 275,900 applications.

But why build housing for the elderly out in the boonies?

Then public infrastructure projects also need to be built to connect them to civilization. Oh wait -- is this a make-work project?

Why not, as we have pointed out time and time again, there are so many brown sites around Hong Kong that could be redeveloped -- and many are near transport links already. Why not work on these areas first?

Or is it because the government wants to distract us from New Territories so-called "indigenous villagers" who have occupied government land and refuse to give it back so the government would rather encroach on virgin land than try to reclaim what is essentially taxpayer land?

In these times we need to be more sustainable and practical. Developing the edge of what is supposed to be protected land with the blessing of the government is so bizarre and hypocritical.

Whatever happened to Hong Kong finding creative solutions? This is not one of them.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Lin Dan Threatens to Sue for Wages

Lin Dan publicly revealed he and six players have not been paid for months
It was shocking to read today that badminton superstar Lin Dan had to resort to social media to complain that he and his fellow players on his team have not been paid 4 million yuan in over five months.

He and six other players competed in the lucrative China Badminton Super League, the prime national team competition for badminton players on the mainland. It was held from December 6, 2016 to January 14th this year and is run by the China Badminton Association.

On Weibo, Lin complained to his three million followers that his team Guangzhou Yueyu had yet to pay them.

"It is chilling that so far all the athletes have not received salaries. We athletes in order not to affect the collective honour, still insisted on completing matches despite not being paid.

"We have communicated many times with the club to pay the salaries and so far their attitude is really frustrating and disappointing. For the club to win honour while we get nothing, please do not let our sweat flow white!

Lin was in hot water when he wasn't seen with his wife (left)
"We solemnly declare that the Guangzhou Yueyu Badminton Club's Mr Gao Jun and Mr Fu Xun respect the athletes and pay the full salaries... or we will take legal means to defend our rights and interests!"

Apparently Guangzhou's chairman Gao said even he himself was owed wages, and that he would rush to the city of Heyuan in Guangdong province, where the club's main sponsors are based, to have the wage matter settled as soon as possible.

While Lin is a very popular athlete, his image took a big hit when he was photographed with another woman while his wife Xie Xingfan was pregnant. The couple reconciled and his wife also took to social media, asking that the athletes be paid.

It turns out the club is registered in the national league under the name Heyuan Agricultural and Commercial Bank Guangzhou Team, and Gao said the bank was one of the club's major sponsors but had yet to pay up.

"This incident has nothing to do with Yueyu," says Gao. "We have been made scapegoats."

So will Lin and his fellow players be paid eventually? Does the bank have enough funds? Sounds strange for it to not pay the athletes... or is their money stuck in some soured loan no one is supposed to know about?

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Number of the Day: US$3 Billion

The Murray Road car park (right) sold today for US$3 billion
Land is getting even more expensive in Hong Kong, with today's sale of the Murray Road car park for a staggering US$3 billion (HK$23.28 billion). That works out to HK$50,064 per square foot.


The government building was sold to Henderson Land
The record up to now was a grade-A office space at 9 Queens Road Central sold in April for HK$145.82 million, or HK$39,800 per square foot.

The buyer of Murray Road, Henderson Land Development, run by Lee Shau-kee and his family, beat out eight rival bids, in particular mainland developers who are now strangled from getting money out of China these days.

Henderson Land plans to develop the multi-storey car park into -- what else -- a commercial building the company describes as "a landmark building" that will be completed in 2022.

Analysts are already speculating multinational and mainland firms will occupy that office space.

There's a convenient walkway from Central to Admiralty
So while car owners already have one less place to park their cars in Central (it closed a few weeks ago), pedestrians will lose a convenient thoroughfare, as it provided an easy short cut to Admiralty and the edge of Central.

By the way -- now that the government will have another US$3 billion in its coffers, how about using those proceeds towards building social housing? Seems like the most decent thing the authorities could do...

Monday, 15 May 2017

Asylum Denied to Refugees who Sheltered Snowden

Lawyer Robert Tibbo with the refugees who sheltered Snowden in 2013
Is it a coincidence?

Four people who came to Hong Kong at different times and filed refugee claims were recently rejected at the same time. They have 14 days to appeal, but could face imminent detention and deportation.

One is from the Philippines, and the others are from Sri Lanka. The one common thread is that they helped house NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden for two weeks in their homes when he was in Hong Kong in 2013.

Edward Snowden hid in Hong Kong for two weeks
"The Immigration Department rejected their cases on the foundation that the department did not believe the asylum seekers assisted Mr Snowden... The decisions are completely unreasonable," said Robert Tibbo, their Canadian lawyer, accusing the government of not complying with international obligations.

It seems the Immigration Department reactivated these four cases after the story of the four harbouring Snowden was revealed last September in a story in the National Post and in Oliver Stone's film Snowden, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who has also appealed for help for the refugees.

The movie and the media have shone a spotlight on the plight of refugees in Hong Kong which is hardly a walk in the park. Many refugees are in limbo in the city for many years, unable to work, waiting for their cases to be processed. Some get desperate and start dealing in drugs which increases their chances of getting caught and if they do, they can find themselves in even worse situations.

Joseph Gordeon-Levitt in the movie Snowden
In the case of these four, Tibbo believes his clients were singled out for helping the former NSA and CIA contractor.

"I felt they already had the decision to reject the clients written up a long time ago... Their screening was expedited not to protect them, but to dispense their cases," he said.

However, a spokesman for the Security Bureau said the "accusation that the Immigration Department targets any particular claimants or categories of claimants is unfounded and not true."

He said the Immigration Department will continue expediting the screening of claims "with a view to clearing the backlog of claims pending screening as soon as possible."

As of March, there were 8,956 claims pending decision.

When the four heard their fate, they have been terrified ever since, worried that they may be deported at anytime.

They have already lodged applications to Canada and are waiting to hear back -- and we hope for their sake they will hear some good news very soon.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Picture of the Day: Cake for Smiles

The Valrhona chocolate and banana cake is the sweetest fundraiser
Every year around this time, The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong has a fundraiser that brings smiles not only to the beneficiaries but to donors too.

Smile Asia is a group of charities that help treat children with facial deformities like cleft palates and lips and The Ritz-Carlton hotels Asia Pacific have been helping to raise money through the sale of scrumptious cakes (HK$385 each) for one week.

I put in my order as soon as I heard about the fundraiser and picked up the cake yesterday as my relatives and I had an early Mother's Day gathering.

When we finished dinner and I opened up the box, the strong smell of chocolate pricked up our taste buds with anticipation.

The cake is Valrhona chocolate with banana, as the hotel pastry chef explains that children like both these ingredients. It's an unusual combination, but for a cake that's fundraising for kids, why not?

When we cut into the cake, it was pretty dense, but in a good way -- rich chocolate with hints of banana -- though more banana would have been appreciated.

Nevertheless we're glad we did our part to help children better lives.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Hong Kong's Lackadaisical Approach to Water

In the 1960s, people had to make their water supply last four days at a time
The Hong Kong government doesn't seem to care about its residents wasting water because it gets 80 percent of it cheaply from across the border via the Dongjiang River.

However, environmental groups and think tanks have been repeating their chorus that people should be paying the true cost of water so that they will think twice when they turn on the tap.

Civic Exchange released its latest report called The Illusion of Plenty, saying that water tariffs need to be raised to cope with a HK$1.35 billion revenue loss, as one-third of the city's water is being wasted.

One-third! And HK$1.35 BILLION.

Today 80 percent of our freshwater comes from China
Dr Frederick Lee Yok-shiu, associate professor in the geography department at the University of Hong Kong, said a typical family of three in the city should be paying more than double their current water bill. He estimated their monthly fee of HK$94 should be raised to HK$194.

While the price of water has increased, Lee says for political reasons the tariffs have been frozen, and so Hong Kong people have this illusion that water is plentiful -- and cheap.

As a result, Hong Kong has one of the world's highest rates of per-capita water usage, and the rates have been steadily increasing since 1998. The city's annual consumption in 2015 reached 1.25 billion cubic metres -- the equivalent to 5.5 billion full bathtubs -- about 21 percent higher than the global average.

While Civic Exchange chairman Evan Auyang says the water tariff system should reflect the true cost of fresh water, he also cautions that reforms should not impact low-income families' access to fresh water.

I'm not saying we should raise the cost of water for everyone," he said. "But for certain private companies that are using it in very large quantities, you should charge them more."

That would include places like restaurants, cafes, and laundry shops. The government needs to do more to really get people to be more aware of their water usage. In the office washroom and the gym I observe how people use water and it's shocking how they leave taps running, or take very long showers, when five minutes will do.

Raising water prices would at least help kick start people's perceptions about water and treat it more as a precious commodity. The government also needs to be on top of its water system, as the Water Supplies Department took up to two years to address leaking pipes in 2015.

And although the government started a campaign in 2014 to get people to save 10 litres of water a day, Civic Exchange estimated that even if the campaign reached its target, it would only save 2.6 percent of freshwater consumption.

My parents' generation remember having to take baths in a large bucket, and using the leftover water to wash rice to wash the dishes, as the starch removed oil from bowls and plates.

They also remember when water shortages were common place in the 1960s where they had to save enough water to last four days. Imagine the outrage if that happened now?

Politically and socially more needs to be done. We cannot afford to waste water anymore.