Thursday, 30 November 2017

Picture of the Day: Michelin Madness

Our view of the photo shoot with all the chefs on stage at the Michelin event
Today was the big day chefs in Hong Kong and Macau have been looking forward to -- the announcement of the Michelin stars.

The event was held at the Grand Hyatt Macau at first it was a pretty tame affair when each restaurant was introduced and the chef came up to receive the guide as an award. Afterwards there would be a group photo of all the chefs who all got one star this year, two stars then three.

However, that's when the mayhem broke out.

People in the audience would start taking pictures with their smartphones, while professional photographers at the back would shout out their frustrations.

"Put your phones down!" they exclaimed in Cantonese, much to our amusement, but some wouldn't listen and the demand was repeated over and over, more exasperated each time.

The climax was when all the chefs were invited on stage and getting that giant group shot is near impossible as you can see from the picture above.

Definitely Michelin Mayhem.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Taiwanese Activist Jailed

Lee Ming-cheh sentenced yesterday to five years in jail for subversion
A Taiwanese rights activist was the first person from Taiwan to be convicted of subversion on the mainland and sent to five years in jail.

Lee Ming-cheh was sentenced at Yueyang Intermediate People's Court in Hunan province along with his co-defendant Peng Yuhua, a mainland rights activist, also convicted of subverting state power and handed a seven-year prison sentence.

Reaction in Taiwan was immediate, with the Mainland Affairs Council describing Lee's sentence as "unacceptable" and demanded his release as soon as possible.

The words on Lee's wife's arms say that she is proud of him
Lee and Peng were also deprived of their political rights for two years and both said they would not appeal their sentences. This is interesting considering Taiwan does not consider itself a part of the mainland, so how can Lee have his political rights taken away in the first place?

The judge said Peng had planned and set up an illegal organization with the purpose of subverting state power and attacking China's constitution. Drawing evidence from his online chat history, the court found Lee was "an active participant" in the actions, which grew from the internet chat group he started in 2012.

Apparently the group expanded across the mainland, and its key members held meetings in person. The judge said Lee and Peng encouraged others to be hostile towards state power.

Roseann Rife, East Asia research director at Amnesty International, said Lee was a victim of "a politically motivated prosecution".

Lee's co-defendant Peng Yuhua (right) sentenced to 7 years
"The evidence against him is not credible, his conviction preposterous but predictable. He is the latest to suffer under the [mainland] Chinese authorities' relentless attack against human rights and democracy activists," Rife said.

Lee was a volunteer for the Taiwan Association for Human Rights who went missing during a visit on the mainland in March, and was held for more than 170 days before his court appearance in September. Up until then he had been traveling to the mainland without incident for a decade.

The Central government later confirmed he was being investigated for allegedly endangering national security.

Lee previously worked for Taiwan's governing party, the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party.

It's sad to see Lee has been convicted and sentenced, but surely he would have known the risks. In the meantime relations between Taiwan and the mainland are going to get worse following this sentencing.

Lee's jailing may also be a warning shot to Hong Kong's independence and pro-democracy activists to not incite others to follow them...

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

More Weighty Hong Kong Statistics

There's a lot more overweight people in Hong Kong than 10 years ago
Here's a shocking statistic -- half of Hongkongers aged 15 and above are overweight or obese, while the number of people who drink alcohol has doubled over the past decade, according to a citywide health survey by the government.

The study of more than 12,000 people from December 2014 to August 2016 showed a horrific picture of people's dietary habits.

More than 86 percent consumed too much salt, nearly 50 percent had high cholesterol, and almost 60 percent suffered from one or more conditions of hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol.

Many turn to comfort foods when they are stressed or busy
The number of overweight people rose from 17.8 percent to 20.1 percent, while those who are obese increased from 21 percent to 29.9 percent of the population.

From the statistics, the survey predicted a 10.6 percent risk of cardiovascular problems, including coronary heart disease, stroke, peripheral artery disease and heart failure among those aged 30 to 74 over the next 10 years.

Director of health Constance Chan Hon-yee said that alcohol consumption was a worrying trend. Ten years ago, 61.6 percent of those surveyed claimed to hardly touch alcohol, but this time 61.4 percent said they were drinkers. Many confessed to binge drinking -- from 2.2 percent a decade ago to 9.6 percent in this latest study.

"The affordability of alcohol has a direct impact on people's drinking habits," said Chan, though strangely she did not want to link the increased drinking to the scrapping of wine duties in 2008. Wine and spirits with an alcoholic strength of no more than 30 percent by volume are tax-free in Hong Kong.

The increased alcohol consumption is combined with eating too much salt and 94.4 percent not eating enough fruits and vegetables. It sounds like a giant ticking time bomb.

Increased alcohol consumption is also causing health issues
It seems strange to me that this is happening as I notice more people becoming more health-conscious and some trying to eat less meat in general and exercise a bit more. Or are these people only a tiny sliver of the population?

However, there are those who find their jobs stressful and food is a way for them to comfort themselves after a long day at the office. This is where they make bad dietary choices and feel they deserve to eat what they want. A lot of people don't cook at home, and would rather either eat out or have it delivered.

Hong Kong is a free port and a relatively capitalist society that doesn't want to nag people into telling them what they can and cannot eat. But the government needs to face the reality it has a fast-growing elderly population and encouraging them to be as healthy as possible is the best way to try to prevent medical bills from going through the roof.

While Chan wants to step up monitoring people's health every two years, that doesn't do any good if the government doesn't do anything to really push its residents to become more healthy.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Fact of the Day: Instant Noodle Numbers

China is a big consumer of instant noodles, but not as much as before
When I lived in Beijing 10 years ago, my colleagues would eat fangbian mian (方便麵) or "instant noodles". It was what people loaded up on in supermarkets, buying a dozen at a time -- the same flavour too.

I wondered if they knew these noodles didn't have much nutritional value being deep-fried, but they just thought it was convenient to cook in minutes.

However it seems the Chinese are eating less instant noodles than even three years ago, even though China is still the biggest consumer of the popular food product, according to a 2016 estimate by the World Instant Noodles Association.

Less people eat instant noodles due to healthier food choices
lobally a total of 97.5 billion servings of instant noodles were eaten, with China accounting for nearly 40 percent, while Indonesia was a distant second at 13 billion servings.

However in the past few years, China's consumption of instant noodles has actually dropped by 20 percent. In 2013 the country ate 46.2 billion servings, and 2016 marked the fourth consecutive year of decline, with 38.5 billion servings.

When it comes to per capita consumption, South Korea is number one with 76.1 servings per year for 2016, and China was only 27.7 servings.

There are many reasons for the drop in demand for instant noodles. According to the Straits Times, the rise of the Chinese instant noodle market paralleled "an economic boom that was fueled by the migration of low-cost workers from the countryside."

Others still find instant noodles too convenient not to pass up
But now that the economy has been slowing down these few years, the population of migrant workers has dropped off significantly, many returning to their hometowns. Another reason is the rise of the middle class and they are more health-conscious and can afford better quality food.

The third and probably biggest reason is the rise of online food delivery services that make it so much easier (and cheaper) to order food on their phone than to buy groceries and cook at home.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

What it's Like to be Disappeared

This latest book details experiences in detention
A new book has been published in English and Chinese that offers more insight into what it's like to "be disappeared" by the Chinese authorities.

Called The People's Republic of the Disappeared, the book is compiled by Safeguard Defenders, a group founded in August to protect those in Asia who fight for human rights, women's rights and civil society.

In it are 12 accounts from people who have experienced first hand what it's like to be disappeared into what were previously nicknamed "black jails", or "secret detention centres" where the rule of law does not apply.

Tang Jitian tells of having to give military salutes his captors
This was allowed to happen after Article 73 of China's Criminal Procedure Law was amended in 2012 so that authorities could detain people for reasons of "state security" or "terrorism". Detainees can be held as long as six months in "designated locations", or secret prisons.

Anyone who is considered to be critical of the government or a political threat to the leadership is rounded up -- from lawyers, dissidents and activists to Tibetans and Uyghurs.

Of the 12 accounts, some are anonymous, others attributed to people who live outside of China, or some brave souls within the country willing to stick their necks out. They only represent a tiny sliver of the thousands of people who are are subjected to this kind of treatment daily.

The first-hand accounts talk about being forced to sit on a chair and not move for hours on end staring at the wall in front of them, being forced to do military salutes to their captors as a sign of submission, being deprived of sleep for days on end, and being in solitary confinement.

One defense lawyer, Tang Jitian, writes that despite the cruel physical and mental treatment he suffered in 2011, his captors were unable to break his spirit.

"Their purpose was to break my determination, to make me accept their power. They sometimes used this kind of military training on detainees they don't like. The armed police in China have strong bodies, but very simple minds," Tang writes.

Tang Zhishun believes people will have their comeuppance
Tang Zhishun, an engineer turned activist, was also disappeared for more than a year in detention.

He reflects back on his experience with a hint of optimism.

"The policemen would say they held no personal grudge against me, but they acted with such cruelty, tortured me the way they did, as if knowing that it was not personal would somehow change anything. I believe justice comes for everyone one day, and those who have done wrong will get the punishment they deserve."

These survivors refuse to have their spirits broken by this extralegal arrangement and are determined to continue fighting. Wonder what the authorities will think of next...

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Picture of the Day: Please Fill in the Blank

Have you seen this car? Please tell me what it means!
Last night my friend YTSL went to Tin Hau for Chinese dessert when we spotted this van with this strange vanity license plate.

What does it mean?

Please let me into the lane? Or please hurry up? Or please have some manners?

Or is the vehicle owner inviting people to come up with their own phrases? Like please go away, or please follow me, or please mind your own business?

Give us your suggestions!

Friday, 24 November 2017

Another Human Rights Defender Jailed

Human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong in court in Changsha, Hunan province
The Chinese government continues to prosecute human rights lawyers and earlier this week Jiang Tianyong was jailed for two years for "inciting subversion"; his wife Jin Bianling said he was innocent and probably made to confess.

The 46-year-old Jiang was convicted of posting social media messages that attacked government departments, did interviews with overseas media, and attended overseas training courses of a political nature.

He pleaded guilty when he first appeared in court in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province in August and asked for leniency. After he was sentenced, he told the court he would not appeal.

Jerome Cohen asked Jiang to help Cheng Guangcheng
In his blog, China legal expert Jerome Cohen writes that Jiang was originally a primary school teacher who felt he could do more for his country if he studied law and learned how to defend human rights.

Cohen remembers in 2010 meeting him and fellow human rights lawyer Li Heping with their client, the blind "barefoot lawyer" Chen Guangcheng just hours before Chen was seized by Shandong police who came to Beijing without notifying their local counterparts.

Li was prosecuted before Jiang, and served prison time before being "released" as Cohen describes it NRR or "non-release release". He is in accessible and recovering from his horrific experiences in jail.

On a sad side note, Li's younger brother Li Chunfu followed in Li Heping's footsteps in also becoming a lawyer. He too was imprisoned, but when he was released suffered from serious mental illness, where Cohen writes, Li Chunfu was forced to take drugs in the guise of medicine for a non-existent illness.

Jiang managed to stay out of legal trouble for the most part, respecting his legal minders by informing them of his actions, who would, according to Cohen, advise Jiang if he could attend or not. Cohen describes this as PDD or "pre-detention detention".

Jiang's wife Jin Bianling and their daughter are in the US
When Chen was forced to return to his rural home, he was under house arrest. He called Cohen, who was in Beijing, and asked him to persuade a lawyer to travel to his Shandong village that night to prove the confinement was illegal and get him out.

"I telephoned Jiang Tianyong, who agreed to book a train ticket," writes Cohen. "He later called me and said the police, having listened to our phone conversation, had forbidden him from making the trip. At least that spared Jiang the beating by village thugs, who, under police guidance, always used violence to prevent outside contact with Chen."

Jiang was detained last year after he tried to visit Xie Yang, one of the some 300 lawyers and advocates who were swept up in a central government crackdown on civil rights two years ago called "709" as the campaign began on July 9, 2015..

His wife Jin had hoped Jiang's guilty plea would lead to his release on bail. She is now in the United States with the couple's daughter, where they fled in 2013.

Amnesty International's William Nee with Jiang's poster
"He was not allowed to leave China but he is there today mostly because he didn't want to leave other human rights lawyers behind in the midst of the 709 crackdown that year."

Cohen describes Jiang's "prosecution/persecution" as a "tragic farce" since he was detained a year ago, and Amnesty International China researcher William Nee blasted the Chinese powers that be.

"[Jiang's] unjust conviction is a textbook example of the Chinese authorities' systematic persecution of those brave enough to defend human rights in China today," Nee said.

"Jiang Tianyong's trial was a total sham," he continues. "Even with the most rudimentary examination of the facts the case against him crumbles. His so-called confession and apology, most likely extracted under duress, were nothing more than an act of political theatre directed by the authorities."

We can only hope Jiang has nerves of steel to withstand whatever unjust treatment he faces in the next two years.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Fancy a Jet or Two on Taobao?

Two jets from Jade Cargo International were auctioned off on Taobao
You can buy just about anything on Taobao, the Chinese online shopping site -- even an airplane -- or two.

On Tuesday two Boeing 747-400 freighters were sold on Taobao for 332.8 million yuan (US$49 million), the first time in the world such planes have ever been sold in this online auction format.

They were sold after six failed attempts to sell them in offline private auctions organized by the seller -- a state court -- in the past few years.

You can find just about anything on shopping site Taobao
China's largest private courier, SF Express confirmed it had bought the two jets from the Intermediate People's Court in Shenzhen, which seized them after Jade Cargo International filed for bankruptcy in 2013.

Originally there were three Boeing 747-400s up for auction, but one was unsold (at 122.6 million yuan), which is parked at Shenzhen Baoan International Airport. The other two are at Shanghai Pudong International Airport, with an opening bid of 133.8 million yuan and 135 million yuan.

The final prices of the two planes were 160.8 million yuan and 162 million yuan, up 20 percent from the opening bids.

One of the winning bids for one of the Boeing 747-400
Before the auction started, the bidders had to make security deposits of over 6 million yuan for each plane, and the winning bidder has to send the full payment within 15 days.

The Shenzhen court has been trying to sell off the planes since 2015 for a total of 1.32 billion yuan, and in September it finally put them on Taobao at a much cheaper total price of 391 million yuan.

Interesting to note that demand for Boeing 747s is dropping, with airlines phasing them out by the end of the year. But why not as a courier plane? SF Express said earlier this year that it would spend 2.7 billion yuan on buying planes and recruiting pilots.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Hardly Bridging Hong Kong's Priorities

What the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge will look like, when it's done
Following yesterday's blog post about how the Hong Kong government isn't doing enough for its own poverty-stricken residents, it will have to spend another HK$11.8 billion on the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge.

The main section of the project, a 22.9km bridge and 6.7km undersea tunnel is situated in mainland waters. The Hong Kong government has to ask the Legislative Council for more money because a 2008 document says Hong Kong would pay for 50.2 percent of the 31 billion yuan cost of the main bridge, while the mainland would shell out 35.1 percent, and Macau 14.7 percent.

A map detailing where the bridge and tunnel are situated
How it got to those uneven percentages is strange, but there you have it, and Hong Kong has to bear the vast majority of the cost. Will we be using it 50.1 percent of the time too?

Lawmakers have told the government to give a detailed explanation and be prepared for lots of questions.

In February and October the Transport and Housing Bureau told lawmakers that the bridge would cost more than expected due to an "increase in labour and material costs as well as the refinement of the design and construction schemes".

However an exact amount -- HK$11.8 billion -- wasn't disclosed until yesterday.

Frankie Yick Chi-ming, chairman of Legco's transport panel, said there would be "lots of questions" from legislators when the government applies for more funding for the bridge.

Construction of the bridge's border crossing facility
"The key question I have is if 10 billion [yuan] is the final number," he said.

Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po is in Beijing and he admitted he didn't know yet how much of the budget overrun Hong Kong had to bear, but would be calculated according to "an established mechanism" as agreed by all sides when the agreement was signed.

So a huge infrastructure project that gives Hong Kong an opportunity to kowtow to Beijing that is costing billions in extra cost is worth more than trying to help the poor get a leg-up in society.

It's a sad state of affairs really. We need more resources to help our own residents live better lives than splashing out on white elephant infrastructure projects...

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Hong Kong's Growing Poor Population

Over 1 million people in Hong Kong live on or below the poverty line
Following yesterday's news that someone paid a mind-boggling HK$1.16 billion for two flats on The Peak, today's story is another whopping figure -- the number of poor in Hong Kong could be over 1 million next year, even after taking into account cash handouts from the government.

The Hong Kong Poverty Situation Report for 2016 was released a few days ago and showed that 1.35 million of the city's 7.35 million residents were living below the official poverty line. When taking into account cash handouts, the number drops to 996,000.

Law claims the government is doing its best for the poor
To determine who is poor, the authorities only look at income and not assets. The poverty line is decided at half the median monthly household income according to household size.

Last year the poverty line was set at HK$4,000 per month for a single person, HK$9,000 for a two-person household, and HK$15,000 for three people.

"If income rises quickly and the [increase in] inflation is slower than that of income, then the poverty gap becomes bigger," said Secretary for Labour and Welfare Dr Law Chi-kwong on two radio programs.

Also last year the Low-income Working Family Allowance Scheme was launched -- cash handouts for people living below or near the poverty line. They could get from HK$300 to HK$1,000 a month for adults, and HK$400 or HK$800 for children.

However, only 30,000 people benefited from the scheme.

Many of the poor are elderly with not enough savings
Last year the poverty figures were the highest since the city began measuring in 2009, with 7,000 more impoverished people than in 2015.

Law disagreed with criticism that the government made matters worse for the poor because there were more living near or below the poverty line despite the handouts.

"It's not that the government has not done more [to help], but that what it has done is not enough to close the gap," he said.

For someone who used to be with the Democratic Party and then quit in order to serve Carrie Lam's administration, this response is troubling. The government does not seem to realize that it's crucial to lift people out of poverty otherwise their numbers keep growing as we are seeing now.

The way to do that is to raise the minimum wage as Labour Party lawmaker Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung has suggested, as well as a non-means tested universal retirement scheme to help the elderly, as many of them are financially challenged due to inflation.

Some supplement their savings with collecting cardboard
Hong Kong is a very wealthy city, though the gap between the rich and the poor is widening so much that it's staggering how great the chasm is. And yet the government doesn't do enough to help the poor. Small amounts of handouts here and there are barely enough to feed people let alone help pay their rent.

There are a few who may own flats that are worth a lot, but if they sell, where are they going to move to? Or their place is so run down they can't afford to have it fixed up, so they are stuck in a dilemma too.

Decades ago, as long as one worked hard, they would be eventually pay their dues and be able to establish themselves. Nowadays working hard isn't enough to get ahead because of inflation and salaries remain stagnant.

Is the Hong Kong government really that blind to the situation? Piecemeal handouts are barely a band-aid solution to the issue. There needs to be a systematic way of accounting for every poor person in Hong Kong, figuring out their needs and finding an effective way to tackle them, be it low-income housing, social welfare, finding jobs or retraining.

The sooner this is done, the better, otherwise there are going to be many more people on or below the poverty line next year.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Invest in Car Park Spaces

The uber wealthy can afford outrageously expensive prices for real estate
It was just reported today that someone bought two flats on The Peak for HK$1.16 billion (US$149 million). That calculates to HK$131,000 per square foot for Mount Nicholson, a luxury development project.

Prices for private housing rose again in September for the 18th consecutive month, making home ownership even further away for home buyers looking to get into the market.

Which is why some people maybe turning to buying up car park spaces in order to get into the real estate market. The value of these rectangular spaces in the garage are rising faster in value than flats in Hong Kong.

The rest of us might be speculating on car park spaces
A study conducted by brokerage houses in three private housing estates -- Provident Garden in North Point, Mei Foo Sun Chuen in Lai Chi Kok and Island Harbourview in Tak Kok Tsui -- found the parking spots in these places jumped on average of a whopping 167 percent compared to 52 percent for residential units in the last six years.

In the same period, second-hand homes rose an average 84 percent across the city, according to data from the Rating and Valuation Department.

"It is even normal to find parking spaces transacted at above HK$2 million, and HK$1 million is becoming the entry point for parking spaces in Hong Kong," said Alun Jin, a property analyst at Mizuho Securities.

Even Sha Tin parking spots are sizzling hot -- one was sold last week at HK$2.5 million, and another at Tseung Kwan O Plaza for HK$2.08 million.

Jin attributes the high prices to real estate developments constructing fewer parking spaces. Between 2006 to 2016, the number of registered private cars rose 48 percent to 189,281. But the number of car park spaces only increased by 9 percent or 54,520 units according to Mizuho Securities.

But is it worth plonking down HK$2 million for a car park space -- up to HK$4 million in Kennedy Town -- and then renting it out only for a few thousand a month? How long would it take to finally make your money back?

However, hold onto it long enough and you could possible double or triple your money back in a shorter time span than if you bought a flat in the same period....

Sounds like another real estate bubble forming already...

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Review: Loving Vincent

The film incorporates some of Vincent van Gogh's most famous works
Just saw a fantastic movie tonight -- Loving Vincent, that is almost near the end of its two-week run in theatres in Hong Kong.

It's a gorgeous film to watch -- though my dad says he found it difficult to watch because the entire film is painted on canvas -- animated second by second in 65,000 frames. It's understandable that it can be hard on the eyes, as dabs of paint are constantly moving as a person or image makes a movement, as it is painted in the style of Vincent van Gogh.

His self portrait compares with actor Robert Gulaczyk
One hundred and twenty-five artists were recruited to paint this first-ever film animated by paintings. Live actors did the scenes, and painters recreated them in van Gogh's painting style, incorporating 94 of his famous works in the film.

Not only that but the story line is fascinating too. There are different theories as to how van Gogh died -- did he kill himself or was he shot by someone else? This is what is explored in the film through the son of the postmaster who goes on a journey to discover the truth.

Van Gogh and his brother Theo exchanged letters frequently, which is why the postmaster, Roulin, is very familiar with the Dutch artist. The film starts a year after van Gogh's death where the postmaster has one last letter from van Gogh to his brother and instructs his son Armand to deliver it.

Postmaster Roulin (right) with his son Armand
However, Theo died soon after his brother passed away, and the postmaster's son doesn't know who to deliver the letter to. Each person he meets, such as Pere Tanguy who sold van Gogh painting supplies, Dr Gachet, his daughter Marguerite, and even a boatman, tell him a different story about van Gogh, his personality, his artistic talent, his being bullied by others, his financial troubles.

They also gives a different account of how or why van Gogh died, leaving Armand -- and us the viewers -- with a more rounded picture of the artist, whose parents felt he didn't live up to their expectations of their son, and so he was determined to make something of himself on his own terms.

At the age of 28 he picked up painting with no prior experience and within eight years he painted some 800 paintings -- more prolific that many artists in the same time span. However he only sold one painting in his lifetime, a tragedy that his brilliance and contribution to the impressionists was only discovered after his death.

Actor Chris O'Dowd, the original work, and the film's painting
Personally I found the film mesmerizing -- it was just amazing to see each frame had been painted in oil in the style of van Gogh. It definitely could not have been computer generated -- van Gogh would probably be horrified!

My friend YTSL remarked that the characters in the film were painted to look like the actual actors, who were chosen because they looked similar to the people in the original paintings.

Meanwhile, the backstory scenes of van Gogh's life are painted more realistically in black and white to differentiate between the past and present.

125 artists were recruited to paint each of the scenes
Loving Vincent is a labour of love and it shows. Co-director Dorota Kobiela also wrote the script; she was inspired after reading van Gogh's letters to Theo and studied his paintings, and wanted to incorporate them together.

It's a gorgeously rich film that deserves recognition for all the work put into it, in particular the passion and literally every brush stroke.

Loving Vincent
Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman
95 minutes

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Sesame Zen and Tinariwen Vibes

Tinariwen got the crowd excited on the second night of Clockenflap
The thing about living in Hong Kong is that you can be doing one thing, and then something completely different the next.

This morning I interviewed a Japanese Buddhist chef who is introducing people around the world to shojin-ryori cuisine, or temple food. Toshio Tanahashi is one of the few people in Japan who cooks this kind of cuisine, where only vegetables are used. Not only that, but he also makes everything by hand; while he uses knives and the stove, he does not use machines to pulverize or grind the food, nor does he use ingredients like onion, garlic, shallots and leeks.

Toasted sesame seeds in a grooved ceramic bowl with a pestle
He starts off each morning with a meditation by grinding sesame seeds and he let us try it.

We each got a large V-shaped ceramic bowl that had many fine grooves in it, along with the toasted sesame seeds and a wooden pestle with a point at the end.

Then he instructed us to either sit on our knees or cross legged and place the bowl right in front of us. Tanahashi instructed us to put one hand on top of the wooden pestle and the other hand holding it and making circles by turning the wrist, not using the shoulder.

We sat there quietly and you could hear the swish of the seeds going around the bowl and soon after we started smelling the gorgeous rich aroma of the roasted sesame seeds already filling the air. I decided to try to be as efficient as possible and not grind them too hard and keep the same tempo.

Tanahashi demonstrates how he meditates
At one point I closed my eyes and just listened to the sound of people grinding the seeds in their bowls and found it calming and nice to do something repetitive without having to think too much.

After several minutes he said we could stop and we were each given a spoon and try the grounded sesame paste. Mine tasted nutty. Then he told us to try other people's ground sesame seeds. Each of them tasted different! Some ground them so hard that they were about to become like a paste, while others like me were still at the roughly ground stage.

He explained that machine made sesame paste tastes exactly the same, while the ones done by hand each taste different.

This calm, chilled experience was contrasted with watching Mali group Tinariwen on the main stage at Clockenflap at 6pm.

I checked back on my blog and found out I had seen them five years earlier -- I had thought it was two -- and they were amazing. One of my friends dragged us out to watch them perform at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre and I'm so glad she did.

The ultra chilled Tinariwen from Mali heating up the stage
So when I saw that they were performing at Clockenflap this year I was really excited, and the crowd tonight was too. The musicians, who are Tuareg rebels, were very laid back in their performance, but still full of energy.

There was one older man dancing on stage practically all night until one of the songs he grabbed a bright red electric guitar and started strumming away.

So cool.

And only in Hong Kong.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Clockenflap 2017: Day One

The 10th edition of Clockenflap kicked off this evening in Central
It's that time again -- Clockenflap, a three-day music festival that kicked off tonight at Central Harbourfront for the second year.

The chilled out DJ Kulu
It was unusually hot today -- 27 degrees and temperatures are expected to plunge to 19 tomorrow and Sunday with some rain patches.

We got to meet a gentle soul this afternoon -- the legendary DJ Kulu -- yep that's his name.

He's from Hong Kong and went to the UK in the 1960s to learn graphic design but ended up in fashion photography instead. He did quite well for himself and grew to have a passion for jazz.

In the 1970s he started DJ-ing. He regularly held parties once a month in his photographic studio and said one time his partner went to India and didn't come back -- so Kulu just started spinning the discs.

He came back to Hong Kong in 1999 and has been seen around town with his trademark looks Chinese robes, straw fedora and Chinese goatee playing at various gigs. He's such a gentleman too, so polite and chilled.

Higher Brothers rapping under the PLA gaze...!
In contrast, Higher Brothers, a hip hop group from Chengdu, Sichuan province was getting the crowd excited as they rapped in Mandarin and a few words in English.

The most ironic thing was them rapping provocative lyrics with the PLA or People's Liberation Army building behind them. I wondered if they could hear what they were rapping...

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Carrie Lam, Beijing Whisperer?

Lam tried to play down fears of greater control of Hong Kong by Beijing
During the 19th party congress, Chinese President Xi Jinping said the central government's "overall jurisdiction" over Hong Kong should be combined with the city's high degree of autonomy in an "organic way".

What does that mean?

For Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, it was a statement that Beijing was committed to upholding the "one country, two systems" principle that guarantees the city's semi-autonomy.

Xi is taking a greater interest in Hong Kong, good or bad
But how "semi" is "semi"?

Which is why Lam was keen on playing down perceptions that the central government was having greater control over the city.

"Sometimes it is because of some misunderstanding or oversensitive reaction," Lam said during an interview on RTHK television program Legco Review. "Sometimes someone says something out of their care for Hong Kong but it is seen as interfering in Hong Kong affairs. Sometimes the chief executive tries to explain the central government's policies but then I would be seen as currying favour with the central government.

"This kind of meaningless speculation and suspicion does no good to the successful implementation of the one country, two systems policy."

Is she saying we shouldn't read too closely into Xi's words?

Does she think we're newbies?

Every pronouncement from Beijing must be carefully scrutinized, though they can mean one thing one day, and something completely different another day. Or they can be twisted into whatever verbal pretzel the Chinese leaders want it to be.

For Lam to think we would be mollified by her comments, it only raises red flags.

In the meantime we're going to continue to see if we can gather more hints from Xi, while Lam's credibility as the Beijing whisperer is questioned.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Change Afoot in Harare?

General Constantine Chiwenga may be behind the possible coup in Harare
There were news reports this afternoon Hong Kong time that the military had put Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his family under house arrest, according to Major General S. B. Moyo, who made a statement on the state broadcaster ZBC.

While he and another uniformed officer confirmed Mugabe and his family are safe, and their security was guaranteed, Moyo said: "We are only targeting criminals around him who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country in order to bring them to justice."

No bloodshed, but tanks and soldiers are in the streets
He also warned that any provocation would be met with an appropriate response.

There is speculation that General Constantine Chiwenga who is leading what looks like a coup, is close to the former Vice President Emmerson Mnangawa, who was expelled from the government and governing ZANU-PF party last week.

These latest developments have a Zimbabwean friend of mine who has lived in Hong Kong for over 20 years very excited.

In my first newspaper job, he was one of the first photographers I worked with, a white Zimbabwean whose family had been there for generations. It was he who explained to me what Mugabe had done to his country since he took power in 1980.

Is this the beginning of the end of Robert Mugabe?
He was frustrated and upset when President mandated blacks take over farms owned by whites, causing racial backlash against whites, like his parents who had been there all their lives. They were told to go back to where they came from, but where? They were from Zimbabwe too.

His parents' farm was taken over, a place that his family had lived in for decades, which caused his father so much shock that he died of a heart attack soon after. His mother had to create a new life for herself in a small apartment with a tiny balcony for her to continue growing plants and flowers, a tiny fraction of what she was used to looking after.

The story he told me was very similar to Peter Goodwin's When a Crocodile Eats The Sun: A Memoir of Africa, a memoir that my friend YTSL lent me.

A powerful memoir of Zimbabwe
Ever since my friend told me about Mugabe, I would read about any news on him and be shocked and horrified by what he was doing to the country, particularly the insane inflation that rendered their currency worthless by the day.

Several years ago I caught up with my friend who had been going to Mandarin class. I asked him what for and he said to be able to get a Chinese passport. He was so ashamed of carrying a Zimbabwean passport and was ready to renounce his citizenship of his native homeland if he could get a Chinese one. I don't know if he managed to get it or not.

So I can imagine he is anxiously watching the news of the so-called coup that the military claims is not a coup, while there are reports people in the streets are happy to have anyone else but Mugabe.

We shall see what happens, but it may be the light at the end of what has been a very long and dark tunnel.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Student Activists Reboot Independence Campaign

Last year students handed out fliers suggesting independence after 2047
Some Hong Kong students are showing their Lion Rock spirit by reviving a drive in 18 schools and universities to promote separatism from China.

The campaign was launched today, where the young activists distributed separatism-themed fliers and stickers at school entrances, and put them on message billboards known as "democracy walls" on university campuses. They also set up street booths in Wan Chai, Kwun Tong and Yuen Long.

This time the fliers say that independence for Hong Kong is the only option to protect its people, which is a more direct stance compared to last year's that encouraged students to think about the city's future after 2047 by proposing independence.

Tony Chung of Studentlocalism is stepping up activism efforts
The student leaders are also vowing the groups will be more vigorous in their activism, one year after their initial campaign fizzled out.

Studentlocalism convenor Tony Chung Hon-lam, a Form Five student at Buddhist Mau Fung Memorial College, said they would hand out 2,000 leaflets and 10,000 stickers. Meanwhile the 20-year-old convenor of the Hong Kong National Front, who wanted to remain anonymous, said 12 groups were expecting to hand out fliers at schools before classes and all would man street booths after classes.

Last September, a campaign to discuss independence emerged at several schools when localist groups handed out fliers on the first day of school. Members of at least two groups were summoned by school authorities to stop.

The government left it to school managers to handle such activities and monitor independence talk. And this time the Education Bureau reiterated that advocating independence went against the Basic Law.

Lau Siu-kai doesn't think the kids will go far again this time
Lau Siu-kai, deputy director of a top Beijing think tank on Hong Kong affairs, did not expect the campaign to go far, and warned advocates they would likely find themselves further isolated from mainstream society.

"From what I see, the independence movement has become something of a small circle within the student community that is unlikely to affect society on the whole," he said.

We agree with Lau that it is a very small group of students who believe in independence. What's interesting is their determination to start their campaign again with more organization and greater resolution.

They won't get far, but why not let them do their thing? They deserve to have their voices heard too. What they are advocating is illegal, but let them figure that out for themselves instead of telling them over and over. Give them room to explore and debate.

The more you clamp down, the more resolved they become... just saying...