Sunday, 30 September 2018

Hiking Up the Great Wall

The view of the Great Wall is always stunning -- if you climb up onto it
I can say that I've been up the Great Wall at least five times now -- Badaling, Mutianyu, Jinshanling, Jiayuguan, the furthest west section, and now Simatai.

Each time the landscape is amazing -- well at least the last four. Badaling is just a sea of people crowded on the wall.

WTown is a nice tourist attraction in itself
This time a friend who can read Chinese helped us figure out how to get to Simatai. At 9am we met at Dongzhimen bus station (northeast corner) and got onto the 980 bus that left shortly after we got on. It was about an hour drive before the bus arrived at Miyun Qiao Xi stop and we got off, crossed the road and then took the 51 bus all the way to Simatai.

The second bus was quite the experience -- we were sitting shoulder to shoulder with real locals, farmers who lived in the area, which ranged from very rural looking with cornfields to suddenly looking very developed with four-way stops and grocery stores.

People on the bus talked very loudly even though they were sitting next to each other, including a trio of young women wearing the same yellow sweatshirt and constantly on their phones chatting online with their friends.

At one point, one of them peeled a mandarin orange and was so enthralled with the fresh scent that she broke off two small pieces of the peel and stuck them in her nose. How attractive.

The town is picturesque and looks pretty authentic!
Finally three hours later we arrived at Beijing WTown, the address is Simatai Village in Gubeikou Town in Miyun District.

Some tourism sites say WTown looks fake, but to us it looked pretty authentic. Remove the gaudy new signage and modern snacks like ice cream, and it could easily be the set of a period drama. The buildings looked pretty real complete with nice Chinese-style doors and windows, while there are many nice camera angles of the waterways complete with boats gliding along the water.

The 170 kuai admission includes entering the town and the Great Wall, but the real ploy is to get visitors to hang out in the town and spend, spend, spend -- and even stay overnight in the town as there are hotels there.

At the third watchtower looking back
But our mission was the Great Wall and after a hearty lunch of Taiwanese beef noodles -- ordered on WeChat -- and we quickly walked through the town to get to the entrance of the wall.

We had to walk about 1km on a hilly path to get to the actual wall, so by the time we arrived our hearts had already had a workout. This section has 10 watchtowers, though the first one is across the river on the other side and not connected so we were actually starting at the second watchtower.

The climb here was very steep! We were all breathing heavily walking up the narrow steps and tried to keep going at a steady pace. There were several people on the wall -- including people carrying babies, but not a massive crowd -- perhaps they were too busy taking selfies in the town below.

Every time we looked back, the landscape was stunning. We kept climbing and taking pictures until we reached the seventh watchtower and a kindly middle-aged man told us this was as far as we could go.

How come? We asked.

He explained the rest of the wall was being reinforced and it would take two months. But by this point we were pretty tired and had done a good chunk of this section of the wall. At this point there was just a pair of German tourists, a middle-aged Hong Kong couple, and us.

A staff member telling us to turn back
We walked down to the sixth watchtower which was 500 metres from the cable car and we took that down for 90 kuai each. The ride lasted just under six minutes and it was another dramatic view of the area. We were surprised only a handful of people were taking the cable car up to see the wall!

Down at the bottom we took a bathroom break -- washrooms here were extremely clean -- and then made a beeline for the exit. We had already missed the 3pm shuttle but weren't about to wait until 5pm for the next one so we waited for the 51 bus to get back.

This time farmers were taking their goods into town -- one elderly woman had bags full of giant leeks, cabbages and even a bag full of peanuts. Taking the 980 bus back to town took longer as we arrived during rush hour. But we got back safely and very hungry!

Beijing WTown
Simatai Village, Gubeikou Town
Miyun District, Beijing

Saturday, 29 September 2018

Security, Everywhere

Beyond these gates is Zhongnanhai, the headquarters of the CPC
It was nice to be back in Beijing, a city I had lived in for three years.

However the growing anxiety over safety is growing more paranoid. Before the Olympics 10 years ago, it was mandated that everyone had to have their bags scanned in machines before entering the subway system.

We assumed it would just be for the Olympics, but no, the practice continued. At the time the roped off area was large enough so that some people with bags could slip through, but this later tightened up and everyone had to have their bags checked.

Intense security checks just before entering Tiananmen Square
During rush hour, those not carrying anything could go into a faster line. Kind of discriminates against women...

Then this year security was stepped up even more with metal detectors at every subway entrance -- and if that's not enough, some even have staff with metal detector paddles just in case the metal detectors weren't enough.

Many of the people manning these security check points are young people, which makes me think this is a make-work project for kids who couldn't find a job or aren't university graduates.

Twice this week my friend had to open up his bag to be checked because the person manning the screening machine saw a bottle in his bag. He had to demonstrate it was cologne and not some kind of Molotov cocktail in a black flask.

The young people are just doing their job, but it is a hassle. Not even New York or Paris have these kinds of security checks.

The square wasn't packed, but there was lots of surveillance
Security was extreme near Tiananmen Square when we visited on Tuesday. Our plan was to walk east from Xidan along Chang'An Avenue, make a pit stop at Tiananmen Square and then head to Wangfujing.

Before we were even close to Tiananmen Square, we encountered one of many check points. Everyone was corralled into a single file metal maze so that there was no getting out of the line. Citizens had to have their ID cards scanned into a machine, while foreigners like us had our passports checked.

After that check point we passed by a brightly coloured building with the Communist Party of China round logo at the top and the Chinese sign below "Xinhuamen (新华门)" or "New China Gate" which is actually the entrance to Zhongnanhai, the headquarters of the CPC and where Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Communist Party works. Too bad we weren't allowed in.

The biggest check point just before Tiananmen Square had its own stand, complete with digital messages on a ticker tape screen, saying people had to go through checks for safety reasons, complete with screening our bags.

Food trucks like these sell snacks, drinks and souvenirs
Finally we made it into Tiananmen Square, where parts of it were covered with floral designs for Mid-Autumn and/or National Day. These decorations give a lively atmosphere, but gone were the residents who flew kites in the large open space. We only saw one person attempting to fly a kite.

Swept off the street were the migrant workers selling Chinese flags and snacks like water and popsicles. They were replaced with mini food trucks on the square selling the flags, Pocky sticks, cookies and a variety of drinks.

For some reason Mao Zedong's mausoleum wasn't open -- it was barricaded off and looked dark inside. Maybe he was getting a touch-up.

Who knows how many undercover policemen were in the square, but definitely lots of cameras at every lamp post...

Friday, 28 September 2018

Picture of the Day: New Architectural Addition in Beijing

The CCTV tower with the China Zun Tower to the right in Guomao, Beijing
Beijing continues to look more modern with very tall buildings or ones that spread out with funky shapes but once you go inside, the interiors look pretty much the same. They are all office buildings anyway.

When we were wandering around Guomao the business district, we saw the famous CCTV or shall we say CGTN building, where CGTN stands for China Global Television Network, but further down was a tall skinny tower.

It turns out it's the China Zun Tower designed by architectural design firm Farrells. At 528 metres, it towers over every other building in the Chinese capital and the country too.

Some locals have already nicknamed it the penis building...

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Picture of the Day: Great Wall at Simatai

A view of the Great Wall from the seventh watchtower at Simatai
This morning my friends and I headed to the Great Wall, a part that I'd never been to, at Simatai, the most remote area outside of Beijing.
It took us three hours to get there by bus, and then after a quick lunch of Taiwanese beef noodles, we headed to the entrance.

We didn't chicken out and take the cable car, but instead walked to the second of 10 watchtowers and started walking up. It was quite the workout because it was quite steep, but it was the amazing views that kept us going.

However when we were almost at the top of the seventh watchtower, there was a staff member there standing behind some rope with a sign that said "stop" in English.

He explained we couldn't go any further because the wall was being reinforced and would take about two months.

Before we left we asked him to take a picture of us, but we also took several to remind us of the panoramic view of the wall from the top of the seventh tower.

To get down we walked to the sixth watchtower and then about 600 metres to the cable car station.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Picture of the Day: Robots Watching You

One of the "robot police" hanging out in Xidan
Security has been stepped up in the whole of Beijing. When you go into the subway station, you don't just have your bag scanned in a machine, but sometimes you may even be wanded or go through a metal detector.

I'm staying in Xidan, the west side of Beijing and it's a commercial area with several shopping malls. Near one of them, Joy City, are several policemen, complete with long stick weapons and German Shepherd are standing by as well as a giant police jeep in dark blue parked nearby.

If that wasn't enough of a deterrent, there are two "robot police" hanging out on the giant pavement. They just stand there immobile, not saying anything, though there are some curious onlookers who stare right into the robots' "eyes".

What a great way for it to get a better scan of your face!

In any event, this need for greater security seems overboard...

Picture of the Day: Spidermen on The Egg

Can you spot the four men on the roof of The Egg?!
We walked a lot today -- even before lunchtime we had walked from Xidan to Chang'an Avenue to get to Tiananmen Square and then Wangfujing. On the way we made a detour to the National Centre for Performing Arts, known as The Egg.

Before we wandered inside, we walked around the whole building and at the back of the building we were shocked to see four men up on the roof.

Two were near the top -- with no safety ropes -- and cleaning the windows in the middle of the building -- while two others were suspended by ropes and using a hose to power wash the metallic shell. Presumably they were trying to wash off the accumulated dust.

It was quite a sight to watch these men cleaning the performing arts centre and I wondered if perhaps they were ex-military with experience repelling down buildings...

Monday, 24 September 2018

Picture of the Day: Mid-Autumn Moon

The moon is clearly visible from Sanlitun Village in Beijing
I have arrived in Beijing for a few days and during the day it seemed like the city wasn't too busy as it's Mid-Autumn Festival. Perhaps they would rather stay home to avoid the crowds or just celebrate the day off at home.

The weather here is perfect, mid 20s and a bit cooler in the evenings where wearing a light jacket is enough to keep warm.

This evening the sky was so clear that the moon was clearly visible. It wasn't huge, but very bright!

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival! 

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Lounging at the Airport

Champagne at The Wing Business Lounge 

 My friend and I are in Beijing for a few days, but he would say that part of the trip is the journey.

He's a frequent flier on Cathay Pacific which gives him access to the lounges in Hong Kong International Airport so he took me along to check them out.

Slow-cooked Atlantic salmon with sun-dried tomatoes
We visited three of them. The first one was The Pier, the first class lounge and the atmosphere is very calm and relaxing, hardly any children here, and if they are around, they are napping.

First on the agenda was checking out the dining room and we had some lunch. The menu has a mix of East and West and the portions are smaller than one would expect, but this is a good thing -- it helps cut down on food waste and also encourages guests to try more dishes.

I tried the Chinese broth of pork, abalone (a small tender one), with cut up bamboo piths, but it's a pity it was just warm, while the wonton noodles were nice and hot.

Another dish I sampled was the slow-cooked Atlantic salmon was very good, the sun-dried cherry tomatoes even better.

All the lounges have similar desserts, like macarons, cookies, chocolate raspberry tart, cheesecake, three cheeses, fresh fruit, and bottles of water, beer, and champagne.

Char siu with a dark soy sauce and cucumbers
There are also nap rooms, shower rooms, and if you're lucky you can book a half hour massage, facial or foot massage too. No wonder my friend loves hanging out in this lounge!

Also because Cathay Pacific is partners with Qantas, we also got access to their lounge. We got to try one of their signature dishes, char siu rice. It had a different twist, with a dark soy sauce (a bit too much), accompanied with lightly pickled cucumber with coriander, and a small dish of pickled vegetables. The plate had a small serving of rice, again so that food isn't wasted.

We were so full from eating that we didn't need to eat the plane food! Now that's a good benefit to have.

How many miles do I need to fly before I can get lounge access?!

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Post Typhoon Woes Continue

Commuter chaos in Tai Wai on Monday Morning, after Typhoon Mangkhut

This morning I went to my hairdresser Joanna to get a trim. I asked her how she fared during the typhoon.

She said it was fine, but it was the next day, Monday's commuter chaos that was terrible. Joanna lives in Yuen Long and in the morning her clients were texting her to see if she was still keeping their appointments. She hadn't kept up with the news on the transportation issues and said she should get to the salon on time.

Trees fell on cars and streets, making some roads impassable
But when she got to the station she realized it would be a long wait. In the end it took over two and a half hours to get to Central.

Her colleagues in Sha Tin had a trying time -- there were massive lines already outside of the station trying to get in.

"They decided to lower the typhoon signal from T8 to T3 at 6am," she says. "Why couldn't they have just waited a bit later and then we would get to work by the afternoon?" she asked.

That makes a lot of sense. Did the Hong Kong government think about that?

Then there would be time given to the army of cleaners to clear as much of the streets as possible and for electricity to come back on in some areas, and as a result some more buses could be on the road.

Some say people should not be complaining to Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor about their transportation woes -- they should really be directing them at their bosses to have a bit more understanding.

Glass strewn on the streets from blown-out windows
One example is a Facebook post by the union at Radio Television Hong Kong or RTHK saying their bosses forced them to use their annual leave on Monday if they didn't show up for work. Eventually RTHK backed down and employees didn't have to claim the day off.

Sometimes there are acts of God that you cannot control -- but yet we have the best of intentions to come to work -- or you don't believe us?

It's high time employers have more faith in their workers to do their utmost to come to work. Most of us just want to come in, do as good a job as we can, and then go home, then repeat the next day.

The vast majority are not slackers, though there is a small minority of them. We all need the job for money, so why not trust us to show up for work?

Treating us better would go a long way in terms of productivity.

Friday, 21 September 2018

Mickey Mouse Turns 90

A tribute to Walt Disney with Mickey drawing his portrait...
November 8 is the 90th birthday of Mickey Mouse who made his debut in Steamboat Willie in 1928. And The Walt Disney Archives is touring around the world showing off only a fraction of its artefacts of the famous mouse. Almost 90 items are now on show at The Times Square Piazza in Causeway Bay until October 31.

I managed to get a very quick preview minus the hordes of people...

An original doll Charlotte Clark created
There's reproduction of animation drawings, comic books about Mickey Mouse in Chinese printed in Hong Kong in 1972, a Mickey Mouse watch and a Standard Oil Map of the United States and children could collect Mickey Mouse cards at Standard Oil gas stations.

Two things we found particularly interesting thanks to information provided by Robert Maxhimer, exhibition manager of the Walt Disney Archives.

First is the one of the original Mickey Mouse stuffed dolls designed by Charlotte Clark. According to Maxhimer, she was a big fan of the mouse and made her own stuffed version of Mickey Mouse in the early 1930s and showed it to the Disney Studio. She got permission to make the dolls and produced some 200 of them, all sewn by hand.

But then demand was so great that she came up with the idea of designing the pattern so that people could make their own Mickey Mouse doll.

Walt and Roy Disney were so impressed with the doll that they rented a building near the studio and called it the Doll House where Clark and six other seamstresses churned out 300 to 400 dolls per week.

Mickey with the sorcerer Yen Sid in a drawing of Fantasia
The next interesting bit of trivia is about Fantasia. It's one of Maxhimer's all time favourite Mickey Mouse films and he explained the Sorcerer's Apprentice was based on Goethe's 1797 poem Der Zauberlehring.

In the animation, Mickey is apprentice to sorcerer Yen Sid, which is Disney spelled backwards...

By the way on November 8 this year, The Walt Disney Archives will have a pop-up exhibition in New York's Meatpacking District with over 200 items on display.

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Caught Red-Handed

Consumption of shark fin soup has plunged 70 percent in Hong Kong
While a number of restaurants and hotels claim they are not serving shark fin in Hong Kong, a few of them still do discreetly.

It's not printed on the menu, but if you order in advance, the dish prized for its price could be arranged.

But now Maxim's, one of the city's largest restaurant chains has been caught selling shark fin in its under-the-counter menus called "The Premium" when it had removed it from its menus last year.

The trade in shark fin is still going strong in the city
Wildlife groups exposed what Maxim's was doing, which the media reported, and now the restaurant group has announced that it will stop serving shark fin from January 1, 2020.

In a statement it said: "Until that point, shark fin dishes will only be provided upon request and to fulfill advance booking commitments," the statement said.

They have bookings for shark fin up until December 31, 2019?

Will there even be enough shark fin until then?

The company's statement said Maxim's had taken steps to reduce the availability of shark fin since 2010 and that there had been a 70 percent fall in consumption of shark fin in its outlets over the past seven years.

It added: "We are committed to balancing our ever-evolving customers' needs and reducing the impact of our business on the environment."

Wildlife groups want to end shark fin consumption
If there has been a 70 percent drop in consumption then why not just drop shark fin altogether then? And why wait until 2020? why not now, which is what the wildlife groups are asking.

They are also hoping other  restaurant groups like Paramount Catering Group, Lei Garden Restaurant Group, and Fulum Group Limited will follow Maxim's lead and stop serving shark fin too.

Tracy Tsang, manager of WWF-Hong Kong's Footprint program says Hong Kong accounts for 40 percent of the global shark fin trade, though there have been no prosecutions for illegally sourced or traded shark fin products between 2014 and 2017 despite 23 seizures of fins. 

If consumption has completely plunged in Hong Kong, how come the city makes up 40 percent of the world shark fin trade? Sounds like it's still a booming trade to send shark fin up north...

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

A Storyteller Remembered

Shan Tianfang became a household name for his storytelling of the classics
Only today we heard about the passing of Shan Tianfang, who was a well-known storyteller in China that many taxi drivers would listen to on the radio.

Shan died on September 11 of organ failure at the age of 83.

People enjoy listening to his renditions of classical Chinese novels over the airwaves -- he recorded over 110 stories for radio and television which means about 12,000 episodes spanning over 60,000 hours.

He told stories in the pingshu tradition, where the performer was dressed in a Chinese scholar gown and sat behind a desk on stage with a folding fan and a wooden block that was used like a gavel.

Shan performed pingshu, starting out in tea houses
In pingshu, the performer tells a legend from memory and uses different voices and exaggerated gestures, as well as a bit of commentary or historical context. That meant a pingshu performer had to do a lot of research to give the stories much more detail to make them more believable.

Usually these storytellers performed in tea houses, though Shan would adapt to gain an even wider audience with the introduction of radio and television.

But when Shan was growing up he didn't want to become a performer -- his mother was an actress, his father a musician who played the sanxian, a three-stringed Chinese lute. He along with his parents and four sisters lived an itinerant lifestyle which Shan was keen to avoid, along with the financial insecurity.

He wanted to study medicine, but in the early 1950s his father was wrongly imprisoned; his mother left the family and so Shan had to work, apprenticing under a pingshu master before he joined a folk arts troupe in 1956 in Anshan, a town in northeastern China known then for its tea houses and pingshu performers.

Shan did well in the tea house circuit until the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, and he was branded a "counterrevolutionary" and sent to northeastern China to do manual labour.

These are copies of his scripts
After the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, he got back to performing and found audiences were keen on entertainment other than party-approved propaganda. He tried his luck in radio and quickly found it was very different from performing in tea houses.

There was no need to dress up and have props, and that there was no audience to give instant feedback. As a result Shan had to use the three recording technicians in the studio as his audience and adjusted his performance accordingly.

His first recording was debut on Chinese New Year in 1980 and it is believed some 100 million people tuned in to the 56 hours over which it was broadcast.

Over six decades Shan recorded such famous Chinese classics as "White Eyebrow Hero", and "Sanxia Wuyi". He also did dramatizations of historical figures like politician Zhuge Liang from the Three Kingdoms period and Lin Zexu, a scholar-official from the Qing dynasty who was a catalyst for the first Opium War.

Audiences liked to listen to his stories because he made complicated historical stories easier to follow and made the characters more relatable. "You feel you could relate to the characters in his stories, even though they lived a long time ago," said one Beijing taxi driver surnamed Zhao.

After his retirement in 2007, Shan tried to foster another generation of pingshu artists, even mentoring young people. But as more storytellers like Shan passing away, this oral art form may also die with them...

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

At Least 300 Hectares of Brownfield Sites in Hong Kong

A brownfield site that could be developed into land more utilized
A good number of the public are calling for the government to redevelop brownfield sites, but this suggestion seems to fall on deaf ears.

So a local NGO has compiled plots of underutilized land around Hong Kong and calculated there could be as much as 300 hectares available, which are spread out into 532 land parcels that could have a combined size of 14 Taikoo Shing Estates, or 1.7 times the Fanling Golf Course.

They are located in Kwai Tsing, Sha Tin, Tuen Mun and other areas of the New Territories.

Liber Research Community says 60 per cent of this land was used as car parks, while the rest were vacant. Their findings were based on a 2012 government study of unallocated land, and supplemented with information from mapping tools, satellite images, site visits and official papers.

Researchers said such areas were left out of a current public consultation on land supply because the government had failed to disclose such information.

NGO Liber Research Community has a new report out
"Instead of arguing about destructive land supply options such as reclamation and developing country parks, why doesn't the government first fully utilize their own resources and review their potential?" asked Yeung Ha-chi, a Liber researcher.

Yeung said these land parcels could be put to temporary use such as building interim homes for those waiting for public housing and other community facilities.

For example, about 300 hectares could provide 90,000 prefabricated modular housing units, 43 sports complexes and benefit 120,000 people who require elderly residential care services.

Of the 532 land parcels, 306 could be used for short-term leases or temporarily allocated for government use. Other spaces could be temporary car parks, open storage sites, bus depots and temporary offices.

Liber also called on the government to be more transparent in disclosing its data on its use of public land. 

Why have just parking spots on the ground? Hong Kong is such a vertical city and with land at a premium, it makes more sense in terms of time, efficiency and money to redevelop brownfield sites first.

And yet the government doesn't seem to care about these sites, nor that they are already located near transport links, making it easier in terms of people living there to get around for work and such.

Why the stubbornness in refusing to recognize these potential land sites for housing and other uses?

It's time to be prudent about our land use and this is proof we do have vacant and underutilized land.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Hong Kong in Transport Chaos

Thousands of people stuck in commuter hell in Tai Wai station this morning
The aftermath of Typhoon Mangkhut left lots of fallen trees, debris strewn everywhere, flooding in some parts of Hong Kong and broken glass on the ground.

The Education Department decided early on to cancel school today, while bus companies said only a handful of buses would be in service because the roads were not completely cleared.

That left the MTR having to do the heavy lifting today in getting over 3 million people to work today, but it was a complete disaster, particularly for those in the New Territories.

People waited for several trains before they could get on
The East Rail Line from Tai Po Market to Sheung Shui was suspended because the overhead power lines weren't working, which left people at and between these stops wondering how they were going to get into town if buses weren't running.

Taxis had a field day, constantly picking up passengers who were desperate to get to work.

As a result it took many people an hour longer to get to work.

The pictures of people stranded in these stations are horrific -- and I thought rush hour at Admiralty was bad.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had asked that employers be more lenient on employees coming in late, but not all of them heeded her words. Some people told reporters that they bosses were chasing them on the phone while they were stuck in commuter hell.

Many vented their frustration on Lam's Facebook page, with 6,700 comments complaining that perhaps the government should have told companies to take the day off before the roads were cleared.

Others going short distances walked instead, luckily no rain
However, it is not the government's jurisdiction to do that; when it comes to education, the authorities can decide whether schools should close or not.

And besides, Hong Kong is a money-making town -- Terence Chong Tai-leung, Chinese University associate professor of economics, said if the entire city did not work on Monday, economic losses could amount to about HK$7.3 billion (US$930 million). He calculated this by dividing Hong Kong's gross domestic product last year by 365 days.

Some companies are already making razor thin profit margins and need the business day to pay rent and so on...

There really should have been a discussion last night between the government and the transport companies -- the MTR, buses, mini buses and taxis about the situation and a coordinated effort on how they were going to get people to and from work today.

Maybe in this case only essential staff should have tried to get to work in the morning, and non-essential staff come in the afternoon or work from home if they could.

Then perhaps there wouldn't be such chaos and frustration affecting thousands of people because there were glaring spots where transport links weren't connecting at all.

Other than that Hong Kong functions very well for the most part, but in these special cases, there needs to be more patience and understanding by some, and better planning and communications by others...

A future case study for future government officials?

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Survived Typhoon Mangkhut

Dramatic scenes in Heng Fa Chuen, with a man by the waterfront
Typhoon Mangkhut has come and gone -- and it was a whole day affair.

Late last night around 1.10am the Hong Kong Observatory raised the T8 signal. Early in the morning I could hear howling from my air conditioner and rain pounding against the windows which was unsettling. Would my windows blow out? Why did I not tape them?!

Outside my flat the elevator shaft was howling loudly along with any fan connected to the walls of my flat -- they were whirling away madly and blowing in any debris that was lodged in them into my flat -- including a broken tiny spring probably from a pen!

Many windows were blown out in a building in Hung Hom
Cooking breakfast was a bit nerve-wracking because the stove fan was making strange noises from the wind. And my building was swaying periodically too...

Meanwhile on social media people started posting pictures of destruction -- first it was the flooding on the waterfront in Heng Fa Chuen, the fast east side of Hong Kong Island, and then an office building in Hung Hom had its windows blown out and with them flew lots of papers too...

There was also footage of a construction crane falling off a tall building, same with a tree that was growing on a rooftop of another building. And one of the front doors of the InterContinental Hong Kong shattered from the powerful winds, while the Mercedes-Benz showroom in Wan Chai was completely flooded.

A tree broke in Tsim Sha Tsui next to The Peninsula
The list goes on and on, but the good thing is that as far as I know, there were no casualties, and the vast majority of people stayed at home. However, my friend YTSL told me this morning her friend went to Wan Chai for dim sum with her family at Hopewell Centre during T10! Apparently the restaurant was half full and mostly elderly people. Guess some cannot do without yum cha...

The only transportation running was the MTR and some taxis so overall the city was dead, which is strange as we all know it as a metropolis that is non-stop. But today it was eerily quiet.

In all my 15 years of living on and off in Hong Kong, this is the worst I have ever experienced! And no I didn't need tape. Nevertheless, today will be an "I remember" moment for a long time to come...

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Waiting for Mangkhut

This restaurant enticed diners to come for the evening
Late yesterday afternoon, Hong Kong's security minister John Lee Ka-chiu told the public to "prepare for the worst", because of Super Typhoon Mangkhut coming close to Hong Kong, so today people came out in droves to stock up.

It wasn't as severe as bare shelves in North Carolina when Hurricane Florence was approaching yesterday, but the wet market in Kennedy Town as well as the Park n Shop were much busier than usual around 10am. The atmosphere was like Chinese New Year eve, people buying up ingredients they would need for the next few days.

Many shops around Hong Kong taped their windows like this
In the afternoon, the shopping malls were packed with people. At Festival Walk in Kowloon Tong, people were even checking out the cars on display, not necessarily getting supplies for the impending Super Typhoon Mangkhut.

By evening things had calmed down -- my colleague and I had a delicious dinner at a Lebanese restaurant called Francis in Wan Chai. It was full, but there weren't a lot of people waiting outside for a table in the second round.

After our early dinner around 8pm I walked to nearby Pacific Place in Admiralty, and the shopping mall was practically dead -- hardly anyone was in the shops and even Great, the supermarket downstairs was relatively quiet.

Most people rushed home on the MTR because we'd been warned it was going to be a big one. The bakery in the Kennedy Town MTR station it looked like it had been raided as most of the baked goods were gone.

This bakery was practically cleaned out of baked goods
I am curious to know what kinds of snacks and food people stock up on for a typhoon! I saw one guy carrying a shopping bag full of candies including a giant box of Malteasers...

The Hong Kong Observatory is expecting to raise the T8 signal between 11pm and 2am, with Mangkhut coming skirting just south of Hong Kong in the late morning or early afternoon, depending on its speed.

Many shops have taped their windows so it looks like the Chinese character for rice (米)... before they would only tape an "X"... guess this time Mangkhut is special that it warrants more tape?

In any event we're prepared... everyone is also watching to see what happens to the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge!

Friday, 14 September 2018

China's Lending Spree Continues

Finance Minister Simon Zerpa (second to left) in Beijing to secure US$5B
China is the big benefactor these days.

Earlier this month it gave US$60 billion to African countries during the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing. Previous debts were forgiven, making the total investment in Africa to from 2000 to 2017 to US$136 billion.

Zerpa says the loan will be paid back in oil
Of course China gets something for pumping billions into the African continent, though it denies it is neo-colonialism or chequebook diplomacy. African leaders claim the mostly infrastructure projects have helped stimulate social and economic development, and that other countries (like the United States) should do more to help.

However, according to China Africa Research Initiative at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, the African continent's biggest donor is in fact the US.

This week China is back at it again, this time the recipient is Venezuela which continues to descend into chaos with people desperate for basic needs that are not available and neither is the cash.

China has stepped in to give the Latin American country US$5 billion. Venezuela's finance minister Simon Zerpa is already in Beijing to hammer out the details with Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan, while President Nicholas Maduro is heading to the Chinese capital.

Cash-strapped Venezuela dealing with anger in the streets
Zerpa has told media he Venezuela would pay back the loan, partly in cash or oil, and that the country would sign a "strategic alliance on gold mining" with China. Hmmm sounds like another way to repay the debt.

But perhaps even more interesting or shocking is that China has been a key money lender to Venezuela since 2008 with an estimated US$70 billion over the years.

Wonder who China will dole out cash and credit to next week...

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Can Bridge Take On Super Typhoon?

Super Typhoon Mangkhut is over Luzon now, on the way to Hong Kong
The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge is almost done -- but before it opens the mega infrastructure project will face its first severe test -- Super Typhoon Mangkhut on Sunday.

It's expected to pack up winds of up to 205km/h and be within 100km of Hong Kong -- but can the 55km bridge handle it?

Structural and geotechnical engineer Ngai Hok-yan has his doubts. He says the artificial islands in mainland waters and on the Macau side would face a greater risk from Mangkhut than the one at Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok, which is partly protected by Lantau Island.

Can the bridge sustain winds of over 200km/h?
"Whether the bridge can withstand the destructive force of Super Typhoon Mangkhut depends on the height of the waves at the artificial island," he said.

Currently the dolosse or protective blocks there can withstand waves as high as four metres, but beyond that there is a chance the protective blocks could wash away very quickly, Ngai said, adding American forecasts have predicted waves could be as high as six metres.

"Without the protection of the dolosse, the worst case scenario would see the undersea tunnel detach from the artificial island and float above the sea, and also the collapse of the island."

He also said the Macau artificial island was exposed to more risk because it faced the sea.

Hmmm! Seems like none of the higher-ups in Hong Kong, Beijing or Macau considered the possibility of natural disasters when they were thinking about building this bridge that connects Macau and Hong Kong with the mainland.

Can the dolosse sustain waves over four metres high?
Aside from adverse weather conditions, one friend said she refused to go on the bridge once it was completed because what if someone's car broke down? Would there be a massive traffic jam? Who would help tow the car away? Or what if there was an accident? And the chances of that happening are very high, considering drivers in Hong Kong and Macau have the steering wheel on the right side of the car, China on the left.

And now this ominous warning from an engineer saying the bridge may not withstand a super typhoon...

All we can do now is wait and see what happens.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Picture of the Day: Super Typhoon Mangkhut

That white blob in the centre is Super Typhoon Mangkhut going northwest
The big story today is not one but two typhoons coming our way.

One, called Typhoon Barijat, is passing south of us now, but the big concern is Super Typhoon Mangkhut that is on its way to the Philippines and projected to come within 100km of Hong Kong on Sunday.

It's current path will skirt Hong Kong to the south, but in the next few days that path could change.

Already people are very worried. After work my colleague went to the supermarket to find all the fresh vegetables were sold out and so she resorted to buying frozen peas instead.

It's hard to say what's going to happen until the typhoon does arrive, so there's not much point in freaking out about it now.

One thing for sure is that it will be very windy when Mangkhut comes, with winds expected to be the strongest since records began in 1946, and stronger than any of the past 15 severe or super typhoons that were T10.

Super typhoons can have wind speeds of up to 185km/h near its centre. 

Last year Super Typhoon Hato reached 185km/h at its highest intensity and was 60km from the Hong Kong Observatory's headquarters.

I am relatively stocked with food in the freezer, and have plenty of projects to do if I'm stuck at home on the weekend (ie cleaning out the flat, catching up on sleep).

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Behave on the Train

The new West Kowloon train station opens later this month.. with glitches...
Although the new high-speed rail station opens on September 23, people have already bought or attempted to buy train tickets -- some with not much luck.

So far 3,266 tickets were sold on Tuesday, 1,654 online and 319 over the phone. This pales in comparison to 7,079 sold on Monday.

People with old home return permits cannot use ticket machines
It turns out the vending machines at the new West Kowloon terminus cannot read older home return permits, and so people had to line up at the counter to buy their tickets.

Others were concerned that perhaps the China Railway Corporation had blacklisted them.

The blacklist currently applies to mainland Chinese citizens, but will be extended to Hongkongers when the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link opens on September 23.

One Hong Kong lawmaker is calling for information on the blacklist be made public.

Good luck with that.

In May, China Railway Corporation issued a list of seven types of bad behaviour that would result in a ban from getting on the vast mainland high-speed network. The punishment? Not being able to buy a railway ticket for 180 days.

Many resorted to waiting in line to buy tickets from staff
The behaviours include: smoking on trains, faking documents for rail travel, speculative reselling of tickets, flouting rules at the terminus, and causing disruptions. There's also "other behaviours subject to administrative penalty according to relevant laws and regulations on the mainland". But the rail operator hasn't clarified what exactly "other behaviours" means.

This is part of China's data-driven social credit system that assesses the trustworthiness of each Chinese citizen, generating ratings for them. The ratings affect everything, from their access to services, such as taking trains and planes, to being approved for a loan.

Those with "bad credit" are put on various defaulters lists. Last month the mainland rail operator added 242 people to the list of defaulters.

Sounds murky, but it seems if Hongkongers will be included in this blacklist come September 23, isn't that yet another aspect of "one country, two systems" not applicable here?