Friday, 30 November 2018

Picture of the Day: A Big Bubble

Behold the "Sonic Light Bubble"in Wan Chai until December 9
I heard about the "Sonic Light Bubble" being set up in the courtyard of Comix Home Base this evening. After dinner in Wan Chai, I wandered over to Mallory Street to check it out.

There was a giant bubble that is 6 metres in diameter that is transparent and yet there are circular plates made of LED lights placed all over it. People can press these plates to light them up while curious music is played.

Of course the kids were excited by this new toy, running around it in circles and pressing the plates that reacted to their touch.

It's designed by Australian design studio Eness, by award-winning interactive experience designer Nimrod Weis. It's part of a project sponsored by BODW or Business of Design Week City Programme.

The bubble is 6 metres in diametre and glows in various colours. You can't go inside it -- just around it, though it reacts to your touch on the LED light plates.

It's cool to watch, though I'm partial to works by interactive sculptor Jennifer Lewin, who makes interactive pads that light up when you step on them, much like creating ripples when you step in water.

Nevertheless it's a good way for kids to burn off energy, running around in circles and hitting the bubble...

"Sonic Light Bubble" is on now until December 9 at Comix Home Base, 7 Mallory Street, Wan Chai.

Thursday, 29 November 2018

258 Cheaters Discovered in Shenzhen Half Marathon

The Shenzhen Half Marathon was held last Sunday
More Chinese are getting fit by running and as a result there are a number of races including marathons that are organised around the country.

According to the Chinese Athletics Association, 1,072 marathon and road running races have been held this year. This compares to only 22 races held seven years ago.

But not all the participants are competing fairly.

Some runners cheated by crossing to the other lane
Last Sunday was the Shenzhen Half Marathon, but officials have since discovered 258 runners cheated.

There were 18 with fake bib numbers, three imposters and 237 others of whom a number of them took short cuts along the route.

A video shot by a traffic camera at one section of the course showed some runners crossing from one side of the road to the other instead of running another kilometre before making a U-turn.

That means they cut off two to three kilometres from the total 21 kilometres they should have run.

In another case, a local photographer took pictures of two people with identical bib numbers.

"We deeply regret the violations that occurred during the event. Marathon running is not simply exercise, it is a metaphor for life, and every runner is responsible for him or herself," said the announcement by the organizing committee.

Organizers found 258 people cheated during the race
Obviously there were not enough volunteers to keep watch along the route, though paying other people to run the race for you is absolutely outrageous.

Runners with fake bib numbers and those who hired people to run for them will be banned for two years, according to the announcement.

Even People's Daily wrote an editorial about the incident, saying, "Please respect the Marathon, and respect sporting spirit!"

Meanwhile on Weibo, one user lamented, "There are too many marathons in China nowadays, and too many so-called runners, but runners who really love running are still in short supply."

Running a race is for one's personal achievement. So if you really want to do a half or full marathon, you would be determined to run every kilometre. But then again in China, should we be surprised people would cheat the race?

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Hong Kong's Recycling Rate is Deplorable

Most of the discarded drink containers are from Vitasoy
Hong Kong continues to be in denial about its garbage output as an environmental group has revealed the city does not recycle any Tetra Pak drinks, most of them from local beverage producer Vitasoy.

Green Power says the company has been ignoring the problem and was deviating from a pledge to strive for socially responsible consumption and production.

Vitasoy's Lemon Tea is a popular drink in Hong Kong 
In 2016 the environmental group launched a campaign to prove that recycling Tetra Paks was feasible.

A shocking amount of 43,000 tonnes of waste drink cartons are thrown into Hong Kong landfills each year, enough to cover 6,179 football pitches when laid flat. Almost none of them are recycled here.

Since July, Green Power set up 17 recycling stations across the city for the public to discard their drink cartons.

I have to ask -- where are these recycling stations?!

About 90,000 or almost one tonne was collected in five months.

Of the total, 74 percent were Vitasoy drinks, the rest were Swire Coca-Cola, Nestle, Kowloon Dairy and Trappist Dairy.

Nestle drinks can be found in Tetra Paks
Green Power says the government needs to legislate a "producer responsibility scheme" for drinks cartons, which would make producers pay for collection and recycling. There are already such schemes in place for plastic bags, waste electronic appliances and glass bottles, and soon for plastic bottles. It just means consumers will have to pay more for these drinks.

The Tetra Paks can be recycled by placing them in what looks like a giant blender with water and churning it into a pulp, where aluminum and impurities will be sorted out. Then the pulp is sold as a raw material to the mainland or Southeast Asia.

A company called Secure Information Disposal Services will be setting up a 20,000 sq ft drinks carton recycling facility at the Science Park in Yuen Long Industrial Estate.

Production is expected to begin in mid-2019 and will handle up to 2 tonnes per day. The biggest challenge is collection and logistics, which is why Green Power is hoping the onus will be on drinks producers like Vitasoy to pitch in to collect discarded drinks boxes and transport them to the recycling facility.

In response, a spokesman for Vitasoy said the firm would continue to promote the development and adoption of cartons with a better environmental performance, including those made with renewable and responsibly-sourced materials, so long as it did not compromise food safety or the needs of suppliers.

What about going back to using glass bottles for drinks?
It's a very weak reply that doesn't even begin to address environmental issues in Hong Kong. As a local producer one would think the company would have a moral obligation to think about recycling but without any prodding from the government, it's not going to happen anytime soon.

Until we find a more viable option, what about going back to the glass bottles filled with milk -- we're nostalgic for the past anyway!

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Jack's a Party Member

Jack Ma is a card-carrying member of the Chinese Communist Party
Well what do you know! Jack Ma Yun is a Communist Party member!

He was outed yesterday in the People's Daily as one of 100 Chinese people who have made extraordinary contributions to the country's development in the past 40 years.

Ma along with Tencent Holdings CEO Pony Ma, Baidu CEO Robin Li, basketball star Yao Ming and volleyball coach Lang Ping were on the list.

Pony Ma of Tencent is on the 100 list, but not a Party member
It is unclear when Ma joined the party and how much money in dues he pays each year.

Interestingly this made huge headlines today, but one should expect that someone as successful as Ma is to have some kind of affiliation with the Party. How else could he succeed?

But he has said before that it's not a good idea to be too close to the Party. In media interviews he would say, "Fall in love with the government, but don't get married."

However, with President Xi Jinping wanting to have greater control over everything, everyone else has to comply, and Ma seems to be one of them.

"We're seeing an increasingly close relationship between China's leading internet companies and government because government sees them as one of the most effective ways to realize its policy initiatives," says Mark Natkin, managing director of Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting.

Xi Jinping visits the cave in Yan'an he spent during his teens
"Being a party member is essentially tipping your hat to the legitimacy of the party and it doesn't necessarily denote any particularly high level of political activity."

Nevertheless, some entrepreneurs are going a step further to demonstrate their loyalty to the Party.

In 2015 Jack Ma visited Yan'an, the city often considered the birthplace of the Chinese Communist Revolution. Pony Ma -- who is not a Party member -- also went to Yan'an this year and even wore a Red Army uniform. Yan'an is also where President Xi spent much of his teenage years.

Ah the symbolism! And the song and dance people need to do to keep in the government's good books...

Monday, 26 November 2018

A Delicious Alternative to Pork

Does this look like Cantonese steamed minced pork? It's made from plants!
First off -- did anyone in Hong Kong feel the tremors from the 6.1 magnitude earthquake in Penghu county in Taiwan just before 8am this morning?

I was sitting at the table eating breakfast when I felt my building swaying a bit, much like when it did when Super Typhoon Mangkhut came through Hong Kong.

At the time I thought it was strange and a little later when I checked the Hong Kong Observatory for the weather, it had a note that some residents had called in about feeling a tremor.

So it wasn't just me!

The Omnipork right after it is steamed for five minutes
Secondly, this afternoon, I tried some Omnipork, a plant-based meat that is supposed to mimic pork, but is made of shiitake mushrooms, peas, non GMO soy beans and rice. Today is the first day Omnipork is available for retail, priced at HK$43 for a pack that weighs 230grams.

The first demonstration was steamed minced pork, a typical family-style Cantonese dish. The portion looks good for two or three people. When scooped out of the plastic packaging, Omnipork looks like, well ground pork, pink in colour and mushy in texture.

The instructor added some finely julienne ginger and ginger juice, and pre-cooked diced mushrooms. He said the mushrooms had to be cooked beforehand as the Omnipork would be cooked in five minutes through steaming. He also added a bit of soy sauce that wasn't too salty.

Then he placed the plate with the mixture in a steamer and within five minutes we had "pork" that looked darker in colour and had the texture of meat. Because he added mushrooms to it, the taste was more mushroom in flavour.

Omnipork made into dumplings with a splash of sesame oil
Next up was dumplings and the Omnipork was combined with finely minced cauliflower and some of the left over diced mushrooms, seasoned and then portioned in round wrappers. They were then boiled and within minutes we were able to try these dumplings that had a splash of sesame oil and were very delicious.

The versatility of this plant-based meat is pretty amazing -- more so than Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat because there isn't much more you can do to those "meats" except to fry them as burger patties.

But with Omnipork it can be used in a variety of ways, making it easy for home cooks to use it.

It'll be interesting to see if Omnipork catches on especially for the retail market. It could possibly disrupt the pork industry, particularly now with the serious outbreak of African swine fever that is widespread in China!

Sunday, 25 November 2018

A Portrait of a Left-Behind Child

Jia Yi shows what life is like for a left-behind child in Hunan province
I recently saw a documentary at Asia Society called Jia Yi, which focuses on a family from a farming village in Hunan province. The parents make the decision to go to Guangzhou to make more money to provide for the family, but that means leaving behind seven-year-old Jiayi and her younger brother with their grandparents.

The film gives a rounded portrait of the family, though mostly following Jiayi as she walks several kilometres to go to school, a bare room with antiquated wooden desks. After school she has to take the cows out to graze before dinner, wash clothes in the river, and then feed her young brother his food before doing her homework.

For us in the city folk to watch this child do this and then come home to a dirt floor with no running water and very little electricity is a rude awakening to realize people in China still live like this, that there are still tens of millions who have yet to benefit from economic reforms.

Jiayi does her best with her chores and cares very much for her younger brother, but she gets scolded for getting low grades -- her grandmother says she watches too much television, and yet the television is on all the time in the room... how is she supposed to concentrate on her studies?

Jiang Nengjie has made several docs on left-behind children
Director Jiang Nengjie follows her, her younger brother and grandfather as they make the long trek to Guangzhou by train to visit her parents. While her father is excited to see them, their mother is alternately exhausted and upset -- she works the night shift in the factory and the children interrupt her sleep, and at the same time she feels guilty for leaving them behind.

Jiayi's father explains his wife got pregnant before they got married, and so they had to find other means of income to raise a family as farming wasn't enough. He can't get a good job because he doesn't have much schooling. Meanwhile his wife misses her children terribly and she cries a lot. She worries they won't even know who they are as they only see their children a few times a year.

These are the sacrifices the parents make when they leave home to work -- tens of millions of them doing mind-numbing work in factories to make more money than they would tilling the land. As a result there are millions of left-behind children all over the country, left behind not only because the parents aren't there, but because they do not have access to good education and other resources which makes them even more behind than their counterparts in the cities.

Jiang brings these issues to light and in stark focus -- there have been many news stories about left-behind children but hardly a face to them, and Jia Yi gives a very good picture of the situation for many of them.

What's also interesting is that Jiang himself is a left-behind child. In fact his family is neighbours with Jiayi's family, which is why he was able to film so much of the family for many months.

He recalls as a child his mother was away the whole time he was in primary and secondary school, and even university, while his father left later to earn more money to pay for Jiang and his younger brother's school fees.

A typical rural school with left-behind children
While us city folk may think Jiayi may need more financial resources, Jiang disagrees. He believes what she lacks the most is a good education, not just academic, but also family education; this is hard to remedy as her parents aren't there to raise her.

The parents also believe others look down on them, thinking they have deserted their children, when in fact they are doing whatever they can to keep in touch with them via video chats or phone calls. Remote parenting may not be the best solution, but technology has allowed them to correspond often with their children.

It is hard to figure out what the solution is, except to somehow create industry near the places where the families are so that the parents don't need to go so far away. But factory owners aren't going to do this due to the lack of good transportation networks for distribution and so on.

While the Chinese economy is slowing down, some factory workers have returned to their villages to farm -- at least they can feed themselves. However this leaves the state off the hook for providing a safety net despite the huge sacrifices these people have made.

It's a story that won't go away right away, but it is a plight we should all be aware of and the consequences that will result from having so many left-behind children in China.

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Please Turn Off Your Phone

After four years, Raphael Severe returns to Hong Kong
Tonight's concert was supposed to be a good one at the City Hall Concert Hall.

The Hong Kong Sinfonietta led by Yip Wing-sie hosted 24-year-old Raphael Severe in a performance of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in A, K622. The Frenchman can play a wide range of sounds on his instrument, earthy warbling ones to delicate soft notes. The first two movements were going well until about half way through the third movement --


The orchestra and Severe continued, but


The Hong Kong Sinfonietta at City Hall Concert Hall
It was the elderly gentleman right behind me whose phone was not only annoying us nearby, but also the soloist, as we were only sitting a few rows from the stage.

One would expect the audience member with the offending smartphone to immediately try to silence the damned phone but he was completely oblivious to it...


It rang several times and then finally stopped.

By this point Severe seemed to have been distracted by the phone and was just trying to focus enough to finish the concerto.

I lost my focus on the music too and it was annoying to say the least!

Nevertheless Severe is quite the prodigy, learning piano, violin and cello before focusing on the piano and clarinet at the age of eight.

He was admitted to the top clarinet class, having skipped eight classes... by 12 he won prizes in five international competitions, including First Prize and Jury's Special Prize at the Tokyo International Competition.

Two years later he was admitted to the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique de Paris, where he got his bachelor's degree at 16, and masters degree a year later, both with high honours.

No doubt the kid is talented.

Too bad about the phone...


Friday, 23 November 2018

Hong Kong Government Hypes White Elephant

It cost Hong Kong HK$84.4 billion to build this high-speed rail station
When I visited the Hong Kong West Kowloon Railway Station last weekend, it looked quite busy with a number of passengers wandering around, buying tickets, or checking in.

But according to figures from the MTR Corporation, the numbers are down for the second month in a row since it opened.

About 1.5 million passengers per month used the high speed rail between September 23 and November 22. That means the average daily passenger number was around 50,000, which is 38 percent less than MTR's estimate of 80,000.

It cost taxpayers HK$84.4 billion to build the much-hyped project, and before the opening, the government boasted the high-speed railway would be profitable from day one.

There are 38 percent fewer passengers coming through
Uh huh.

Today the MTR Corp claimed it would take some time for people to get used to the service, and the company was continually working to upgrade services.

"The MTR Corp has been using various sales strategies to reach out to different customer groups... including by offering more promotion and partnering with industry players to expand sales channels," the firm said.

Before the high speed railway opened on September 23, Hong Kong transport minister Frank Chan Fan was "pretty confident" the service would be profitable from the outset, saying it would not incur losses, based on official projections for passengers and "competitive" ticket prices.

He probably said that in the hopes of getting consumer confident about the service. It has been revealed the government is contractually bound to step in and absorb 70 percent of financial losses if the difference between projected and actual passenger numbers is more than 15 percent.

We taxpayers have to pay for the government's inability to more accurately forecast how many people are going to use the service? Wouldn't it be better to underestimate than over estimate?

Many Hong Kong people have complained about how inconvenient the routes are -- as the stations in the mainland are not located in central business district areas and instead near suburbs; they would rather fly or take the slower trains to get to the city centre.

The clean-up following Typhoon Mangkhut continues
There seems to be a pattern here -- when it comes to projecting the Hong Kong government's revenues, the finance minister is almost always way off the mark when delivering his budget. How can they get this wrong by several hundreds of millions of dollars?

And then the government doesn't prepare with how to deal with the aftermath of Super Typhoon Mangkhut. The government was great in insisting everyone stay at home and be prepared before the super typhoon came, but afterwards there is a lot of criticism for insufficient transport links for people to get to work, and the mess is still being cleaned up.

Now we have a giant infrastructure project that cost tens of billions of dollars, and it's not reaching the passenger numbers the government had in mind -- even expecting the high-speed rail to pay for itself on the first day of service!

Tall order...

Hong Kong officials are completely clueless about what is really happening in the city. They really need to get out of their ivory towers and experience what life is like for ordinary people. These civil servants seem completely out of touch with reality.

Scary, isn't it?

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Picture of the Day: World War II Memorial

Remembering the glorious dead from World War II here
Last weekend when I was out exploring Hong Kong with my cousin who was visiting, I took him to City Hall where I usually go to attend concerts. And I usually rush over there in the evenings and was  completely unaware there was a small building near the entrance.

It sits on top of a pool of water and it turns out it is a memorial shrine to those who died between 1941 and 1945.

The description says: "Inside the 12-sided Shrine are placed a Roll of Honours and wreaths. On the wall were inscribed these words: 'These had seen movement and heard music; known slumber and waking; loved;gone proudly friended'."

The plaque also adds the shrine is open on the first Sunday of every month from 9.30am to 12.30pm.

What a nice remembrance for these victims of war, and that it is open for people to come and honour them.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Dolce & Gabbana Strike Out

Chinese model in D&G dress struggles to eat pizza and pasta with chopsticks
The Italian fashion brand Dolce & Gabbana was supposed to hold its star-studded fashion show tonight in Shanghai, but it was cancelled following racist remarks by one of its co-founders, Stefano Gabbana.

He apparently had an online conversation with an Instagram user named "diet prada", where Gabbana described China as "a country of s***."

Stefano Gabbana's thoughts on China...
The texted conversation on Gabbana's Instagram account was in response to complaints about the fashion label's latest campaign "DG Loves China", where a Chinese model in a red D&G dress is seen struggling with chopsticks, trying to eat Italian foods like pizza, spaghetti and a cannoli, or cylindrical pastry filled with cream.

In the cannoli video, a male voice can be heard asking the model, "Is it too big for you?"

Others complain about how cliched the ad looked, with Chinese lanterns and couplets that were deemed "outdated and stereotypical".

As for Gabbana's outburst on social media, he claimed his account was hacked, and his legal office is working on the security breach.

Meanwhile reaction was swift in China -- when word got round about the spat, a number of celebrities who were invited to the show, including movie star Chen Kun and actress Dilireba, who was named D&G's brand ambassador in February said she would not attend, while fellow actress Zhang Ziyi said the brand was "inviting humiliation".


Domenico Dolce (left) and Stefano Gabbana (right)
Even a number of models who were booked for the show refused to turn up before the event was cancelled. Modeling agency Dongfang Binli said all of its 24 models had pulled out of the show and put a "Not Me" tag on their online profile photos in protest.

Supermodel Jin Dachuan said he would not take part in any show or any event staged by the brand in the future.

The brand has incensed Hongkongers in the past. In January 2012, at a Dolce & Gabbana's store in Harbour City on Canton Road, a security guard reportedly told locals that only mainlanders and foreigners were allowed to take pictures in the store. He apparently threatened to smash a local resident's camera if they continued to take photographs.

Remember these protests at Harbour City in 2012?
A series of protests at the store ensured until Dolce & Gabbana eventually apologized days later, though it wasn't enough to assuage people's anger.

The Italian design duo seems to love to court controversy, and some believe the latest ad campaign and subsequent online spat were deliberately done to stir up reaction -- but at the risk of being shunned?

It's a huge gamble, and perhaps this time the Chinese will protest the brand with their wallets and shop elsewhere.

Surely this is not a risk worth taking?

Having just visited Italy, it's obvious the government is taking tourism very seriously by having security personnel at major landmarks, while fashion brands are very keen on serving Chinese customers.

But it seems that Dolce & Gabbana really don't care about the consequences of fanning the flames of Chinese nationalist anger. 

Maybe the massive drop in sales will persuade them to keep their mouths shut?

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Heritage Lost: General Post Office

The General Post Office was opened in 1976, but will be demolished soon
I have fond memories of the Central Post Office, when Queen's Pier used to be nearby to take the Star Ferry to Tsim Sha Tsui. When I first arrived in Hong Kong to work in the mid-1990s, I used to mail letters and large envelopes of newspaper clippings to my parents. The staff were so efficient and nice.

These days the place isn't as busy, people aren't queuing up to buy sheets of stamps, but mostly packages and the odd bulk mailing.

Notice the large marble slabs used as counter space
Last year there was a news story announcing the General Post Office in Central would be demolished to make way for A-grade office buildings. The post office would move its operations to an eight-storey building in Kowloon Bay, near the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal at a cost of HK$1.7 billion.

But there are hopes to protect some aspects of the building, though there haven't been any updates on this or when exactly the building will be knocked down.

I told my visiting architect cousin about this and so he wanted to check out the building. He was amazed by the beautiful marble slabs on the counters and wondered if they would be salvaged before the demolition.

We also saw a wooden arch that was probably saved from the previous General Post Office. It reads: "As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country". Below it is a black plaque that says the current building was opened on August 11, 1976 by Sir Murray Maclehose, then Governor of Hong Kong.

"As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country"
When we wandered in before 1pm on a Saturday, the counters were almost all empty, with staff chatting among each other. What will happen to all the people who have GPO boxes in Central? 

It's a shame the building has to be torn down -- it's a major landmark in Central and is an important walkway to get to IFC and the ferry piers, or vice versa to City Hall and office buildings like Jardine House.

But with land prices being so high, the government seems to think it needs to make more money (how much more does it need?) by selling prime land.

If anyone needs an education about heritage, it's the government. It has no understanding or appreciation of the importance of preserving old buildings, and then it wonders why it has no more heritage to promote to tourists...

Monday, 19 November 2018

Hot Sunset Tip -- Secret Spot at Harbour City

Check out that view of Victoria Harbour on the rooftop at Ocean Terminal
I usually don't like to schlep to Harbour City, a shopping mall in Tsim Sha Tsui, but there has been a slew of restaurant openings there in the new extension designed by Sir Norman Foster. I've visited a few of them, but more seem to be springing up every week.

Invader's giant anchor nearby
My architect cousin who works in China likes to see any newly completed projects when he comes to Hong Kong and asked about this one so we checked it out.

Coming from the Star Ferry in Central the walk to the new area isn't too bad -- it's when you are coming from the MTR that it's a dreaded long walk, battling shoppers and going all the way to Ocean Terminal and then going all the way to the end of it to reach the extension.

Once you get there though, you have unparalleled views of Victoria Harbour. When we looked up at the ceiling we could see people's feet -- so there is a rooftop spot for people to hang out.

Go all the way to the top floor which is the parking lot and then turn around and you will see a terraced viewing area that's perfect for fireworks, but you probably have to sit there all day to keep this coveted spot.

Nevertheless, it's also the ideal place to watch the sunset -- provided you know there's going to be an amazing one coming. The seating here is comfortable and there are staircases on either side to go up or down.

Look! A space invader with a Hong Kong flag
The place could almost be a mini stage for a site-specific performance, or a small cocktail party. It could easily be closed off for a private event.

In addition if you look, you'll find French artist Invader's work -- two mosaic space invaders holding the Hong Kong flag. Also behind by the parking lot is a giant mosaic anchor, and off to the right another space invader on top of an anchor.

Perhaps Harbour City worked with the artist to add these playful details -- they're fun for social media.

Not everyone knows about this spot... yet...
And this viewing area must be one of the best secrets in town -- we even took pictures of the place with no one else there...

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Picture of the Day: Victoria Peak

How can you ever get tired of this stunning view of Hong Kong?
We had a visitor from out of town so after dim sum today we did the touristy thing and went up to Victoria Peak via taxi.

The Peak Galleria shopping mall is being renovated, and there are still large numbers of people coming up, so the only place to go to the washroom is the Peak Tower nearby and the lines were ridiculously long...

With the Peak Galleria not completed until next summer, there are no provisions in place for visitors to have enough facilities to help them have a decent time up there. It's practically embarrassing. Does the Hong Kong Tourism Board know this?

The Peak Galleria will be reopened next summer...
In addition, my architect cousin was critiquing the area and was unimpressed by the existing buildings. He feels there is a better way to showcase this iconic landmark than just plonking a mall on the land; there should be terraces for people to have better views looking down on the city, and transportation links could be more thought out instead of underneath a mall in a dark place.

The Peak Tower isn't exactly an architectural statement, and it looks like the Peak Galleria will be pretty much the same except it'll have more expensive stores and restaurants in there to pay off the renovations. Hardly inspirational.

But we digress... once our bathroom issues were sorted, we did the circular route around the Peak on Lugard Road. It was an absolutely gorgeous day today, with blue skies and some clouds, and not too hot either.

At first there were hordes of people doing a charity walk, but as we went along the route, the numbers slowly dropped off and we had unobstructed views of the city we couldn't help but take pictures of.

When we finished the 3.5km walk less than an hour later, we had to get out of the Peak because there was hardly anywhere to have a drink, let alone sit down with so many people there.

We went to the underground transportation area where there was a big line for the minibus and taxi, but the #15 bus was about to leave so we took that to go down. There was no choice but to stand on the bus the whole way, but thankfully the ride was relatively fast!

Saturday, 17 November 2018

The Futuristic Railway Station

The exterior of the Hong Kong West Kowloon Railway Station
Today we played tourist in Hong Kong and decided to check out the Hong Kong West Kowloon Railway Station, that is also known as Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong High Speed Railway, Hong Kong High Speed Rail Station, and Express Rail Link West Kowloon Terminus.

How about choosing one name and then sticking with it?

Inside the columns are very impressive, and high ceilings
At the time we were at the Star Ferry in Tsim Sha Tsui and asked the Hong Kong Tourism Board staff there how to get to the railway station. They suggested taking the 77M minibus, but that we should take it to the terminus (Kowloon Station) and then walk over.

We waited and waited for the green minibus and then we gave up and walked a few metres when I turned around and saw that it had stopped at the bus stop. We ran to the minibus and got on. I asked the minibus driver if we could get off at the railway station and he waved his hand to say yes.

It just seems strange that the bus routes, especially in Tsim Sha Tsui haven't adjusted to include the railway station stop, even though it's so close by. Surely many tourists and people like us would like to get there too from Tsim Sha Tsui?

The station located right across from Austin Station, and a short walk to Kowloon Station. The outside of the railway station looks like a bunch of waves made of steel, but inside it looks very futuristic and impressive.

The space is very airy and highly accessible
There are very high ceilings in there and it's highly accessible for everyone, though there seems to be only one elevator from what we could see. We wandered down to the ticket vending machines as well as the ticket counter. It was quite busy with lots of people dragging suitcases around, or people like us checking out the station.

I did notice periodically there were large poles that were covered in cameras. Some were conveniently located at "meeting points" to suss everyone out. It was quite daunting to see so many cameras staring at you. Has anyone pointed this out before?

In terms of food there are many options, though some were just take-away places, including Starbucks that had no place for people to sit. We did manage to get a bite to eat at Tim Ho Wan upstairs, though there was quite a bit of MSG in the food. The wontons in chilli sauce were terribly disappointing -- the meat filling was too ground up with no texture, but the shrimp and spinach dumplings were good.

The Xiqu Centre (left) is only a few minutes' walk away
When we left the station to visit the nearby Xiqu Centre, an opera house designed by Vancouver architect Bing Thom, we noticed there were people on the roof of the railway station! So after our quick visit to Xiqu (where there is still construction going on), we returned to the station and went to the only elevator we could find.

We had to wait a while to finally get in, but when we got to L2, we were rewarded with a panoramic view of the area -- Tsim Sha Tsui, Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong Island, and West Kowloon. Instead of taking the elevator down, we found a long stairway that follows the curve of the building, with plants lined along the route.

It's a good thing we took the elevator up to the roof because it would have been too daunting to climb up all those stairs! We made our way down and then walked to Elements shopping mall, where Kowloon Station is.

The long stairway up to the roof of the railway station
While reaching the mall only took minutes, it took another 10 minutes to finally get to the actual MTR station.

Nevertheless, it was a good way to become more familiar with the railway station, even if they are watching you all the time...

Friday, 16 November 2018

Chinese Officials Learn Cantonese (Finally)

Chinese officials working in the Liaison Office are learning Cantonese
While I was away, I saw a story from Hong Kong that struck me as amusing, and thinking, "about time!".

Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng has instructed more than 200 officials who work in Beijing's liaison office in Hong Kong are studying Cantonese to better connect with the city's residents.

Vice Premier Han Zheng wants officials to connect with locals
It only took over 20 years for Chinese officials to finally realize they really needed to learn the local lingo to be accepted in Hong Kong.

Perhaps it's better late than never.

Apparently it was Zheng who pushed for the staff to get language training, while Wang Zhimin, director of the central government's liaison office in the city, has been trying to set an example by "trying very hard to learn, and now his command of Cantonese is pretty good", says a source.

Hong Kong Academy of Management is teaching the officials Cantonese, with most classes taking place after regular office hours.

The source also said most officials were "very enthusiastic and keen to learn", and with a high attendance rate, staff members were passing with good grades.

Apparently Wang Zhimin speaks pretty good Cantonese...
While the officials spoke Cantonese with their own accents, the source said, "at least we can understand what they are saying".

Apparently the liaison office is trying to find opportunities for the officials to practice their Cantonese by organizing volunteer events, like cleaning up Heng Fa Chuen and Silverstrand beach after Typhoon Mangkhut.

It's cute, but a good first step to building bridges with the local community. It should have been done 20 years ago, but now they realize being high and mighty does not work with Hong Kong people. It's about earning respect and this is a good start, even if they don't have a good Cantonese accent!

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Rome: Castel Sant'Angelo

Tourists walk along the bridge to Castel Sant'Angelo
One last place we visited before leaving Rome was Castel Sant'Angelo, or the Castle of the Holy Angel. It has a very interesting history and also construction, that at one point in time was the tallest building in the city.

This was originally Emperor Hadrian's mausoleum
We got there in the late morning and didn't have to wait too long to buy tickets. From then onwards visitors follow the arrows to cover most of the building.

Originally it was commissioned by Emperor Hadrian to be a mausoleum for himself and his family, which is the cylindrical part of the complex. It was built between 134-139AD.

His ashes, stored in an urn, were placed there in 138AD, along with his wife and first adopted son, as well as other emperors who succeeded him. It is believed the urns were placed in now what is known as the Treasury Room.

Then in 401, the building was converted into a fortress, with walls added around it, as well as a moat. There are some interesting defensive architectural details, such as trap doors and such for protection against invaders.

Popes turned it into a castle for their own use
There is a legend that the Archangel Michael appeared at the top of the mausoleum, sheathing his sword that was interpreted as a sign the plague was over in 590, which gave the castle its present name.

And so at the top of the tower is a large bronze statue of the Archangel Michael, looking as if he's about to sheath his sword. He has the best view of Rome, and a fantastic view of the Vatican.

This is important because in the 14th century, popes took over the structure and converted it into a castle. For example, Pope Nicholas III connected the castle to St Peter's Basilica by a covered corridor called the Passetto di Borgo.

Paul III built a rich apartment in the castle, and visitors can see his living quarters. While his bedroom may look modest, the room next door he entertained in was very lavish. It was completely covered in murals with gold leaf, while the Papal insignia was created out of marble in the floor.

St Peter's Basilica can be seen clearly from the roof
The Papal state also used Sant'Angelo as a prison, and executions were done in a small inner courtyard. For those who love opera, the castle is the setting for the third act of Giacomo Puccini's Tosca -- the eponymous heroine leaps to her death from the castle's ramparts.

We went through the castle almost room by room, up and down stairs, and saw lots of empty rooms, but also others with examples of swords and canons, as well as armour. Visitors are finally rewarded with a view from the roof, and it's a stunning panoramic view of the city.

The Archangel Michael unsheathing his sword
It was a tiring over three-hour tour of the place, but it was well rewarded with blue skies and dramatic clouds. Very memorable!

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Picture of the Day: Tax Refund

The line went all the way down to the end and to the left. Daunting, right?
Italy encourages tourists to shop shop shop -- the more the better. That's because if you reside outside the European Union, you are eligible for a tax refund when making purchases of 155 euros (US$175.36) or more in Italy.

The shop should help you fill out a tax refund form with the receipt attached so that you can claim the VAT refund of 22 percent. It's a huge difference which is why it's worth getting the refund.

However, the refund can only be processed at the airport, which is why it's advisable to go there with plenty of time before checking in. The morning I went, my flight was much later, and so I had time to get the refund.

The line for the VAT refund (in a big yellow sign) was very long to say the least, though it did move, slowly. It was full of mostly Japanese people who were holding wads of receipts.

Another rule about getting the refund is that you may have to show the officer your purchase so you can't pack it into your suitcase.

My biggest panic was waiting in line and not being in the right line. When I bought a pair of shoes, the sales assistant told me I would need a stamp on the form and then get the refund. So when my line slowly inched closer to the counters, I couldn't see where you were supposed to get a stamp and started to worry.

The people in front of me were Japanese tourists. They were young people who had bought many name brand luxury items. Thankfully they had an Italian guide, a well-dressed middle-aged man who spoke good Japanese and helped them with translation or questions.

I quickly asked him if I needed a stamp and he said no, and that I was in the right line.

Finally it was my turn at the counter and after showing them the receipt, the tax form (filled out by the store), my passport and credit card, the whole process took less than five minutes. She was even busy chatting with her colleague next to her that she didn't even ask to look at the shoes I bought.

She gave me a receipt showing the amount credited to my credit card and that everything was done. I was able to pack my shoes in my suitcase before checking it in, so there was one less thing to carry.

And in my next credit card statement, the refund was credited. It made my expensive purchase easier to justify. Ha!