Friday, 31 May 2019

Picture of the Day: Nintendo Game Boy

A boy and his Nintendo Game Boy knapsack

My morning commute to Causeway Bay can be a slog, walking out of the train and out of the MTR station which can take 15 minutes.

Some of the fellow passengers are glued to their phones watching dramas or texting people, others have headphones on and in another world. But sometimes there are commuters who make the walk to work more interesting.

There are some regulars I see walking towards the MTR station almost everyday but most of the time it's complete strangers.

Remember this game?
The other day I spotted this young couple and I immediately latched onto his backpack because of the lime green square.

On closer inspection, it's designed to look like a Nintendo Game Boy!

I eventually passed them, but catching sight of that bag made me smile and think back to the 1990s...

What a cute knapsack!

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Hermes Brand Value Reaches New Highs

A Christie's Hong Kong auction from 2015 of a Hermes Birkin bag
The luxury economy in Hong Kong is thriving more than ever. Forget Louis Vuitton and Gucci -- Hermes is where it's at.

Christie's Hong Kong just held its sale of Hermes handbags and it netted a whopping HK$45.59 million. Apparently clients from 20 countries were fiercely bidding for Kelly and Birkin bags.

This Birkin bag went for four times its estimate
Hermes bags are highly coveted because they are handmade and take months to make, let alone months or years on the waiting list for your order to be processed.

The French company is best known for using quality materials and skilled craftsmen (and women) to make its objects, but it's the Kelly and Birkin bags that everyone wants. They are the ultimate status symbol.

Even better when the bag is made from crocodile skin.

The world record for a Hermes So Black series handbag was set last night with a rare, limited edition matte black Niloticus crocodile Birkin bag from 2010. The final price was four times the low estimate at HK$1.625 million (US$208,000).

The So Black series was created by Jean Paul Gaultier when he was Hermes creative director from 2003-2010.

Have a spare H$2 million to buy this Birkin bag?
But one bag that was sold for even more was another Birkin bag made from Himalaya Niloticus crocodile matte white (though it is brown on the edges) complete with a buckle that is 18k white gold and diamond encrusted. It dates back to 2011 and its price? HK$2 million (US$252,892).

Many people don't see the point in such extreme luxury, but to see buyers willing to bid fiercely for these items show there are people with lots of money to burn, and the gap between the rich and poor is widening even more.

But don't worry if you didn't get your Hermes bag this time -- Christie's is holding two more sales next month in London and New York.

Although Hermes won't get a cent from this sale, its brand value has been elevated to even greater heights.

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

The Chorus against Extradition Bill Gets Louder

Carrie Lam says she's willing to take the political criticism for extradition bill
The protest against pushing through the extradition bill in Hong Kong is growing, with the legal sector weighing in and planning a silent protest march next Thursday, June 6.

This will be the fifth such march since Hong Kong's handover to China, and this bill puts the judiciary in a difficult position. Critics are concerned about unfair trials and lack of human rights protection in the mainland, but the government insists the city's courts would have the final say on granting the arrest and eventual transfer of any fugitive.

Dennis Kwok is organizing a silent march for judiciary June 6
Legal sector lawmaker Dennis Kwok, who is organizing the upcoming march, accuses the government of being "deeply shameful and dishonest" about misleading the public when it said the courts would be an effective gatekeeper.

"There is nothing the courts can do [to ensure] the defendants would receive a fair trial and due process once he or she is extradited to that jurisdiction," he said.

Another critic is former Bar Association chairman Edward Chan King-sang. He criticized the government's legislative effort for already undermining the city's reputation for rule of law and the principle of "one country, two systems".

"The government has created an impression in the outside world that the central government could directly intervene in the city's internal affairs," Chan said, adding there is widespread concern by business chambers and foreign diplomats.

He said the government was obliged to ensure the place requesting extradition could provide a comparable standard of justice, and should spell out the safeguards in the law.

Another critic is former Bar Association's chair Edward Chan
But it is well known China has an constitution that looks good on paper, but it doesn't follow it to the letter, the same could be said about its legal system.

Meanwhile in the Legislative Council, pro-establishment lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun, who does not support the extradition bill, says Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and her administration are responsible for the controversy surrounding the bill.

"A solution was only proposed one year after the case [of the Hong Kong man murdering his girlfriend in Taiwan] had happened," Tien said. "It was bundled with a problem that has not be solved for the past 20 years."

He was referring to the lack of an extradition agreement between Hong Kong and the mainland since the city returned to Chinese rule. And his observation is correct.

Lawmaker Micheal Tien does not support the extradition bill
In the meantime, the Lam administration is trying to propose some amendments to the bill to make it more palatable, such as allowing local criminal suspects convicted in mainland courts to serve their prison sentences in Hong Kong, and raise the threshold for extradition to seven years instead of the current three. This would mean bribery and forgery would still be extraditable offenses under Hong Kong law, but offenses like assault causing bodily harm would not count.

With Lam having to pass this extradition bill whether we like it or not, it is better to have it watered down as much as possible for our sakes, but how much change Beijing will tolerate is hard to know since it has been wanting to do this for years.

The chief executive is trying to make it seem like a chore she has to complete and has said, "No matter how much political criticism I'm getting personally, I still think this is worth doing." 

How is this "worth doing"? Lam is choosing to treat this extradition bill as something to cross off her "to-do list". But this bill has profound implications for 7 million people...

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Picture of the Day: Lots of Rain

The view outside my window this morning at 8.19am...
These last few days have been... very wet, and there isn't much sign it will let up anytime soon.

This morning the weather looked overcast, and then soon the dark clouds started rolling in when I took this picture.

It looked so ominous!

And then the rain started to fall.

The good thing is that I was able to wear my boots to work.

The bad thing? It was dry by mid afternoon and I had to lug my boots home this evening.

It looks like we're in for heavy showers again tomorrow and the next day, and the next day, and well into next week...

Keep those umbrellas by your sides... you're going to need them!

Monday, 27 May 2019

Growing Chorus Against Hong Kong's Extradition Bill

Hong Kong people have protested against extradition with no response
Hong Kong people have tried to voice their displeasure and fears of the upcoming extradition bill the government is trying to push through, but they were ignored.

Now the foreign embassies in the city are speaking out -- which they rarely do.

Thirty-two diplomats were invited to a closed-door lunch meeting in the Legislative Council today, where they expressed deep reservations about the extradition bill. The lunch follows a formal diplomatic protest by European Union officials on May 24 against the government's planned changes to the extradition laws, which would allow suspects to be handed over to authorities in mainland China and other places.

Elsie Leung says the bill must be passed soon... but why?
Eleven representatives from the EU handed a formal note to Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, urging her to be more clear about the extradition bill.

Earlier former Justice Minister Elsie Leung Oi-sie insisted the bill had to be passed quickly, and even compared it to the "co-location" joint immigration and customs arrangement at the West Kowloon terminus, saying once it was implemented, nothing happened, and that given time, the same would be the case with the extradition bill.

However, she is comparing apples and oranges, and the fact that she insists the law has to be changed as soon as possible means Leung is not concerned about all the details in the bill and its implications.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, chairwoman of the New People's Party, and one of the chief executive's advisers in the Executive Council, said no diplomats voiced support for the bill.

"Some were worried whether human rights protections under the amendments were too weak, because [the proposal] will not be scrutinized by Legco," she said.

Ip added some diplomats felt the government did not hear the views of international business sector on the issue. That led her to suggest the Hong Kong government has to do more to explain the changes in the bill.

Carrie Lam needs to explain the bill more clearly to everyone
Meanwhile, Dennis Kwok, a Civic Party lawmaker, said diplomatic representatives of the European Union and at least five other foreign countries, including Germany and the United States, expressed deep concerns over the extradition bill, as well as the government's decision to bypass the bills committee's scrutiny.

The diplomats also voiced concerns over the lack of legal protection and the unlikeliness of the chief executive not refusing Beijing's demands.

These really are the core issues -- Lam is stuck between a rock and a hard place, while the changes to this extradition bill will prevent people in Hong Kong from having the legal protection they enjoy now.

Starry Lee Wai-king, chairwoman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong claimed some diplomats supported the bill but refused to divulge who they are.

Shall we hazard a guess?

In any event, the fear is that when the extradition bill is passed, it would allow the transfer of fugitives to any jurisdiction which Hong Kong lacks any treaty with, including the mainland.

Cohen says the extradition bill could have scary implications
China legal scholar Jerome Cohen says democratic governments have not signed an extradition treaty with the mainland because they know alleged offenders cannot get a fair trial. And so even 22 years after Hong Kong's handover to China, there has been no extradition treaty made with Beijing.

He adds China's failures to meet international standards of due process are well known, including its arbitrary, often lengthy, secret and incommunicado detention, widespread existence of torture and frequent denial of the help of defense counsel.

The police, prosecutors and judges all work for the Communist Party political-legal committee, and the new National Supervision Commission that controls them, Cohen says. "A single party leader's brief instruction can determine guilt or innocence, the duration of a sentence or even the death penalty."

Cohen says once the extradition bill is passed, it will be easier for China to extradite those "fugitives" it wants without having to kidnap them -- like tycoon Xiao Jianhua being whisked out of the Four Seasons Hong Kong in 2017-- and that person will not have much access to a legal defense.

"Perhaps the most frightening aspect of the impending amendment is its application, not only to all SAR citizens and foreign and Chinese residents of the SAR, but also to anyone who passes through Hong Kong," he says. "This will lead to more than the reciprocating of Canada's recent detention of Huawei's CFO at Vancouver airport for extradition based on alleged violations of American law while in Hong Kong."

Is that chilling enough to be worried about Hong Kong passing the extradition bill?

About 3,000 people marched yesterday in protest, and expect tens of thousands more to show up June 4 in Victoria Park.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

McDonald's Tasting Spree

Ebi or shrimp burger with pineapple in it at McDonald's is very bland
My general rule is to only eat McDonald's once a year -- after I finish the Standard Chartered Marathon 10K race as an excuse to refuel on calories, and it's open early.

However the other day I broke that rule when a friend visiting from the United States was on a mission to try some McDonald's food that you can't find there and I agreed to help try some of it. Why not in the name of research?

Pass on the mango drink with cheese on top
At the giant tablet where you can order food without a human, he was all excited to try several items and luckily we got there just before the lunchtime rush to secure a table too.

After about 10 minutes the food arrived in boxes and wrapped in paper, though the regular waffle fries -- called "potato grids" were already decent on their own. But when we added the extra seasoning of sesame oil flavour, and shook them in a paper bag together, the waffle fries -- oh I mean the potato grids -- were coated in a powder that made it hard to consume, and only when combined with my saliva did I detect the sesame oil taste that was completely redundant.

In terms of burgers we tried the ebi or shrimp burger with pineapple. Intriguing, right? Wrong. There was absolutely no taste in this deep-fried shrimp patty with a piece of lettuce, mayonnaise and canned pineapple. Why would anyone want to eat this?

We also tried the cowboy Angus -- a 130g thick cut Angus patty with a deep-fried onion ring, Cheddar cheese and Emmenthal cheese and shredded lettuce. You need a really big mouth to fit all that in, but it was a burger masquerading to be something fancy, but in reality it was hardly impressive. There was too much going on that the flavours cancelled themselves out.

Definitely go for the deep-fried chicken wings!
McDonald's is trying to catch up with the bubble tea craze minus the boba or black pearls and offering cheese toppings -- sourced from Europe and New Zealand -- on different flavoured drinks, like soy milk matcha tea, salted caramel latte, and long black. My friend ordered a mango one and it arrived with a thick white foam on top with an artful design of hearts in mango sauce.

But alas, I can only say the same refrain -- no taste! As we were drinking this without a straw, it took several gulps to even get to the mango part, and even then there was no mango taste! It's so visually misleading.

However our visit to the fast-food joint was redeemed by the chicken wings, deep-fried of course. Luckily we could order two pieces, one drumstick and one winglet. The outside was crispy, and surprisingly moist inside.

So I'm definitely done with McDonald's for the rest of the year. The lesson learned is to stick to the classics -- but maybe with a chicken wing on the side.

Saturday, 25 May 2019

Picture of the Day: Hot Dog

Yuen Yuen with his proud owner showing off pictures
This afternoon we walked towards the waterfront and came across a man in his 70s and his dog, a Japanese Shiba Inu.

"He's very docile, he likes people petting him," his owner said and so we did.

"Touch his ears, they are particularly soft," he added, and they really were. It was the first time my three-year-old nephew had ever pet a dog!

The dog's Instagram page
Then the owner told us if we take pictures, we should tag his dog's Instagram account (@yuenyuen9011)...

And oh boy does the white dog with cream-coloured ears have a lot of fans! Most of the pictures are of the canine with various random visitors in Kennedy Town, and he has posted for pictures at the Instagram pier, and he's even been to the swimming shed along Victoria Road.

What a hot dog.

Friday, 24 May 2019

Picture of the Day: New (Short) Promenade

Cute knit bombing in Western District! Need to go see it during the day
The Hong Kong government claims it wants to make the city more livable by creating more public spaces for people. It is creating promenades along Victoria Harbour so that people can walk, run and play the length of Hong Kong island's north side.

New boardwalk that I stumbled upon near my neighbourhood
After work I went out for a walk in the neighbourhood in Western District and near the main bus depot, I found there was a newly-developed boardwalk. I immediately went to check it out and was amazed to see some yarn bombing -- a knitter or knitters who had created beautiful displays of crochet or knitted yarn on some of the railings and even sitting above low lamps!

The ones on the railings feature creatures sitting in pairs with arms across the others' shoulder. So cute. I was hoping to walk further, but the boardwalk came to an abrupt end after about 200 metres! There was no way of getting past the barrier to get into the well-known "Instagram pier" and continue my walk.

More adorable creatures enjoying the view
So what was the point of these 200 metres then? It just seems ridiculous to not have them all connected. I will have to find a relatively new promenade that has opened east of "Instagram pier" and check it out... But in the meantime will have to check out these yarn bombing creatures again during daylight hours!

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Two Hongkongers Are Refugees in Germany

Ray Wong (left) and Alan Li (right) at the German Parliament in Berlin
Yesterday it was reported two pro-independence activists involved with the localist group Hong Kong Indigenous have been granted asylum in Germany. The Hong Kong government has yet to react to the news.

That's because Ray Wong Toi-yeung and Alan Li Tung-sing were facing criminal charges for their alleged role in the Mongkok riot in 2016, and they fled Hong Kong in November 2017 before their trial. They were granted refugee status in Germany last May.

Police detain Wong (second left) during the Mongkok riots
The German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) said it received two asylum applications from Hong Kong in 2017.

According to Germany policy, the government would have to consider whether the pair faced persecution back home based on their political opinion or a disproportionate or discriminatory judicial proceeding when granting them asylum and subsequently a settlement permit equivalent to citizenship.
Wong, 25, said he decided to go public with his asylum status because the Hong Kong government was trying to push ahead with the extradition bill, which would allow the transfer of criminal suspects to mainland China, a law that some critics fear could be used for political purposes.

He and Li, 27, will speak at the German Parliament on June 4, the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. The event is hosted by the Green Party, where academic Kristin Shi-Kupfer and writer Zhou Qing will speak as well.

We're intrigued and impressed how Wong and Li managed to get asylum in Germany, but how will they fare there? Hope they've been learning German... would they change their political stance of mainlanders now that they can count Ai Weiwei and Liu Xia as their fellow dissidents?

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Local Celebrity Sighting!

My friend with actor Chow Yun-fat at the Tai Po Cooked Market Centre
This morning I woke up at 6.30am to get to Tsim Sha Tsui East for an assignment. A small group of people and I were accompanying a chef to Tai Po Market in the New Territories as he bought some vegetables and seafood; afterwards he would go back to the restaurant to prepare lunch for us to eat.

For me going to Tai Po has memories -- I spent seven years commuting to the Industrial Estate for work, but hardly ever went to the Tai Po market. I only went once to the area to have the best roast goose I have ever had -- unfortunately that place closed so I never went back there again!

Anyway, we arrived around 9.20am and the Tai Po Market is a giant modern and clean complex near the MTR station. On the top floor is the cooked food centre and that's where we had some breakfast. We ate some pork chop buns, deep-fried fish fillet buns, and dim sum.

Chow having a chat with the chef
While we were eating, a woman we were with had a phone call and walked away to take it. She didn't come back for a long time but when she returned, she excitedly said actor Chow Yun-fat walked right by her and waved!

He seems to be everywhere these days -- people have reported sightings of him at 7am in a cha chaan teng in Kowloon City, in Mui Wo, and on the MTR.

One of the organizers of our field trip excitedly went off on a search for him and we told her to come back with him, but a while later she came back alone! She said he was swarmed by fans and she asked him to come by our table. Would he? Did he know how to find us?

Sure enough a few minutes later, a tall man in all black with a baseball cap, sunglasses, black top, shorts and leggings showed up. We were in the midst of getting up when he motioned to us to sit down, not wanting to cause a commotion.

But onlookers were thrilled to see him and huddled around our table. Chow was introduced to the chef -- the actor didn't seem to believe he was one until a name card was produced. Suitably impressed Chow told us to gather round for a wefie.

He didn't like where I was standing and instructed me to stand to his left and I quickly obeyed. Soon he took three pictures, gave back our smartphone and he left as quickly as he came.

We hadn't even gone grocery shopping yet and already had a massive celebrity sighting!

After I posted the picture on social media, it went wild with lots of comments saying "lucky you!" and "so jealous!"

We really were lucky! And we had a really fun excursion and delicious lunch too!

I'm glad to have a fun memory of Tai Po instead of just that one-and-a-half hour commute there and back everyday for seven years!

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Picture of the Day: Childlike Fun

Eddie Kang's Big City Life elicits smiles from visitors
The Asia Society Hong Kong always has some outdoor sculptures for visitors to admire. They are usually on the serious or contemplative side.

This one however caught my eye and made my day. It's a whimsical collection of five cartoon heads, each with different faces on them. You can't help but smile at the playfulness of the expressions and colours.

And that's the intention of Korean artist Eddie Kang with Big City Life 2017.

In the description it says Kang, like other city dwellers, is overwhelmed by the density and tension in the urban environment, and so he seeks comfort in cartoons. He wants to remind us of the joy and simplicity we experienced as a child.


Monday, 20 May 2019

Hong Kong Scared to Show its True Colours

Cathay Pacific wants to show diversity with this advert, but it's banned in HK
Last Friday Taiwan made a bold statement last week in legalizing same-sex marriages, the first place in Asia to do so.

In a way it threw down the gauntlet on other Asian places to see where they stand, and in the case of Hong Kong, it's still in the closet.

The city's airline carrier, Cathay Pacific also made a daring move with its rebranding with its campaign "Move Beyond", in a bid to demonstrate its diversity. In one of its images, it shows two Asian men wearing suits and holding hands as they walk along a beach.

Other Cathay campaign images are shown in MTR stations
However, both the Airport Authority, which runs Hong Kong's airport and the MTR Corporation rejected showing this image, and other ones are being shown around the city.

Since the news broke about not showing the image of the two men, MTR Corp tried to blame its advertising agency, JCDecaux to reconsider using it in the future. However this wasn't enough for LGBT groups, demanding to know when in the future MTR Corp would use the image.

"What does it mean that they will consider so in the future? What about [this advert] this time?" said Raymond Chan Chi-chuen, Hong Kong's first openly gay lawmaker.

"We reiterate that the MTR Corporation is committed to equal opportunities in all aspects of its business and supports diversity, and it does not tolerate any form of discrimination on the grounds of gender, sexual orientation or any other factor," the corporation said on Monday.

So... why not let actions speak louder than words and post the image in the stations?

Meanwhile, the Airport Authority tried to explain its reasoning not to show the image due to "established guidelines" on how adverts are displayed. 

"In the airport's environment, one important consideration is given to the fact that [the airport] receives a large number of passengers of all ages with different cultural backgrounds from all over the world," a spokesman for the Airport Authority said.

The LGBT community has started an online campaign
He said the advert in question had not been submitted to the authority, perhaps again blaming the ad agency.

In the meantime,  the LGBT community has started an online campaign, getting people, homosexual or not to hold a picture of the banned image and take pictures of themselves in MTR stations or at the airport, and post it on social media.

Already Gigi Chao, daughter of property tycoon Cecil Chao, posted a picture of herself and another woman at the Airport Express where they held up a sign, "#MoveBeyondDiscrimination".

Chao made headlines around the world in 2012 when her father offered HK$500 million (US$63.7 million) to any man who would marry his daughter, even though she was already married to another woman. Two years later he doubled the offer to HK$1 million.

Gigi Chao (left) and friend at Airport Express
Previously Cathay Pacific CEO Rupert Hogg had said of the rebranding campaign: "The inclusion bit is really important. No matter who you are, when you come to work at Cathay Pacific... we want you to be who you are and feel really comfortable and be a productive part of the team and that's what we strive for."

Also, the airline told staff in an internal meeting that one of the key messages of the rebranding was to "fly with pride for our LGBT community allies".

Can we please move forward with this issue? Hong Kong looks like an ostrich with its head in the sand next to Taiwan. We look sheepish in dealing with the reality of diversity in the community instead of embracing it.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Fake Job Hunters Wanted

Some 200 to 300 people in this room are pretending to want a job
It looks like hongbaos or red envelopes in China, have arrived in Hong Kong.

A recent job fair organized by the government of Ningbo promoted 820 positions with annual salaries as high as 3 million yuan (US$432,000) were apparently available.

The event was held at the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, where 51 recruiters, from universities research institutes, state-owned enterprises, private companies and NGOs were looking for people from Hong Kong to fill the positions.

The job fair was organized by the Ningbo government
The Ningbo Human Resources Service Centre that organized the event, is a public institution under the Ningbo human resources authorities, and the job fair was arranged with support from the Beijing Liaison Office in Hong Kong, and Ningxing Group, which is the Ningbo government's investment vehicle.

Five days before the event, an advertisement was circulated on WeChat, which was looking to hire part-time actors to make the job fair look well attended.

"You need to prepare a resume and wait for an interview, which will be conducted for appearance sake," the advert said.

"Salary of HK$200 will be paid at the scene. Only nine places are left now. Add me [as a friend on WeChat] if you are interested. I will put you into a chat group."

A Hong Kong-based reporter went undercover to sign up, and was recruited as an "actor", but on the day of the fair was told there was enough people and didn't need to take part. The reporter still got the HK$200 -- easy money for just showing up! -- which was then donated to a charity.

Having fake job hunters helped boost attendance numbers
At the fair, the recruiter told the reporter there were 200 to 300 people paid to be there. She also said the liaison office and Ningxing Group were not involved in finding part-time actors.

"Unemployment rate in Hong Kong is so low. It's unlikely for such a recruitment fair to be popular here. But every government has its performance goals," the recruiter said.

"There are some companies paying money to hire people to fill the room and make it a lively scene. In return, they will have a better relationship with the Ningbo government when they do business there," she said, adding nothing illegal was taking place.

Meanwhile after the event, some people were seen receiving HK$200 each from a man who was standing across from the hotel in a park.

Some of the companies were contacted to ask if they knew some of the applicants were fake, but they were not aware -- except one noticed it was strange that one woman wanted to take a picture while she was being interviewed...

Sound familiar back on the mainland? It's not unusual for companies to hand out hongbaos as "transportation allowances", but in Hong Kong?

Perhaps someone needs to explain to the Ningbo Human Resources Service Centre that Hong Kong operates under "one country, two systems", and the latter part means no hongbaos!

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Germany's Humanitarian Dilemma

A timely reminder of Germany's constitution of opening its doors
I saw these banners posted in front of the Semperoper or opera house in Dresden:
Open our eyes.
Open our hearts.
Open our doors.
Human dignity is inviolable.

-- Article 1 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany

They immediately made me think of the Syrian, Iranian and Afghani refugees Germany took in since the summer of 2015, when thousands of them were stuck at Hungary's main train station. Today there are about 1.4 million of them in Germany, grateful to be safe from war and persecution.

Merkel visiting refugee children taking classes in school
However, Chancellor Angela Merkel's generous humanitarian action has cost her politically, with native Germans not happy with the massive influx of people who are not one of their own, even though these refugees must integrate and learn how to speak German to be able to thrive.

Our tour guide in Frankfurt blamed Merkel for the current economic situation. He said when he was a child, his father could easily provide for him, his sister and mother, afford a car and take a holiday once a year.

Today the 40-year-old said he and his wife both work -- they don't have children yet -- and they can't afford to buy another car.

Did he not understand that this situation is happening all over the world, not just in Germany? This is not because of the refugee influx. And they wouldn't be competing for his job -- they would be taking the jobs Germans wouldn't want to do.

His dislike of Merkel is misplaced.

I am grateful she has taken in these refugees, and that she has welcomed dissidents like artist Ai Weiwei and Liu Xia, the wife of Liu Xiaobo to Germany.

Liu Xia (centre) and Ai Weiwei (right) meet up in Berlin
It is because Merkel grew up in East Germany since she was an infant and had experienced communism first hand until the age of 35.

Following a series of election setbacks, last October, the Chancellor announced she will step down in 2021 when her term ends. Merkel will also not seek re-election as the head of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany.

Hopefully in the future, Merkel will be vindicated for taking in the refugees not only because of the humanitarian crisis, but also boosting Germany's population to keep the economy going. But for now though, you can feel unease between native Germans and their new neighbours.

Which is why these banners in Dresden are so apt for what is happening today, a reminder to open our eyes, hearts and doors.

Friday, 17 May 2019

Tribute to IM Pei

The legendary architect IM Pei has died at the age of 102

This morning I woke up to the sad news that architect IM Pei had died at the age of 102. Tributes have been pouring in for the Chinese-American who is famous for his buildings scattered around the world, including the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, and of course in Hong Kong, the Bank of China headquarters.

The Bank of China Building in Hong Kong
I pass by that building every time I go to the gym behind the bank, climbing up the stairs along the mini waterfalls. When the bank was first built, superstitious Hongkongers worried the building looked like a knife, cutting up the city, or that it looked like the devil with its two antennae at the top.

Pei's family has a long history with the bank -- in fact it just celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, making it around the same age as him!

His father, Tsuyee Pei, was one of China's leading bankers, according to the New York Times, and when Ieoh Ming Pei was an infant, the family moved to Hong Kong so that Pei senior could run the Hong Kong branch of the Bank of China.

A century later and two generations later, IM Pei's son, Li Chung Pei or Sandi, would lead the renovations of the old Bank of China just down the street from his father's shiny triangular building.

It's a wonderful anecdote that clearly illustrates the Pei's family roots in Hong Kong and its contribution to banking and architecture in the city.

The Suzhou Museum is symmetrical and calming
My other story is in 2008 I spent Chinese New Year in Shanghai on my own. One of my days there I caught the train to Suzhou for the day, wandering around when I stumbled on a building that didn't look like the typical mainland Chinese architectural style of big, boxy and lacking style.

I was immediately drawn to this building that was very symmetrical and discovered it was the Suzhou Museum -- designed by IM Pei.

But of course.

This realization made my visit to Suzhou exponentially better as I was immediately soothed by its simple lines, sitting on the edge of a man-made pond that had a calming effect.

Dramatic pyramid down below the Louvre
How did I not know this was here? The building itself was much more interesting than the exhibits inside.

Sadly the Bank of China building is the only IM Pei building in Hong Kong -- in October 2013 it was announced Sunning Plaza, a 31-storey office building in Causeway Bay, whose main feature was that there was a large open space around the buildings, thus creating an "urban oasis". People liked being able to sit outside and dine al fresco amid a quartet of palm trees.

But alas Pei's first project in Hong Kong was torn down by landlord Hysan Development that replaced it with -- what else -- a mixed retail and office building that is a non-descript office block -- literally. It opened late last year.

Nevertheless, in front of the cameras Pei was always smiling, looking dapper in his suits and wearing his trademark black frame round glasses. He knew how to charm potential clients and explain to existing clients why things had to be done his way. There were compromises too, but probably his biggest battle -- the Pyramid at the Louvre -- shows Pei's skills not only in design but also patience and persuasion.

I haven't seen this entire video of his lecture at MIT about the project, but he explains in great detail (with jokes aside), the challenges he went through and how he solved several issues.

Pei is not only a legend in architecture, but also for Chinese immigrants and ethnic Chinese the world over, an inspiration of being proud of his roots and being successful for his designs that changed the urban landscapes around the world.

Pei fought the controversy of having a pyramid at the Louvre
He may have left us but may his buildings continue to live on.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Picture of the Day: Ampelmann

Amplemann outside his store near Berliner Dom

This green guy is called Ampelmann.

He can be found on the crosswalk lights in Berlin.

When it's time to cross, you see Ampelmann have a wide stride in green, and when the light changes, he becomes red and his arms are stretched out like a cross as a signal to stop others from walking.

The story goes in Berlin, the most foot traffic was at Potsdamer Platz, where some 83,000 people crossed the area everyday.

In 1924 the first traffic lights were installed there -- it was actually an 8 metre-tall tower with lights on each of the four sides and manned by a person, but people on the ground didn't pay much attention to it and continued their habits of crossing the road at their own peril.

A traffic psychologist by the name of Karl Peglau developed the traffic men called Ampelmann and in 1961 his designs were submitted to Berlin, specifically East Berlin. The little men have pug noses and slight paunches, and wear a hat. A year later these little men were installed, and it wasn't until after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 that people in West Berlin saw these cute street crossing signs and felt Ampelmann should be saved.

Today Ampelmann is so popular that Berlin has a number of stores selling products related to the red and green crossing men. You can buy mugs, T-shirts, key chains, canvas bags, baseball hats, bracelets, beach towels, and even pacifiers with these iconic logos.

Who knew such an important street safety sign would become emblematic of Berlin!

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Germany's Basic Cuisine

This crispy pork knuckle in Munich was so good! The skin really was crunchy
When you think of German food, the first things that come to mind are sausages, pork knuckles, schnitzels and sauerkraut. Oktoberfest food!

A disappointing currywurst that was hardly fiery hot
You would be correct. Most of the restaurants serving German fare in touristy spots serve the above items. In big portions.

First we tried the currywurst and they are advertised on signs with flames to indicate how spicy they are, but it's a pathetic sham. Even eaters who can't stand a piece of chilli on their food can eat the currywurst because it's basically a boiled sausage with a kind of ketchup sauce with curry powder sprinkled on top of it.

Seriously it was really disappointing.

Then we tried roasted pork knuckle in Berlin, Frankfurt and Munich. The one in Berlin was tender but the skin was very tough and hardly crispy. We thought perhaps the Germans could learn a thing or two from the Chinese when it comes to roasting pigs to ensure a crispy skin.

A pretty bland sandwich of pickled herring with onion rings
In Frankfurt, the situation improved a bit, with the meat from the pork knuckle meat very tender, though the skin was less tough, but again not very crispy.

However, by the time we made it to Munich, at a German restaurant near our hotel called Munchner Stubn, we were surprised and impressed that the menu item "crispy pork knuckle" really was crunchy! It was probably deep fried, but the skin delicious and the meat was not salty either.

The schnitzels I tried were good, hardly tough, even though they were breaded and fried. The meat was very tender and the flavour was helped along by some freshly squeezed lemon juice.

Meanwhile I tried eat as much sauerkraut as I could as it's not often found in Hong Kong and I basically eat it once a year during Oktoberfest. We also liked the braised red cabbage, more on the sweeter side though equally delicious.

A hearty portion of schnitzel in Dresden
The potatoes are either boiled, made into a potato salad with a tangy mayonnaise, French fries, or potato dumplings, which are chewy in texture, but not very palatable!

My friend YTSL asked if I had tried pickled herring, but I didn't see it on any menus. However at a rest stop along the autobahn from Frankfurt to Munich, I did try a pickled herring sandwich for 4 euros, garnished with onion rings and pickles. It was on the bland side, but oh well. At least I tried some seafood!

Perhaps the bonus of coming to Germany in the late spring is white asparagus season! I sometimes get to try it at fine dining restaurants in Hong Kong (at inflated prices because they are shipped over), but in Germany they were very fresh and meaty, and not too expensive.

Some restaurants offered several white asparagus spears with a side order of say schnitzel or smoked salmon or beef. It was the perfect combination with schnitzel. However, in Dresden I tried the white asparagus soup and it tasted way too salty.

Fantastic white asparagus in season wit boiled potatoes
We had dessert only a few times. Once was at a cafe in the Palmengarten, or Botannical Garden in Frankfurt, where we each tried different desserts. My apple pie was pretty good, a hearty slice. However, we had a fantastic apple strudel in Munich (the same restaurant as the crispy pork knuckle!) with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

The strudel wasn't saccharine sweet, and was choc full of thinly sliced apples marinated in sugar and cinnamon and wrapped in several layers of pastry. Oh so good!

In terms of drinks we did try apple wine that was quite sour so it had to be paired with something sweet to eat, though the draft beers were refreshing, even the dark beer brewed with malt made from at least 50 percent wheat. It's easy drinking and doesn't have much of a bitter aftertaste.

Absolutely divine apple strudel with vanilla ice cream
We didn't just eat German food -- we did eat quite a bit of pasta thanks to a casual Italian cafeteria-style restaurant called Vapiano that seems to be a chain all over the country. It's relatively fast and good value for money.

In Dresden we saw a Vietnamese restaurant and decided to give it a try. The pho ga or chicken pho was basically rice noodles in a delicious broth, but with thin slices of chicken that probably came from a deli. There was way too much chicken meat in the bowl. That was the only Asian food we had the entire trip. And what was I craving as soon as I came back to Hong Kong? Soup noodles with vegetables!

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Munich's Museums

Beyond the Deutches Museum's planetarium is the Frauenkirche in Munich
Our last full day in Munich was a cold and rainy one... we took our hop on, hop off bus again just before 10am and got off at Deutches Museum, which focuses on science and technology with over 28,000 items.

A self-playing keyboard and drum!
the museum was founded in 1909 and is geared towards families and many had young kids. A random trivial fact is that for a time the museum was used to host rock and pop concerts for acts like The Who, Jimi Hendrix and Elton John.

When we arrived there was a lineup, but went quickly and we decided to tackle the museum from the top down. The top floor is a planetarium, but it wasn't open yet, and it talked about all kinds of things related to space, from the sun to the constellations, how telescopes can see so far into space and how the black hole works, using a silver ball rolling around slowly into a spiral that spins very quickly at the end before disappearing into the hole.

On the same floor, the sixth floor, there is an outdoor area where you can see the museum has a tower that shows the barometer and hygrometer, which measure the humidity and water vapor in the atmosphere; the recording was a bit on the high side because it was rainy that day, which sadly made it difficult for us to take some nice scenic pictures of Munich.

The Wright brothers' plane
We also saw exhibitions on things like engines, a man demonstrating how to blow glass, the history of ceramics and how bricks are made in a factory. Another one that I found interesting was musical instruments, though it focused on keyboards.

There was a very small keyboard with black keys called a spinett and a clavichord, both about two-thirds the size of a piano. There was even those self-playing pianos -- one that included the drums too -- and they were pretty massive machines.

One Yamaha looked like today's upright pianos, but this one was different -- it can help musicians record music, as the movement of the hammers is scanned by an LED light barrier. The information is then stored in a MIDI file in the computer. When the music is played back, the signals are electronically converted, and the piano keys move hydraulically in the same way the pianist struck them. Wow.

A plane that was similar to what The Red Baron flew
I had heard of the hurdy-gurdy, but this was my first time actually seeing it. It was a giant box on wheels, but it's supposed to be a stringed instrument that makes sound when it is cranked by hand. The roller rotates and the bellows are then operated, this makes the pins of the roller open valves so that air flows to the corresponding pipes.

There was even a very old jukebox and not the ones we think of from the 1950s -- this one was from 1900 that was shown at the World Exhibition in Paris. Very neat.

Down on the first floor were flying machines including the one made by the Wright brothers in 1909, the first engine-driven plane. We also saw the Fokker Dr. I, the World War I fighter plane made famous by Manfred von Richthofen, or The Red Baron.

The Alte Pinakothek is only 1 euro on Sundays!
The airplane's wings only had a span of 7 metres, making it easier for the plane to fly tight turns. To be honest I don't know much about The Red Baron -- only from what I read from Snoopy comic strips! Nevertheless it was fun to see the plane in person.

We had a quick lunch in the cafeteria which offered decent food and after we finished we noticed there was a big line out the door for people to get food. When we left the museum, we saw a very long line that was almost a block long. Perhaps this was a way to spend a rainy Sunday.

Gorgeous flowers by Rachel Ruysch
After our dose of science and technology, we headed to Alte Pinakothek, an art museum that houses over 700 artworks from the 14th to 18th centuries. The museum was commissioned by King Ludwig I and built from 1826 to 1836 in a Neoclassical style. Originally the building was meant to hold the entire art collection of the House of Wittelsbach, and the king allowed the public to view the works, and it continues this tradition today.

It was still raining when we got there, and there was a giant lineup to buy admission tickets. We soon found out why -- on Sundays admission is only 1 euro!

The building is long and narrow and basically two floors. There are a lot of religious paintings with all kinds of themes from the nativity scene to the crucifixion, angels and depictions of heaven and hell.

I preferred the non-religious pieces, portraits of ordinary people, country scenes, and there's one of a bouquet of flowers by Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750). She was the daughter of Dutch botany professor Frederik Ruysch and she used his vast collection of animal skeletons and botany samples to practice her drawings.

Albrecht Durer's self portrait that is Christ-like
She was so good that at one point she taught her father and sister how to paint. At the age of 15, Ruysch apprenticed with a well known flower painter, Willem van Aeist, and he taught her among other things how to arrange flowers so that they looked more spontaneous. While she continued to work with him, Ruysch was already selling her own work at 18.

Ruysch would later go on to marry Amsterdam portrait painter Juriaen Pool and have 10 children! She continued to paint while married.

Another famous work we had to see was Albrecht Durer's Self-Portrait with Fur-Trimmed Robe, 1500.

He painted this when he was 28 years old and it is considered unusual because of its frontal angle and meticulous details. Durer based the style of this portrait on icons of Christ the Saviour, his hand raised in the sign of the blessing.

Madame de Pompadour by Francois Boucher
One fabulous piece of Rococo art has to be Francois Boucher's Madame de Pompadour, 1756. She was the official mistress of King Louis XV of France and here she is wearing an elaborate afternoon dress surrounded by books, sheets of music and drawings. We were mesmerized by the detail in the folds of the dress as well as the reflection in the back. Her proportions seem a bit off though -- she must have been extremely tall according to this painting and had very tiny feet! In any event a beautiful portrait that shows off the lifestyle of the aristocracy in that period.