Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Gonig, Goign, Gnoe

The Guardian newspaper is so famous for its frequent typos that it is affectionately known in Britain as the Grauniad. But even by the paper's usual standards, its website's story on the funeral of Boris Yeltsin takes some beating. For a start, the headline misspells his name: Russian church and state unite to farewell Yelstin.

Skipping over the inelegant use of "farewell" as a verb, we are then informed that, "The signs of years of ill health were harshly written on the face of Boris Yeltsin's face". His face has a face?!

Yeltsin was notorious for making a fool of himself when, as the Irish say, "having drink taken". Perhaps the Grauniad's sub-editor had just come back from the pub himself?

[On clicking on the links again, I find they have already fixed the spelling error, but not yet the othetr mistake. This may change, of course - unlike printed material, online text is easy to amend.]

No Go at Soko

Today's Standard reports that, "CLP Holdings, Hong Kong's largest power company, is urging the government to speed up the approval process for its proposed HK$8 billion liquefied natural gas terminal on Soko Island".

Apart from the fact there is no such place as Soko Island (the Soko Islands is the name of the group of islands; the proposed terminal would be on Tai A Chau, the largest of the group, also referred to as South Soko Island), one hopes that the process will be one of disapproval. Not because it's a bad idea to switch from coal to gas for power generation; in fact, this will make a significant contribution to cleaning up Hong Kong's filthy air. Not because CLP's majority partner in the project is Exxon Mobil, whose most famous contribution to the environment was the Exxon Valdez disaster. And not because the government's present misconceived "Scheme of Control" for power prices enables CLP and Hong Kong Electric to benefit from capital expenditure whether it's really needed or not.

No, the main objection to this plan is simply that it's in the wrong place. The Soko Islands sit right in the breeding and fishing grounds of the threatened Chinese White Dolphin, already diminished by the construction of Chek Lap Kok Airport. So important is this habitat that the government has already designated it in 2002 as the site of a proposed marine park, now awaiting final approval. Ashore, the islands are also rich in wildlife, including nesting Sea Eagles, and offer ideal potential for low-impact eco-tourism.

Why put the dolphins, and the other marine life in the area (including the finless porpoise), at risk in order to build a terminal that will require a lengthy 38km undersea pipeline to the power station it serves, when it would make much more sense to construct it closer to Black Point where the gas will be used?

Making It Better:
Joint statement by six local green groups opposing the scheme
- Detailed critique of the scheme by the Green Lantau Association
- World Wide Fund for Nature - online petition against the scheme
- Discussion of the scheme at the Wildest Hong Kong Forum
- What You Can Do - Hong Kong Dolphinwatch

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Don't Play That Song For Me

Let's sing another song boys, this one has grown old and bitter.
--Leonard Cohen

What is it about the song Streets of London that makes it the favourite of every busker in the world? Even here in Hong Kong, it's the one English song that every street singer knows.

With over 200 covwr versions recorded, in addition to his own million-selling single, the song must have been a "nice little earner" for Ralph McTell over the years, though I guess he is probably heartily sick of being expected to sing it at every concert he gives. But if he had a dollar for every time a busker sings it on the streets somewhere, he'd be as rich as Bill Gates.

The ironic thing is that it's not even McTell's best song. I personally much prefer the narrative song The Hiring Fair, best known in the version by Fairport Convention - like a Thomas Hardy novel compressed into three minutes of music.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

BC Attitudes

The current issue of BC Magazine features its annual Golden Durian Awards, honouring the worst efforts of the Hong Kong film industry over the past year. Most of it is as entertaining as usual, but whoever wrote this sneering smear story about Gillian Chung needs to undergo sensitivity training:

"This [Best Actress] award is in recognition of her performance after the infamous 'hidden' camera incident back in August - which just happened to coincide with her latest album release. But even more ironic is that on the album cover she wears less than she did in that blurry hidden camera picture. Without sounding too insensitive and cynical, let's just say the whole 'incident' proved at least one of the Twins could act!"

I'm no Twins fan (I hold the somewhat unfashionable belief that singers should be able to sing), but "insensitive and cynical" exactly sums up this nasty little bit of character assassination. What is most objectionable is not the (possibly libellous) insinuation that the whole episode was staged, but the implication that by posing in scanty clothing, a woman forfeits any right to protest if some peeping tom sells voyeur shots of her to the media. This is morally equivalent to saying that if a woman has ever had sexual intercourse, she has no right to object to being raped. The issue here is not about how much skin Gillian Chung has ever displayed, but about the violation of her right to control her own life.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Race Is On

Writing in the influential Huffington Post, Jim Fallows reports the following:

"It was Tuesday night China time when the authorities in Blacksburg, Virginia, identified the gunman as a young Korean. For the previous 12 hours, the worst traits in the Chinese media had been brought out by an even-worse lapse by part of the U.S. media. One -- and as far as I can tell, only one -- journalist in the U.S. identified the killer publicly and quickly as a student from China who had recently been given his visa in Shanghai. During the long night after the shooting U.S. time, which was daytime Tuesday in China, that report was picked up -- surprise! -- by Fox news and a few smaller U.S. outlets, and, via web news sites, it quickly made its way to China.

What the Chinese media did next was bad in a predictable way. Many web links to outside news of the shooting were blocked to limit subsequent details from reaching China. As reported in this blog from Beijing, parts of CCTV and the other official news outlets downplayed all announcements about the shooting until they could be sure what the "correct" Chinese angle would turn out to be. Meanwhile some other Chinese press web sites reported the news -- and the suspicion, emanating from America, that the killer was Chinese. I have friends in the U.S. consulate here, and I could imagine them tearing through the visa records yesterday, trying to figure out who the student might posibly have been, and which consular officer had stamped Approved! on his papers." [story continues...]

My first thought on hearing the original story that the shooter was Chinese was concern that it would arouse American racist feeling against Chinese people in the US. But given China's usual over-sensitivity to perceived slights against the country, I should have foreseen that the case would also perturb many in China itself.

As it turned out, the killer was not a recently arrived Chinese student after all, but a South Korean born US citizen with a history of mental disturbance, which did not, of course, prevent him exercising his "right" to acquire what turned out to be weapons of mass destruction for many of his unfortunate schoolmates.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Bin there, done that

Many local councils in Britain are switching from a weekly rubbish collection service to once every two weeks. According to government research, if waste is properly wrapped there should be no hygiene concerns.

In my student days I used to work as a dustman (binman or rubbish collector) during the summer break, and I can assure you from personal experience that this is (literally) absolute crap. Especially in the hot summer months, the stink from many bins becomes unbearable after even a few days. And since when has everybody followed government advice on how to wrap their waste (except perhaps in North Korea or Singapore)? This is just another step in the gradual deterioration of public services in Britain under "New Labour".

Incidentally one of the greatest compliments I ever received was to be told by one of my fellow dustmen, "You don't work like a student"!

Traditional Hypocrisy

Conservative Hindus are up in arms over Richard Gere's playful kissing of Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty, with some claiming he had insulted Indian culture and outraged the country's "traditional modesty". Gere was appearing at an AIDS Awareness event - presumably the 5.7 million HIV-positive Indians (the highest total of any country in the world) all became infected by practising the virtues of traditional modesty. Can any country with this problem continue to pretend that men and women do not get close to each other?

Well-Regulated Hypocrisy

The shooting massacre at Virginia Tech university in the USA is of course tragic, but there's something sickening about George W. Bush's public commiseration with the victtims and their families while his illegal war in Iraq is killing more people than that every day (not to mention Bush's accomplice Tony Blair getting in on the act).

No doubt some will argue that there is no connection between these two events, but I think there is: America's obsession with guns and its foreign wars both reflect the same sad illusion: that violence is an effective way to solve problems.

America's gun culture also reflects, I feel, a lack of understanding of the country's constitution. The relevant clause (Amendment II, 1791) says (complete with redundant commas), "A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed". In the context of the first part of the clause, it seems clear that what is intended here is a collective right of self-defence.

The right of the people as a whole to protect themselves should not be interpreted as the "right" of every individual nutcase - a Chapman, Hinkley, Whitman or Cho - to carry a gun. 30,000 Americans die of gunshot wounds every year - some just because someone doesn't like Mondays or whatever. But Americans have a problem with anything collective, because it smacks of communism to a nation of people who pride themselves on their "rugged individualism".

Friday, April 13, 2007

So It Goes

The death was announced yesterday of the writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr, aged 84.

Vonnegut's later work was uneven, with some of his stylistic tricks wearing thin, and he has rather gone out of fashion these days, but I believe several of his early novels will in time be seen as among the great masterpieces of 20th Century literature.

Cat's Cradle (1963) introduced the world to the fictional religion of Bokononism, which proclaims its own untruth while asserting the value of foma, the comforting lies that make humans happy. Isn't that essentially what all religions provide?

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965) was prescient in its early identification of what has become a central question in the post-industrial economy: what to do with people who are no use. Rosewater's (and by implication, Vonnegut's) answer is simple: love them. Makes sense to me.

Though I doubt if it qualifies me as a member of Vonnegut's karass, I do have a slight link to him in that my late uncle was, like Vonnegut, a PoW drafted as what Vonnegut calls a "corpse miner" following the controversial 1945 bombing of Dresden in World War Two. Unlike Vonnegut, he was not able to exorcise his horrific memories through writing, and suffered attacks of depression throughout his life.

Having achieved some sort of catharsis through writing Slaughterhouse Five (1969), based on his Dresden experiences, Vonnegut never again reached quite the same heights, though all his later works, however patchy, contain some interesting ideas. His last book, A Man Without A Country (2006) was, he said, driven by his contempt for President George W. Bush.

"When you're dead, you're dead." (Vonnegut, Mother Night) So it goes - but his books will live.

Of all the bodies in all the world...

Following yet another case in Hong Kong where mortuary workers mixed up two bodies, causing a grieving family to mistakenly cremate the wrong person, officials at the Prince of Wales hospital denied that the fact the two bodies were packed in the same cubicle in the overcrowded hospital mortuary had anything to do with the mix-up. In the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies, "well, they would say that, wouldn't they?" Or as Homer Simpson would put it, "Duh".

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Preserving Face

So Chief Executive Donald Tsang wants to "learn from Beijing's experience and policies in preserving its heritage and ancient buildings". Given Beijing's notorious mass destruction of its city walls and traditional hutongs in past decades, this is a little like taking lessons in peacemaking from George W. Bush.

Tsang would do better closer to home by looking at our neighbour Macau, which has done an excellent job in recent years of preserving its core Portuguese architectural heritage among a tidal wave of new building. Meanwhile Singapore provides good examples of how old Chinese shop-houses can be renovated and reused imaginatively, something our own Urban Renewal Authority could learn from as an alternative to its heavy-handed approach in areas like Wanchai and Mongkok.

Incidentally, am I the only one who thought Tsang exhibited slightly indecent haste in practically running off the plane to greet the Mainland officials awaiting him on his arrival in Beijing?

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Ye cannae change the laws of physics - except in Hong Kong

Governments like people to forget things - it makes it so much less embarassing for them later.

For centuries, the inhabitants of Ma Wan Island lived a quiet life, making their living mostly by fishing and farming; then in more recent times many took up jobs across the water in the nearby industrial areas of Tsuen Wan and Kwai Chung. When the Tsing Ma Bridge was built to serve Hong Kong's new airport, the islanders asked the government if they could have a road link to the mainland, making it easier for them to get to work, in recompense for having their tranquil island blighted by the massive concrete supports and traffic fumes of the bridge. However, the Hong Kong government at the time said it was physically impossible - not just prohibitively expensive, but physically impossible - to build a spur road off the bridge to the island.

A few years later, Sun Hung Kai Properties came along with billions of dollars to build a new housing development on the island, and suddenly the physically impossible became possible after all. Yes, money is so powerful in Hong that it can even triumph over the laws of physics!

While we're remembering what the government would rather we forget, let us also recall that the Hong Kong people were promised an extension of the North Lantau Country Park to help compensate for the environmental damage caused by the airport construction (not to mention our very own cuddly concrete Disneyland). Despite the extension being gazetted in 2001, ten years after the airport opened that promise still hasn't been kept.

Worse, the government's "Concept Plan" for Lantau Island proposes a range of inappropriate developments on the island. And I haven't had a chance to read the full story yet, but from a headline I glimpsed today apparently the government has screwed up the removal of some of Pui O's picturesque water buffalo population, with most of those moved ending up dead. Poor Lantau! Poor buffaloes! Poor us!

Making It Better:
An alternative plan for sustainable development on Lantau without destroying the island's rural character

See No Evil

Israel's Defence Minister was photographed a few weeks ago looking through binoculars - with the lens caps still on! Perhaps he was afraid of seeing what his country is doing to the Palestinians.

Happily there are some people in the region who can see things clearly.

The Not Listening Bank

Call up HSBC's phone banking hotlines in Hong Kong, and the first thing you hear after selecting your preferred language is a recorded PR message telling you that HSBC has won an award for having the best customer service in Hong Kong.

If they're really interested in serving the customer, wouldn't it be better to go straight to the choice of services, instead of wasting the customer's time by subjecting him or her to half a minute of self-congratulatory BS first?

Incidentally, am I the only one who's tired of the increasingly meaningless use of the word hotline? Originally, this meant a point-to-point telephone line that was permanently connected, i.e. "hot", like that linking the Kremlin and the White House. Then it became extended to permanently staffed emergency lines like those of suicide prevention agencies such as The Samaritans. Now it seems to be applied to any telephone line that purports to provide customer service, even those that put you on hold for 20 minutes before connecting you to an operator - maybe these should be called coldlines instead?

Monday, April 02, 2007

Old Fart At Play - Again (maybe)

After 25 years of self-imposed absence from the music scene, Captain Beefheart is about to release a new album and tour with a reformed Magic Band. You would probably have to be as old as I am to understand why this is exciting news (unless it's an April Fool's stunt, which can't be ruled out - it was published yesterday).