Tuesday, December 29, 2009

"'Tis the season to be jolly" - bah, humbug!

On Christmas Eve I looked in Oliver's for Stone's ginger wine, the traditional Christmas tipple (even my resolutely teetotal grandmother used to partake of a drop at Yuletide, apparently persuading herself that it wasn't really alcoholic). Alas, everyone else had apparently had the same thought, since they had sold out, and I had no time to look elsewhere, having already drawn a blank at City Super. Then I made the mistake of popping into Toys"R"Us to get a little something for the nephews - again everyone else had the same idea, since the queue for payment literally stretched the entire length of the shop.

I always envy those organised people who are fully prepared for Christmas by the end of November - I am still sending out late Christmas greetings several days later (I suppose I could pretend to be Russian, since their Christmas is twelve days later) - anyway we were still putting up our decorations on Christmas Eve.

On Christmas morning I eagerly opened my email, expecting more greetings from my loved ones, only to be flooded by the usual crop of spam. The organ extenders seemed to have taken a break (they came out later in the day, having presumably been testing the efficacy of their products late into the night), but the Nigerian business proposals, "replica" (= fake) watches, Canadian medications and the like were all out in force. Perhaps the oddest was a message from one "Holly [how seasonal!] Connelly" saying, "I know that you'll be alone these holidays [wrong], what are you going to do? My advice is gambling. It's lots of fun!" No thanks, especially at an online casino I've never heard of.

Least seasonal, having perhaps dropped through a timewarp, was the spammer who suggested I order 10 special cigars as a gift for Father's Day - which was some time in the summer last time I looked. Since my father died of cancer from smoking (15 years ago yesterday in fact), cigars are just about the last thing I would give anyone for Father's Day - or Christmas for that matter.

Things could only look up from there - until I bit on a staple in my fried rice at lunchtime. Then in the afternoon I went out into the garden, only to find that our little lotus pool (the ceramic type that sits on a stand) had completely dried up. I suspected a leak, but since I refilled it the water has stayed in. It could, I suppose, have been caused by a mini-tornado sucking out all the water, but since there were no reports of any strange weather phenomena over Christmas, my theory is that Santa's reindeer drank all the water the previous night.

After that, the rest of the day was actually quite enjoyable. The 3-year-old nephew was pleased with the toy plane we gave him, until another aunty and uncle gave him a talking toy bus from Japan, when he quickly lost interest in our less sophisticated offering. And the 1-year-old detested his wriggly toy snake and kept throwing it to the floor to get rid of it.

So what sort of Christmas did you have? Anyway, Merry Christmas to my dwindling stock of readers!

Monday, December 07, 2009

Debate or Denial?

As the great Climate Change Conference opens in Copenhagen, one of Hong Kong's TV stations (I can't remember which) used the term "climate change deniers" in a news broadcast.

This is a singularly unhelpful term in the context. It is clearly intended to resonate with the term "Holocaust denier", but we are dealing with a very different phenomenon here. The Holocaust is a historical fact, attested to by thousands of reliable witnesses who survived Hitler's death camps, the testimony of Allied forces who liberated them, the confessions of camp guards, and numerous Nazi historical documents. Those who deny that it occurred are either deluded loonies, or more commonly evil racists seeking to whitewash the reputation of the Nazi regime.

Climate change is not a solid fact in this sense. It is an interpretation of masses of statistical observations, which means that more than one interpretation is possible. The majority of climatologists concur on it, but those who do not are better described as sceptics than deniers. In fact there are several levels of interpretation at work:
  1. Climate change is occurring, i.e. substantial long term change in prevailing patterns of temperature, precipitation and wind strength and direction, as opposed to periodic shorter term fluctuations in local weather patterns. Most scientists agree that we are now seeing long term global warming, though some diagree, and some even posit the opposite - global cooling.
  2. Given that global warming is occurring, human activity is responsible for (or a major contributor to) it. Again the scientific consensus agrees with this interpretation, but again there are dissenters. The general view is that the rise in the emission of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, is a key factor in causing rising temperatures.
  3. This warming is having, or will have, a disastrous effect on humans and the many other creatures with which they share the planet.
  4. Given this, we should change our behaviour to mitigate the effects. Here we begin to move from scientific to moral and political questions. Some prominent voices have suggested that we should just "get used to the idea" - not a view, I suspect, that will be shared by people in countries such as Bangladesh and the Maldives, or cities like New Orleans, which could largely vanish with a rise of a few feet in sea level.
The fact is that propositions 1 through 3 above are generally agreed to be the best interpretation we have of the available data, but they are not "facts" in the sense that the Holocaust is. In the nature of scientific method (something sadly misunderstood by most laymen), they are open to challenge and alternative hypotheses. The debate will and should continue, and it is neither fair nor logical to stigmatise those who do not share the prevailing view as "deniers". ( I was intending to compare this scientific debate with those over the tobacco/cancer and HIV/AIDS findings, but will save that for another day.)

What does this mean for proposition 4? In my view, regardless of the fact that climate change may eventually be disproved, we should continue to act for now as if it is a proven fact. If it turns out to be a false alarm, we will have at least cleaned up much of our atmospheric pollution and developed new cleaner sources of energy, while doing no harm. If not, our actions now may make the difference betwen the survival and extinction of the human race.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Mass what?

For those of you who haven't yet encountered it, here is the mascot for the Shanghai 2010 Expo, as mentioned in hkorbust's comment on my previous post. It looks to me like one of those friendly nano-characters in commercials for cleaning fluids that chase away the nasty germs lurking in your kitchen and bathroom. Or does anyone have a better idea?

Friday, December 04, 2009

What Becomes a Leg End Most?

Well, the East Asian Games have started, and I hope they go well - and of course that Hong Kong performs well. But I am still waiting for someone to tell me what the Games' slogan is all about.

Be The Legend.

Be the what? First of all, who is it addressed to? If it's to the people of Hong Kong, how can we be the legend? A slogan is not enough - we need an instruction manual to go with it.

If it's to the athletes, well I wish them luck, but I very much doubt we're going to see any real sporting legends here. A true sporting legend is someone who dominates their sport internationally and sets the benchmark that others aspire to - and if they have a dash of charismatic flamboyance in their character, so much the better. Think W.G. Grace, Pele, Tiger Woods, Martina Navratilova, Muhammad Ali, Jesse Owens, Lance Armstrong, Michael Schumacher, Torvill and Dean.

No doubt we will see some keen competition here this month, but I don't expect much of it to be of that class. Which is not at all to disparage the efforts of those who do their best. Hong Kong may not have raised any global sporting legends (yet), but we have had our local sporting heroes, a couple of them world class: Lee Lai-shan, and probably our finest current sportsman, Wong Kam-po.

Anyway, good luck to all the competitors - but next time, give them a better slogan. And those mascots are pretty silly, too...

Friday, November 20, 2009

It'll all come out in the wash

The current TV commercial for the Hong Kong government's deposit protection scheme depicts a woman washing a number of large coins. Should the government really be so blatantly encouraging money laundering?

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Censorship is the best form of publicity

Since opening up to the world, China has become much more adept at public relations than in the old communist days, when the ultimate in propaganda was pictures of smiling peasants happily gathering improbably bounteous harvests under the benevolent guidance of Chairman Mao. But one thing the country's leaders still don't appear to have grasped is that in a free country, the surest way to publicise anything is to try to ban it. For this reason, China's efforts to export its domestic suppression of dissent often have the opposite effect to that intended. The suppression becomes the story, highlighting the very cause China wishes to keep hidden.

Hardly anyone outside Xinjiang Province had heard of Uighur rights activist Rebiya Kadeer until a few months ago. China's clumsy attempts to have a film about her withdrawn from the Melbourne Film Festival and her invitation to attend cancelled, far from keeping her campaign out of the public eye, transformed her into a world figure instead. And the Dalai Lama's prominence on the world stage owes much to China's high-profile ritual denunciations of any world leader who agrees to meet with him.

One day China's leaders will cotton on to the fact that keeping silent is often the best tactic. Until then we should thank them for helping to highlight their own country's darker areas so effectively.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Powerless or just useless?

According to the SCM Post, Hong Kong officials are powerless to stop New Territories landowners from blocking access roads to villages in order to build houses. Like much government propaganda, this is of course total nonsense. There are numerous regulations the government could apply if it wanted to - and if those are insufficient, it could always put new legislation forward to deal with the problem.

The fact is that what the government lacks is not legal power, but willpower to tackle the excessive influence of the New Territories Mafia - those memorably dubbed "indigenous property developers" by the late Kevin Sinclair. Well-intended measures to protect a vulnerable rural minorty decades ago have, through changing circumstances, created an elite class of Hong Kong citizens enjoying special privileges - particularly the widely abused "village house" policy - just because of where their ancestors were born.

But don't expect to see any measures to rectify this situation in Donald Tsang's policy speech tomorrow. There is an unspoken pact whereby the government will continue to enjoy the support of the Heung Yee Kuk and its LegCo representaive so long as it does nothing to curb the undeserved "rights" of NT villagers. Just one of the facts of life in Hong Kong.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Mixed Metaphors and Mark Twain

According to ATV's trailer for Gary Rhodes' Local Food Heroes, Rhodes "leaves no eating hoile unturned" in his quest for the best in British food. Now that I must see - I've mever witnessed a hole being turned before.

Meanwhile, what is this obsession ATV News has wih golf? Most days, about half the sports segment of the 7:30 news is given over to a near hole-by-hole account of some tournament or other. Now I know not everyone shares my agreement with Mark Twain's description of a round of golf as "a good walk spoiled", but it is very much a minority sport here. I have no idea what a bogey, birdie or eagle is, and I suspect that 90% of Hong Kong people are happy to share my ignorance. I'm not saying ATV shouldn't cover golf at all, but couldn't they give more time to sports that most local people actually care about?

Friday, October 02, 2009

What goes around, comes around

From a production standpoint yesterday's day-long extended commercial for 60 years of Communist Party rule in China was, as expected, an impressive spectacle. Every tiny detail was impeccably choreographed, down to the symbolism of President Hu wearing a Mao jacket to inspect the troops (in a Chinese-made limo) , while donning Western suit and tie for the evening's gala show.

Nevertheless, all the razzamatazz could not quite hide the mass of ironies and contradictions in the underlying message. The most obvious irony is that of proclaiming the nation's peaceful intent while showing off its largest ever assemblage of deadly weapons. Somehow the doves of peace in the evening show failed to harmonise with the tanks and ICBMs of the earlier parade.

Even more at odds with the peaceful image China seeks to project is that all this weaponry is primarily aimed, not at any external enemy, but at intimidating 23 million fellow-Chinese separated from the PRC by a narrow stretch of water and a century of history. And then there is the little matter of proudly displaying the armed might of the PLA on the very spot where its reputation was irreparably tarnished by its slaughter of the innocents in June 1989.

As in many cucltural events in China, there is also the irony of relying heavily on the traditional costumes and dances of the nation's many ethnic minorities to bring colour to the evening's festivities, at a time when relations between the Han majority and at least two of the largest of those minorities are so tense that they have erupted into violence in recent times.

But perhaps the biggest irony of all is that a writer on China (Martin Jacques, I think it was) could say on the ATV news a few nights ago that one of China's biggest problems was not only its tremendous gap between the rich and poor, but that many of the poor strongly resented the rich because they believed most of them to have become rich by foul means. Which is pretty much where we came in in 1949 - maybe what China needs now is a communist revolution?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Short Change

My 9-year-old niece in Britain was too upset to sleep the other night, crying inconsolably because the book she'd been reading at bedtime told her that the universe would come to an end in two billion years. Assurances that she wouldn't be around by then to worry about it only seemed to make matters worse!

My own contemplations today are somewhat closer to home in both time and space. What's up with these girls who sit opposite me on the MTR wearing tiny miniskirts, then spend the entire journey tugging at the hem in an attempt to avoid showing anything? If they're so worried about revealing the colour of their knickers, why don't they just wear a longer skirt? Or would they stop tugging if I looked like Brad Pitt instead of my mature weatherbeaten self?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Sound Judgement

Hong Kong is full of speculation about the "real" reasons for Chief Justice Andrew Li's early retirement - indeed, I seem to be the only person who accepts his stated reasons at face value.

Li sad that after working for 37 years, he wanted to take the time to pursue other interests in life. I have no problem believing this, because I have also been working for 37 years and would love to give up in order to pursue other interests. Unfortunately, I don't earn a Chief Justice's salary, so unlike Li I will have to soldier on for a few years longer.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

If it looks like rubbish and smells like rubbish...

If anyone had any doubt that the Heung Yee Kuk is an agent of the Dark Side, today's news makes it absolutely certain. Their brilliant plan for solving the problem of illegal waste dumping, which is ruining much of Hong's once beautiful countryside, is... to make it legal. This is about as sensible as solving the problem of burglary by legalising theft. When is the government going to stop giving favoured treatment to this gang of vandals?

(Yeah, the picture's not from Hong Kong, I know, but it makes the point nicely. I couldn't find a good local one, so I borrowed it from here.)

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Singapore Syndrome

The system that enables you to listen to your car radio when driving through tunnels in Hong Kong also allows the tunnel companies to override the radio signal with their own transmissions. This is fine when they use it to make helpful traffic announcements, such as telling you that a particular exit road is closed or when a blockage will be cleared. And indeed they sometimes do this (though as my wife noted, only in Cantonese - perhaps English or Putonghua speakers don't drive?).

Unfortunately they don't limit themselves to this. It is intensely irritating to be listening to the RTHK news in the Lion Rock Tunnel, only to have the airwaves hijacked by some inane do-gooder relaying unnecessary government propaganda, like telling you not to drink and drive. Almost as irritating, in fact, as watching television and having the government exhort you to "love your family" (seriously) during the commercial breaks. Where do these people think we are - Singapore?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Plain Political Language Part 1

In the spirit of Gowers' Plain Words and Orwell's Politics and the English Language (two works that should be read and digested by anyone who aspires to write good English), this is the first of what I hope will be a series turning recent political statements into plain English.

China says that other nations should leave Myanmar to resolve its own problems.
Translation: China will keep its mouth shut about the abuses committed by the murderous regime in Burma in exchange for being allowed to loot the country's abundant natural resources.

Donald Tsang says that this year is a time to focus on the economy.
Translation: Donald Tsang does not want to have to answer tricky political questions like when we will get the democracy promised in the Basic Law.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Men Are From Earth, Judges Are From...

Two cases reported on last night's news make me wonder if Hong Kong's judges live on the same planet as the rest of us.

In the first case, a part-time music teacher was convicted of indecent assault against two of his pupils. In passing sentence, the judge stated that the assailant was neither a paedophile nor a homosexual, noting that he had been with his girlfriend for ten years. In the real world, men who are neither paedophile nor homosexual do not usually go around groping little boys, but perhaps they have different rules where this judge comes from.

In other news: Oscar Wilde was married.

In the second case, a young man who blew off most of his fingers when a home-made bomb he was holding exploded was sent to a training centre. The judge noted that he only made the bomb "to relieve his anxiety". Well, don't we all? Though if I was forced to live in Tin Shui Wai, I might be anxious to blow the place up myself.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

What's in a name?

Sitting in the airport departure area yesterday (don't get your hopes up, I wasn't the one leaving), I found myself in front of a massive information board advertising Morgan Stanley with (curiously) a picture of an Indian temple, presumably to emphasise the worldwide nature of their services. Along the top and bottom of this board were scrolling bars of financial information - currency exchange rates, stock indexes and the like - provided, so the board said, by Thomson Reuters.

I happened to notice that among the Hong Kong share prices listed was one for "Amoy Properties". Amoy Properties changed its name to Hang Lung Properties in 2002. If it takes one of the world's leading banks and possibly the world's largest financial information provider more than seven years to notice that one of Hong Kong's biggest companies (a constituent of the Hang Seng Index) has changed its name, it's no wonder we have a financial crisis.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Nosey Parker Wants to Know

Why is it that most car parks in Hong Kong appear to have been designed by people whi have never driven a car in their lives?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Culture Shock

After more than three decades in Hong Kong, I thought I was pretty well immune to culture shock, but after a couple of weeks' holiday in England recently, I found myself unexpectedly stunned by the sheer density of people in the streets of Mongkok a few days ago - as if I was experiencing it for the first time. A strange feeling.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The best of the worst

There is plenty of competition for the title of "World's Worst Regime". Twenty years ago the Tiananmen Massacre would have seen China in with a strong chance.

Today the Kim Family Empire of North Korea is clearly a leading contender, spending the country's limited resources on developing nuclear weapons while the people go hungry. Robert Mugabe's achievement in turning one of the most prosperous countries in Africa into one of the poorest and most repressive through his greed, arrogance and incompetence also makes him a strong competitor. Saudi Arabia's treatment of women puts it on the list, as does Israel's six decades of trampling on the Palestinians, while Iran is mounting a spirited challenge following the (probably rigged) re-election of Ahmadinejad.

But for sheer out-and-out hypocrisy it would be very hard to beat the unpleasant bunch of aging generals who rule Burma. The BBC reports that they have just jailed two people for 18 months for "insulting religion" after they publicly prayed at a temple for the release of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. This from the regime that showed its deep respect for religion in 2007 by murdering hundreds of Buddhist monks for protesting peacefully!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Be sure to insert your earplugs before listening to the people

A few days ago the government held a "consultation session" with the people of Mui Wo on Lantau Island, supposedly to hear their views on the proposal to allocate a vacant school building in Mui Wo for use by a special school for the rehabilitation of teenagers with drug problems. As it turned out, local sentiment was overwhelmingly against the proposal.

In the few days since then, a series of senior government oficials have made speeches pleading with the islanders to be more understanding of the need for the school, and to accept the proposal. This proces culminated in the Chief Executive himself reiterating this appeal.

Seceral interesting points emerge from this series of events. Firstly, it is obvious that the government has already made up its mind to push the proposal through, and is unwilling to listen seroiously to any opposing viewpoint. In that case, why hold a sham "public consultation" if they had no intention of listening to counter-arguments by the Mui Wo residents in the first place?

Secondly, as I understand it from media reports, the main objection by most islanders is not to the proposal as such, but that they feel (quite reasonably) that any vacant school on the island should be allocated to their own children, who now have to make the long ferry journey to Hong Kong every day to attend classes. The government has apparently given them no answer on this point.

While no reasonable person would deny that teenagers with drug problems need help, the government's rush to move them to this school does not appear to be part of any coherent long term educational planning process. Rather, I suspect it is a panic reaction to several well-piblicised recent cases of young people being found under the influence of drugs in public places, together with pres stories of drug use in leading local chools. The governmen wants to be seen doing something positive quickly about this situation, however ill thought out their response may be.

When are we going to get a government that actually listens to the public, and places long term planning above short term PR exercises?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Why Iranians are exactly the same as Americans

Despite all the political tensions between the USA and Iran, at heart Americans and Iranians are exactly the same.

Proof: the Iranians have just done in 2009 exactly what the Americans did in 2004 - re-elected a failed incompetent ill-informed loudmouth of a president just because he said the right things to appeal to religious conservatives.

P.S. (17 June) That is, if he actually did win the election - clearly a large proportion of the Iranian people don't think so. But then, objections to Bush's election were swept under the carpet as well.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Ten Things Vancouver Does Better than "Asia's World City"

If you're wondering why I haven't posted much recently, it's because I was in Vancouver for two weeks in late April/early May (probably about my 10th visit in 20 years), where I was too relaxed to blog, and I've mostly been too busy to blog since getting back.

Visiting other places does put one's own home into clearer perspective, and much as I love Hong Kong, it has to be admitted that there are many things it could do better to earn its self-proclaimed "world city" status. For example:
  1. Welcoming visitors: Canada's customs inspections are notoriously intrusive, but at least BC has successfully handled a few cases of swine flu without feeling the need to imprison several hundred tourists for a week because they just might have been in contact with someone who just might have contracted a disease that just might be dangerous.
  2. Brewing: the Vancouver area has a clutch of excellent microbreweries and brewpubs (Steamworks in Gastown being one of my favourites - good food, too) producing beers of great character and flavour. Beers from the longest established of these, Granville Island Brewing, have even surfaced on the shelves of City Super in Hong Kong. By comparison, Hong Kong has one microbrewery, which long ago ceased to brew its sole world class beer, Crooked Island, and today keeps a dangerously low profile.
  3. Selling booze: for whatever historical reason, liquor is not sold for home consumption in supermarkets and groceries in BC. Instead, there are some private beer and wine stores, but the major outlet for booze is the provincial government's liquor stores. If you know Sweden's drab government liquor outlets, deliberately designed to be depressing in a vain attempt to make drinking unattractive, you may groan at the thought. But BC's liquor stores are very different (though they do promote responsible drinking) - spacious, brightly illuminated, well laid-out, cheerful emporia filled with every type of booze you can imagine from all over the world, from Laphroaig single malt to my favourite Belgian Trappist ale, Orval. Generous shelf space is given to local wines and microbrews, and you may find tastings being offered. Nowhere in Hong Kong comes anywhere near the variety of choice offered in BC - and so far as I know, Orval is only available here with meals at the Grand Place Belgian restaurant in IFC.
  4. Shopping malls: how many Hong Kong shopping malls have comfortable seats where you can just sit and relax? Free parking? Fun carts to push the kids around in? Even a little train taking them for rides around the mall? (Answer: one, none, none and none, to my knowledge.) The shopping mall is of course part of North American culture, and Vancouver has some excellent ones - the biggest, Metrotown, is so large it even houses two branches of some stores. But it's not just the physical facilities - why are there so many things it's easy to buy in Canada and impossible to find in Hong Kong?
  5. Nudity - despite some lovely sunny days which saw hardy Canadians shed their winter fleece in favour of T-shirts and hotpants, it was a little too cool during this trip to visit Wreck Beach (picture). But on fine summer weekends, Vancouver's scenic official clothing-optional beach, 6.5 km long, is enjoyed by thousands of people from all of Vancouver's numerous communities in varying states of undress. Number of clothing-optional beaches in Hong Kong: nil (though there are a few isolated spots where you can strip off if you're so inclined).
  6. Cultural diversity: for all its world city pretensions, Hong Kong sometimes seems at heart a conservative provincial Chinese city with a thin overlay of internationalism. Vancouver, by comparison, wears its multiculturalism comfortably. More than half the population is now from a non-English-speaking background (not just Asians), but they rub along peacefully together. Compare the road in Richmond that has a Baptist church, Chinese temple, Tibetan temple and mosque all sitting companionably side by side with the long frustrating attempt by Hong Kong's Muslims to find a site for a new mosque in the New Territories.
  7. Cycling: even in the heart of the city, Vancouver has many cycle lanes and actively encourages cycling as a pollution-free form of transport. While Hong Kong has some good cycle paths in the New Territories, cyclists are far from welcome in the urban areas. This could be because Vancouver's cyclsists generally wear safety helmets and follow the rules of the road, whereas most cyclists here do not appear to be aware that there are any rules, even less that they should follow them.
  8. Recycling: Every home in Vancouver separates its household waste into several categories for recycling, with the result that only a very small proportion ends up in landfills. Cans and bottles go back to the liquor store. If Hong Kong was as serious about recycling, the government wouldn't need to steal sections of our country parks for new landfills.
  9. Conservation: heritage buildings in Vancouver are routinely cherished and restored, while Hong Kong's government has to be pushed really hard to save anything worthwhile from the past - look at the King Yin Lei fiasco.
  10. Greek restaurants: there are probably several dozen of these in Vancouver. For some reason, no Greek restaurant in Hong Kong seems to survive longer than a year, and to my knowledge, there is not even one at present.
  11. Major sporting events: One more for luck - I'll see your 2009 East Asian Games and raise you my 2010 Winter Olympics.
A recent Economist survey declared Vancouver the world's most livable city. Hong Kong ranked 39th out of 127 cities included, the second highest in Asia after Osaka. Harare (Zimbabwe) came last.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

I Should Be There

Every year I promise myself that I will attend the June 4th candlelight vigil in Victoria Park, and there's always some reason why I don't make it. But I do want to mark the occasion here - if only to tell Donald Tsang firmly and clearly that no, you do not speak for all Hong Kong people in trying to sweep the massacre under the carpet. You certainly don't speak for me.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Song for PCCW Directors

Listening to Bob Dylan's new album, Together Through Life, I was interested to see that he's apparently written one song for the Board of PCCW. "You took all my money and you gave it to Richard Li," he sings in one line of Shake Shake Mama. What could be clearer than that?  

Disclaimer - I get a small commission from Amazon if you buy the CD through the picture link here.

Bankers with a W revisited

Walking through Central earlier this afternoon, I observed that three banks - Citibank, Dah Sing and DBS - had protesters outside them, apparently aggrieved victims of the Lehman's minibonds saga.

We have already seen plenty of evidence that, on the scale of human decency, bankers rate only slightly above lawyers and politicians. Here's another piece: while waiting for a bus in Des Voeux Road, I noticed that Wing Lung Bank has cordoned off part of its broad front steps and has posted no fewer than four security staff there. So far as I can see their primary function - perhaps their sole function - is to keep non-customers from defiling the bank;s sacred steps with their presence.

Even at minimum wage, by the time you take into account MPF, annual bonus and uniforms, this means the bank must be spending close to half a million dollars a year just to prevent those waiting for a bus from enjoying the only spot of shelter from sun or rain in the vicinity. How mean can you get? (If any Wing Lung shareholder is reading this, they might like to question whether this is an appropriate use of the bank's money.)

The Rip-off Files 3B - Getting it right

As a follow-up to my previous post, Wellcome actually got it right for once. As well as matching PARKnSHOP's price cut on the individual cans of Red Bull, they lowered the price of the 4-pack to $48.

On my way to where

In another shining example of the Hong Kong government's dazzling intelligence, the Highways Departmnt (I assume) has covered all the direction signs on the Tsing Ma Bridge with bamboo scaffolding. So if you're coming from the airport and don't know which lane you should be in, don't expect much help in finding out.

And to the driver of the taxi running along the airport highway without lights at close to 10pm last night: the only reason I don't give your number here to tell eceryone what a prat you are is that it was too dark to see it clearly.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Redundant Redundancy

No, not the type that so many employees are facing in the current recession - what I'm talking about today is redundant words in company names.

We live in an impatient age, and companies pander to this by shrinking their names. The model for this is of course International Business Machines, who shortened their long name to IBM and for a while became one of the most successful companies in the world (before making the deadly mistake of letting young William Gates keep the rights to the operating system he created for them).

Every business with a long name now routinely contracts it to something shorter, or just initial letters. So the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation becomes HSBC, and even the venerable Liu Chong Hing Bank ditches the Liu from its name as one syllable too many.

The problem is that this often throws out the meaning of the name at the same time. This is fine if you're a household name like HSBC or IBM, and everyone knows what you stand for anyway. But some companies then start re-exoanding the name to restore meaning to it. So today I saw a van with FedEx Express on the side, and our electricity comes from a company called CLP Power.

What this means is that we now have Federal Express Express and China Light and Power Power. Am I the only one who finds this rather silly silly?

Lemming Fever

Funier today, in his usual inimitable style, castigates the media for whipping up a panic over a few cases of flu in Mexico and the US. A handful of infections hardly justifies those who have started running around like Cassandra on a bad day wailing that "We're all going to die!" We heard the same during the SARS outbreak, and how many of you know anyone who actually died from SARS? The only person I know who contracted the disease is my doctor, and he recovered. It eventually killed just one in every 23,000 Hong Kong people.

This is not to say you shouldn't take the flu threat seriously; just keep a sense of proportion.

One of the funny things about this latest potential pandemic is that they're calling it swine flu, but one expert on TV the other day said it's a new mutation of the flu virus and there's no evidence that it came to humans from pigs. By that logic it could just as well be called wombat flu or polar bear flu , though I think perhaps lemming fever would be the most appropriate analogy - unless the swine they're thinking of are Gadarene.

Update: I've just seen Donald Tsang on the news telling us to be calm, so perhaps it really is time to panic after all! I'm off to Canada tomorrow night.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Britain's oldest teenager

The Daily Mail newspaper has an article on a young lady they claim is Britain's youngest female funeral director. Nothing wrong with that, but since they describe her as being 20 in the heading, then call her a teenager in the main text, she must also be Britain's oldest teenager (Sir Jimmy Savile excepted, of course).

All together now: seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenteen, ...

Friday, April 24, 2009


My email inbox has 666 unread items in it. How beastly!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Rip-off Files 3A - When will they ever learn?

Undeterred by the Consumer Council's recent criticism from pursuing bizarre and misleading pricing policies, PARKnSHOP was yesterday selling Red Bull at the reduced price of $12.90, down from the usual $13.90. No complaints about that - except that the 4-pack was still at its usual price of $54.80, i.e. $13.70 per can.

In most places, buying the bulk pack of anything gets you a better price, but I suppose that's too straightforward for Li Ka-shing's wonderkids.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

If we don't know where you are, we'll write to you there

In yet another example of the Hong Kong government's intellectual brilliance, the Transport Department is sending out a circular to all registered drivers and vehicle owners reminding them that any change of address must be notified to the department.

Whichever civil servant dreamed up this scheme must have been having a Homer Simpson moment, because it doesn't take an Einstein to spot the fatal flaw in it.

The Rip-off Files 3: Nothing super about it

The discovery by the Consumer Council that Hong Kong's cozy supermarket duopoly is routinely misleading customers with false "special offers" will come as no surprise to those familiar with Hong Kong retail practices. In some cases, the Council found, the "promotion" price was actually higher than the regular price!

What this does is highlight the need for long overdue consumer protection legislation in Hong Kong. This could be modelled on the UK's law which requires a "sale price" item to have been sold at a lower price for a minimum period before it can be advertised as a special offer.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority''s head has reported that the controversial Lehman's minibonds, which have also raised concerns about inadequate consumer protection here, were classified as high risk by some of the banks selling them, medium risk by others, and low risk by yet others. If even the banks don't understand these products sufficiently to agree on how risky they are, they are certainly too complex to be palmed off on to unsophisticated investors.

The further so-called derivatives stray from any link to real goods and services, the harder it becomes to determine their real worth. For example, a valuer can tell you the price of a house in California. but if the mortgage on that property is packaged up into bits, bundled with hundreds of others, and sold to hundreds of banks worldwide, what is each of those bits worth? Lose sight of the fact that such products have a link to the real world, and the risk that their price becomes uncoupled from the value of the underlying assets increases dramatically. Which is exactly how the credit crunch arose.

Making It Better: The Consumer Council of Hong Kong

Friday, April 03, 2009

Ho Ho, Very Satirical

Spike today has a piece about the current row over an allegedly racist article by local commentator Chip Tsao in HK Magazine. For those who haven't kept up, the Philippines government took exception to a sentence in which Tsao described Filipinos as "a nation of servants", and banned him from entry to the Philippines. Local domestic helpers have become equally overwrought about it and plan a demonstration to condemn him, even though he has already apologised.

As Spike says, the article was clearly satirical, and the magazine's editor should have defended its columnist instead of caving in to pressure by publishing an apology. However, while this may be correct in principle, I think it over-simplifies the matter.

Both Mr Tsao and HK magazine have a considerably larger, and probably more diverse, readership than the small coterie of Hong Kong expat bloggers like ourselves, Fumier, and Ulaca who trade in-jokes online. While it is clear that Tsao intended his piece as satire, the subtleties of saying one thing and implying another are often lost on those for whom English is a second language. For this reason, writers and editors need to take particular care to ensure their intentions are not misunderstood in a multicultural community such as Hong Kong.

I remember some years ago submitting a satirical article on how not to get a job to a local recruitment magazine, based on my years of experience in recruiting IT staff for a major bank. The article - which contained such valuable advice as "leave unexplained gaps in your CV" and "remember not to sign your cover letter" - was accepted, but only after the editor turned it around into a straight article on how to get a job, on the basis that the humour would be lost on the intended audience.

Even if HK's editor believed the intent was clear, there is another problem - once someone influential misinterprets such an article, most of those who subsequently get heated up about it have never read the original piece, only someone else's distorted version of it. Once matters reach this stage, there is little anyone can do except wait for the fuss to blow over - and in Mr Tsao's case, plan to take his next beach holiday in Thailand!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

As genuine as a Louis Vuitton bag in Shenzhen

For the second day in a row, the South China Morning Post has run a story about Beijing's so-called Pamchen Lama, this time with a photo labelling him by that title as well.

For heaven's sake, this guy is no more the Panchen Lama than I am the Archbishop of Canterbury! Like many things that come out of China, he is a well-crafted fake. Any article on him should precede his title with the word "Counterfeit".

However, don't expect the Post to risk its business interests in China by telling the truth, any more than the eunuchs running South Africa who recently barred the Dalai Lama from attending a peace conference there.

P.S. To see how real journalism looks, compare the Post's fawning adulation of the young fake with the BBC's balanced coverage of the same story.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Pro-China Morning Post

Headline on today's South China Morning Post website:

Panchen Lama back in spotlight, with praise for Beijing leadership

Well, there's a surprise! With its usual objectivity, the Post conveniently forgets to mention that the so-called "Panchen Lama" they refer to is not the genuine Panchen Lama recognised, according to Tibetan tradition, by the Dalai Lama - that one has been "disappeared" - but Beijing's fake substitute.

If the future of Tibet was not such a serious matter, it would be highly entertaining to see an avowedly atheist regime absurdly insisting it knows better than the universally recognised spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism who is the real Panchen Lama. I look forward to the death of Pope Benedict - it will be very interesting to see Beijing reject the Cardinals' choice of Pope in favour of their own "Patriotic" candidate pledged to breaking the Vatican's diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Spammers Wanted

Does this ad in Hong Kong Craigslist irritate you as much as it does me?
Posting on HK forums and blogs (HK)

We need a writer to post in HK Chinese and English to all the main HK forums and in multiple HK blogs as well.
You will be required to create new threads on forums and also reply to existing threads. The posting need to be from different accounts and should not sound like advertising to avoid the post being deleted.

We need 100 posts done in 7 days to start then it will be an ongoing job.

In other words, we want you to post a load of spam disguised as genuine contributions. I think you can guess my thoughts on this sneaky approach.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Something Is Happening Here But You Don't Know What It Is

Just went to Bob Dylan's official website to read the interview on his new album (coming soon). Then clicked on Media, Videos, and the first video offered, Like A Rolling Stone. Up pops a YouTube screen announcing "This video has been removed due to terms of use violation". Huh? Apart from the bad English (it should be "owing to"), are the copyright cops now so paranoid that even Bob Dylan isn't allowed to post Bob Dylan videos? This is getting ridiculous.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Fire Warning

Sign at the Yonghe Lamasery in Beijing, showing how English grammar can confuse the unwary. Fortunately I was using my digital camera, so had no film with me to burn - though I have been known to burn the occasional photo to CD.

The lamasery was a former imperial palace donated to Tibetan monks by one of the Ching emperors - showing that Tibetan culture was once held in much higher regard in China than it appears to be these days.

P.S. I should of course have said "syntax" rather than "grammar". The sentence is in fact grammatically correct, but ambiguous.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Insufficient Effort

Passing the Hong Kong Bank building on a bus this morning, I observed that someone was assiduously polishing one of the iconic lions in front of it.

Nice try, but after the events of the past few weeks, I fear it will take much more than a splash of Brasso to refurbish HSBC's tarnished reputation.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Some Contradiction?

The Chinese government has predictably denounced as "lies" the Dalai Lama's recent speech claiming that Tibetans in Tibet live in a state of constant fear - and just to make sure, it has dispatched thousands of troops and armed police to the region to imtimidate them into seeing things China's way.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Murphy Was Here

Ever noticed that whenever you put a jug or mug of liquid in a microwave oven to warm it up, it always comes to rest with the handle facing away from you? Why, I wonder?

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Problem Solving

"Global problems are too big and too complex to be solved without female participation."
--Hillary Clinton

And a little more male participation wouldn't hurt, either....

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

No Connection - and No Sense

The South China Morning Post website today features a front page headline "Police find explosives in Tibet". So how do they illustrate this dramatic news? With a picture of the explosives? With a picture of the bridge under which they were allegedly found? Or of the police who claimed the find?

No, nothing so obvious for the Post. Instead they use this (rather good) image of a young Tibetan monk peacefully reading

- and when you click on the story, it turns out he's not even in Tibet, but in Sichuan province.

So what's the connection? Does the Post buy in to China's absurd propaganda which sees every Tibetan monk as a secret agent of the Dalai Lama, a potential "splittist" revolutionary? Or is it just that a lazy sub-editor reached for the first vaguely Tibetan-themed picture he could find? Either way, given the tensions in Tibet, the Post should know better.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

You know you're getting old when...

  • The BBC refer to someone who only appeared on the music scene 15 years after you started listening as "veteran British singer Paul Weller".
  • You look at a photo, think "Who's that guy with grey hair wearing the same outfit as me?", then realise it is you.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Not the South China Morning Post - or the Jockey Club either

For the past 2 days, the South China Morning Post website has not (on my machine, at least - YMMV) come up correctly on Google's Chrome browser, although it works on both Internet Explorer and FireFox. Whether this is the fault of Google or the Post I don't know, but it's interesting that after Microsoft declared victory in the browser wars some years ago, rival browsers are now making a serious comeback (with Opera and Safari also in the running).

Not that the Hong Kong Jockey Club appears to have noticed - its online betting service only works on IE.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Many Hands Make Expensive Work

As both Hong Kong's free-to-air TV stations announce staff layoffs, a thought occurs to me: does it really take three people to read the news (two to exchange silly chitchat at the end and one to cover the sports)? On some occasions, the people in the studio must outnumber the viewers.

So, it's goodnight from me.
And it's goodnight from him.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Death Without Dignity

Attending a funeral this morning has left me thinking, partly about the depressing inevitability of growing old - but that's for another time.

My question today is this: why are such ugly hearses used in Hong Kong? I don't know about other countries, but in Britain or the US, most people are carried to their final resting place in a sleek black (or sometimes white) Rolls Royce, Bentley or Cadillac, something with a bit of class. Here the coffin is unceremoniously conveyed in what looks like a blue and silver cargo van which might otherwise be carrying sacks of rice.

What's the deal here? Even deceased celebrities and multi-millionaires get the same treatment, so it can't be inability to afford anything more dignified. Can someone explain?

Spot the difference

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Cause for Confidence

I have a feeling that 2009 is going to be a good year. Every politician is predicting that it will be awful - and when did you ever hear a politician telling the truth?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Canine Conundrum

I can't help feeling the unfortunate dog stuck between two buildings in Yuen Long would be rescued much sooner if kind-hearted people would only stop feeding her. Hasn't anyone in Hong Kong read Winnie the Pooh?

P.S. (28 January) Sadly, the poor creature died shortly after being finally pulled out from between the walls.

Making It Better:

Hong Kong Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

Monday, January 26, 2009


Kung Hei Fat Choi!

Wishing all my readers a happy, healthy and prosperous Year of the Ox.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Serfing PRC

I happened to turn on CCTV 9 at lunchtime (helpfully carried by both local English language channels - whatever happened to giving the public a choice?) It was featuring a discussion on the recently proclaimed Serfs Emancipation Day (shouldn't there be an apostrophe in there somewhere?) in Tibet. As usual when covering domestic political issues, CCTV had ensured a "fair and balanced" discussion by inviting two experts who both took the same side of the argument.

China's propaganda machine (of which CCTV is part) has claimed for years that the majority of Tibetans, until they were "liberated" by Chinese troops, were serfs who enjoyed no human rights and were cruelly treated by the Tibetan aristocracy, and that the "splittist" (surely the ugliest word ever coined to substitute for a perfectly good existing word, separatist) Dalai Lama and his evil clique seek to return to this unacceptable state of affairs, an event which can only be prevented by continued Chinese domination over Tibet.

Unfortunately for China, few people in the West buy this argument, and there are in fact several reasons why it is a hard case to sell. No one doubts that Tibet was, until quite recent times, a materially backward and primitive society in which life was harsh for most people. It was a feudal system with a caste structure in place. But the idea that the Dalai Lama - who is very obviously a compassionate and decent man - wants to bring back feudalism is clearly absurd. He has made it very clear that a future free Tibet would be ruled by a democratically elected government, and that any leadership role for himself would be solely in the spiritual sphere.

The second problem with China's argument is that there is little or no independent evidence that the barbarism it describes was commonplace. Accounts by Western observers in Tibet during the few decades before the Chinese invasion give no suggestion that cruelty was in any way institutionalised, even though those same observers - for example André Migot in Tibetan Marches (published 1955) - clearly recognised the savage treatment of the peasants in China at that time by their feudal masters, and in fact applauded the rise of the Chinese Communist Party as a means to overthrow it.

Time is on China's side - the Dalai Lama is now over 70, and the true Panchen Lama has been "disappeared" by Chinese authorities in favour of their fake substitute. But whatever the future holds for Tibet, let's at least tell the truth about the place.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Repainting the Sistine Chapel

Among the handful of TV programmes I watched without fail in my youth - Doctor Who, The Avengers, Top of the Pops, Match of the Day (this was in the days before Monty Python) - one stood out for its originality and inventiveness. The Prisoner was, and remains, one of the most intriguing television series ever produced. Now comes news that its star and creator, Patrick McGoohan, has passed away at the age of 80.

McGoohan gave good performances in later years, but nothing he did subsequently could ever match the impact of The Prisoner. A new generation of fans have discovered via DVD the story - more relevant than ever in these days of universal surveillance - of the captive who refuses to submit to his mysterious captors, defiantly proclaiming "I am not a number - I am a free man!"

Sadly, along with the news of McGoohan's death comes the news that a remake of The Prisoner is in the works. What is this awful compulsion that film makers have to redo the classics? The Mona Lisa has been painted; the Venus de Milo has been carved; Beethoven's Ninth has been composed. No one tries to remake them, so why are films different?

I'm not saying all remakes are bad - some try to reinvent the original in interesting ways - but far too many creative people spend their time reinventing the wheel, and only succeed in diluting the iconic power of the original. There is only one King Kong; only one Solaris; and only one Prisoner. Leave them alone and find something new to create.

I live in fear that one day Hollywood will be stupid enough to remake Casablanca...

P.S. It's bad enough that some idiot colourized it. As Calvin and Hobbes fans will know, the world was not yet coloured back then.

Never Never Land

Public consultation on electoral reforms for 2012 will be put off until later this year to allow the government to focus on the economy, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen announced yesterday.
--South China Morning Post, 16 January 2009

So, the Hong Kong government finally admits what a lot of us suspected: it's so incompetent, it can't handle more than one thing at a time.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Work experience

I had to invigilate an exam last night. There's something curiously restful about watching other people work for three hours - and getting paid for doing so.

Monday, January 05, 2009

These mad bombers get everywhere

Seen on the menu of a Chiu Chau restaurant in Mongkok:

exploded the small intestines

Any comment would be entirely superfluous.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

In tennis, love means something

What the hell does Andy Murray think he's doing, beating both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to win a tournament in Abu Dhabi? Doesn't he know the plucky British underdog is supposed to succumb bravely in the quarter-finals?

Next thing you know, Murray will be winning Wimbledon. Tim Henman would never have shown such alarming disrespect for British tradition.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Alien Happy New Year

I have been having some very weird dreams lately. Last night (probably inspired by a combination of recently watching the last episode of the 3rd series of the revived Doctor Who, and reading Robert Silverberg's Heinlein tribute novel The Alien Years, I dreamed that the earth had been invaded and conquered by strange aliens. Humanity was helpless, with alien space vessels hovering in the sky overhead and sitting menacingly on launch pads, though I never saw one of the actual creatures themselves.

Then for some reason the entire planet jerked into motion and started to move off into space, at which I quipped "at least we're moving away from them" before waking up. Nice to know I still have a sense of humour when I'm asleep.

Anyway, here's hoping you can also look on the bright side during 2008. Happy New Year!