Friday, February 24, 2017

Our money

It was recently announced that the Hong Kong government has a fiscal of HK$ 92 billion for the current financial year.  We have actually been running huge financial surpluses for decades, perhaps one of the very few (perhaps the only) economies to do so.  The result is that we have piled up a fiscal surplus of HK$ 935 billion, which is just sitting there.  The only ones to benefit from it are the banks that manage it.  

In the mean time, we have under-invested in our schools, universities, hospitals, and other social institutions.  What could have been done with the money?  It could have been used to run 10 universities and hire 50,000 teachers for the past 10 years.  Or we could have used half of the money to run 5 universities and hire 25,000 teachers, and still have more than 400 billion to run many hospitals, improve social welfare and many other needed services.  

The result would have been the most intelligent workforce in the world, and much higher productivity.  In turn, we would have generated much increased income for the government, and even bigger surpluses and reserves.  Nothing would have been lost.  But we would have a much happier population, much less conflicts, and a much more harmonious.  

Now, the questions is: Do we want the same people (or people just like them)  to run our government?  A harder question: Do we even have the option to find a set of different people to run our government?

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Caravaggio in Malta

It was a great and very pleasant surprise for me to find Caravaggio’s The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist at St. John’s Cathedral in Valetta, Malta.  
Caravaggio (Michelangelo da Caravaggio) is one of my favourite painters, well known for his radical naturalism and turbulent life.  He killed someone and fled to Malta, which was controlled by the Knights Hospitaller (Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem).  Caravaggio was inducted into the Order and the Knights commissioned him to make the huge oil painting (12 ft by 17 ft) for the altar.  It is now hanging in the Oratory in the Cathedral.  It is considered Caravaggio’s masterpiece. We were not allowed to take photographs of the painting.  But I found one from Wikipedia.   

The painting attracted a lot of interest and questions.  The attention of the viewer is drawn to the executioner rather than Saint John the Baptist.  There is relatively little blood considering that Saint John’s throat has already been cut, even though he has yet to be beheaded.  Only one of the persons in the painting expressed horror, presumably at the injustice committed.  Some think that the woman expressing horror is Herodia.  Caravaggio signed his name in the blood, believed the only time that he has signed his painting.  

Later on, Caravaggio was imprisoned in one of the forts on Malta.  He died in Tuscany at the age of 38.  

My wife and I spent a lot of time staring at the painting, and listening to the local tour guide explaining to us the painting.  

The outside of the church gives little indication of the glittering, extravagant  gold inside. The extremely rich decoration hints at how rich the Knights were.  

The ceiling was also richly-painted.  The painted-on shadows make some of the figures look three-dimensional.  

Many people were buried beneath the church.  Many of them important members of the order.  

For such a small place, Malta is really quite interesting.  

Monday, February 20, 2017

Nicosia, Cyprus

One of my more intriguing experiences in Cyprus happened in Nicosia.  We went to Ledras Street and walked towards the north.  When my wife and I climbed up an observation tower in the middle of Ledras Street we were able to look to the north, across the buffer zone, towards “North Cyprus”.  We could see Selimiye Mosque, which was originally St. Sophia Cathedral, a catholic church.  We could see the white-on-red Turkish flag, and side by side, the red-on-white “Northern Cyprus” flag. 

Under an umbrella in the middle of Ledras street, we found the checkpoint between Republic Cyprus and “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus”.  We watched people entering Northern Cyprus freely.  When they return from the north, it seemed that they need to produce their passport.  I was tempted to venture into Northern Cyprus but decided not to take the risk.  

Cyprus was settled by the Greeks more than 1,000 years BC.  It was, in turn, occupied by the Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, …  Between 1571 and 1878 it was occupied by the Ottoman Empire and Turks settled in the north.  In 1914 Cyprus was annexed by the British.  In 1960 Cyprus became independent.  In 1974 Turkey invaded and occupied northern Cyprus. In 1983 the occupied north declared independence but was recognised only by Turkey.  Nicosia has remained divided ever since.  

Cyprus history has taken many turns.  Will the north and the south reunite?  Who knows?

Sunday, February 19, 2017


From Malta, we flew to Cyprus, in reverse to Paul’s journal to Rome.  According to the Acts of the Apostles, Paul’s ship was forced to pass by the east and then north of Cyprus, before going onto Crete, and shipwrecking on Malta.  We stayed in the south and didn’t venture into the north, which is politically sensitive.  

On Cyprus, we were taken to a place near Paphos where Greek legend says Aphrodite (Venus in Roman legend) was born.  Some say it is specifically the second rock.  The view is just beautiful.  

There are cats everywhere.  At the fort on the harbour on Paphos, there was a cat that seems to own a castle.  

A pair of pigeons also behaves as if they own the place.  The cat and the pigeons don't seem to bother with each other.  

Our room at the hotel near Limassol had a fantastic view looking out towards the Mediterranean Sea. One morning I went out for a run along the seaside.  It was sunny and cool, and the temperature was just perfect.  But i heard that it can be very hot in summer. 

Cyprus seems to be a modern country like Malta, with similar weather.  But it has much more open space and countryside.  Very liveable. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

St. Paul’s Islands, Malta

To the north of the main island on Malta is St. Paul’s Bay.  At the mouth of the bay is a couple of islands called St. Paul’s Islands.  In the Acts of Apostles it was recorded that the ship that was taking Paul from Caesarea to Rome was shipwrecked on an island identified as Malta.  Legend has it that St. Paul was shipwrecked there on these islands, hence they are called St. Paul’s Islands.  

The Acts also recorded that Paul was bitten by a snake, a viper.  He was expected to die but Paul suffered no ill effects. The Maltese people believed that it was Paul who laid the foundations of Christianity in Malta.  It seems quite amazing that I might have been walking where Paul walked two thousand years ago. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Mdina of Malta

In the old city of Mdina of Malta, we were quickly reminded of St Paul.  According to the Acts of Apostles, Paul was in a ship heading for Rome when it was shipwrecked.  He landed on Malta.  There he encountered Publius and cured his father.  According to church tradition, he became the first bishop of Malta and its first saint.  It is a fact that Malta became one of the first Christian nations in the world starting with Publius. Here at the rear of the Mdina Gate, we found the reliefs of St. Publius, St. Paul and St. Agatha. 

We entered Mdina through the Mdina Gate.  

St. Agatha is another fascinating story.  She was a virgin who refused to renounce her Christian faith around 221 AD.  Legend has it that she was tortured and her breasts were cut off.  St. Peter appeared to her and healed her.  Eventually she died in prison.  Prior to her martyrdom in Sicily, she took refuge in Rabat, the suburb of Mdina on Malta.  Hence she is the patron saint of Malta and breast cancer patients, among many other people and places.  

From the city walls of Mdina, which is sitting on a hill, one can see as far as the seaside towns such as Valetta and beyond that, the sea itself in many directions.  Hence the strategic value of Mdina.  

There is a lot of elegant architecture, including intricate door knockers.  

It is fun walking around Mdina.  

Malta is a small but interesting place.  

I am glad we came. 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

桂花 (Sweet Olive)

As I was walking through campus this morning, I was suddenly made aware of a familiar fragrance.  I instinctively knew it was 桂花 osmanthus fragrant. 

It is one of my favourites.  It is not big in size, loud in colour, complex in structure, or overpowering in fragrance.  It is small in size, pastel in colour, simple in structure, and strong yet subtle in fragrance.  I have always heard that it flowers in Autumn.  Yet I have discovered that those on campus flower every few months.  Perhaps it is because of the warmer climate in Hong Kong.  It almost seems that they realise that they are small and not attraction grabbing like others.  Hence it works hard to bloom as soon as it can, when it has recovered from its last blooming.  

I like 桂花.  It makes our campus that much more pleasurable.