Monday, December 25, 2006

Special Kids

Some of the kids at the special school recognized me from previous visits. One kid that I met the first time several years back as a toddler was now 12. His lips and mouth were still purple because of some chronic health problems. But he was talking excitedly, hugged me many times, and joined in all the games. Another girl was about 5, I believe. She could not talk, walk, hold anything with her hands, nor even sit up. But when I held her, she showed me the most beautiful contented smiles. She was twisting and turning all the time, making it difficult and tiring to hold her. But I just couldn’t bear to put her down.

Some people find it difficult emotionally to interact with these kids. Initially I had some misgivings too. But as soon as you come face to face with such a child, it is hard not to want to something for them, despite everything. And how often can you put an innocent smile on another human being?

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas at Taipo Special School

Just before Christmas, we took a team of professors, staff, students and family to help in a Christmas party at a special school at Pinehill, Taipo. There were about 30 kids there with various types and degrees of special needs: autistic, physical handicapped, mentally challenged, chronic health problems, etc. Many of their parents and other volunteers were also there. Together with the school’s staff and the 20+ of us from the university, there were easily a hundred people there. One of my research students was the Santa Claus.

We played games with them: passing balloons, decorating human Christmas trees, musical chairs, etc. Many of the kids were really not dexterous enough to do some of the actions such as grasping and passing the balloon. Others cannot really comprehend what they were doing and were asked to do. Many could not walk. Some could not even sit up straight. But everyone was caught in the spirit and had great fun. That was obvious from the smiles, laughs and squeals.

I could see that some of our university students were a little apprehensive in the beginning. Except for one or two who had some volunteering experiences before, most did not know how to interact with children with special needs, and were initially just standing there and watching the kids, probably not knowing how to engage them. But soon enough they started to help the kids pass the balloons, lead them through the musical chairs, showed them how to decorate themselves as Christmas trees.

After the party, one of my students thanked me for inviting her to help in the party, and said that the party made her Christmas meaningful. I was thankful to God as well, for letting me be a part of it.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Destruction of the Star Ferry Terminal

With the demolition of the Star Ferry Terminal in Central, yet another Hong Kong landmark is being removed from the collective memory of the Hong Kong people. The building probably does not have a lot of architectural merit. But it is evidently something that many of us have very found memories about, both personal and social. It is something that makes up part of the identity of Hong Kong.

Apparently the government thinks that is it neither old enough nor valuable enough to preserve. If we keep tearing down things that are not that old, there will never be anything old enough to preserve, will there? If we keep valuing things by how much cash can be generated from it, there will only be taller and taller high rises in Hong Kong. No wonder the numerous beautiful green trees on the hill of the old Marine Headquarters in Tsim Sha Tsui have been turned into 3 miserable looking trunks in giant flower pots suspended in mid air.

Green hills and trees don’t generate any cash. Yet someone is willing to pay billions for the land. So let us remove the hill and clear the way for more money making. Some of you want to keep some of the oldest ones? Put a few of them in giant flower pots! Somehow there seems to be a depressing consistency in government thinking.

Great cities are great not just because they are commercially successful. The people of such cities can inevitably point to a collective identity that they can be proud of – a collective identity of history, culture, people, events, and symbols. Hong Kong is no double a successful commercial city. But the destruction of the Star Ferry Terminal is yet another indication that our government seems determined to remove anything in the way of development - defined narrowly to include only monetary gain.

In so doing, whatever collective identity that has been built over the years is being killed bit by bit.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Vouchers for kindergarten education

Mr. Arthur Lee made a good point that taxpayer money should not be used to help private kindergartens make money. Hence parents who send their children to private kindergartens will not be able to use those vouchers.

Since many government employees enjoy education allowances, and those education allowances are certainly taxpayer money, the same principle should also apply. From now on, government employees should only be allowed to claim education allowances for education of their children at local non-profit schools.

Government employees who send their children to private schools should not be allowed to claim education allowance. And those who send their children to overseas schools certainly should not be allowed to claim education allowances. Why should Hong Kong taxpayer money be used to subsidized foreign schools, whether they are private or public? We certainly do not wish to use our taxpayer money to subsidize foreign businesses or governments. In colonial days we may be forced to make an exception for the UK. But there is no reason to do that anymore.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Hard-working Students in China

Students in Hong Kong are some of the hardest-working in the world. But I just found that students in China work even harder. During the earlier trip to Hubei, I learned that many students have no summer vacations.

Normally the high school students there have a summer break from mid July to end of August, similar to secondary schools in Hong Kong. But for students admitted into some of the high schools (equivalent to grade 10-12, or form 4-6 in Hong Kong), they are required to attend classes throughout summer. During the regular school term, there are no classes on weekends. However, during summer, such restrictions do not apply; so the students have to attend classes even on weekends. Classes start in the morning, continue after lunch, and go on even after dinner – for seven days a week. And this happens under 35 degree Celsius weather, in class rooms with no air-conditioning.

Even the headmaster of the school we visited said he pitied the students, who “get so tired”! No kidding.


Jared Diamond, in his bestseller “Collapse”, described in fascinating detail how the leaders of some declining societies behaved. Easter Island chiefs erected ever larger statues. Anasazi elites treated themselves to necklaces of 2,000 turquoise beads. Maya kings sought to outdo each other with more and more impressive temples. All these societies collapsed.

Hong Kong is facing very tough challenges. We have lost our low-cost manufacturing capabilities. Our labor is expensive. Our land is scarce and expensive. Our creative industries are struggling. Our education system is not producing the kind of students needed to compete in the global economy. Our health care system is stretched to the limit. Our environment is suffering.

Yet we are erecting ever grander government offices as monuments. I hope that further Jared Diamonds will not lump twenty-first century Hong Kong together with Easter Island, Anasazi, and Maya as societies that use their resources in conspicuous consumption rather than dealing with serious challenges.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Service Learning in Hubei

In the middle of July a colleague and I took 10 of our students at the PolyU to a city in Hubei for a week. There we joined another group from a Hong Kong church to run a summer camp, organized for local (Hubei) junior high school students. The church team taught phonics and we taught Flash and robot programming in support of the English learning.

It is a form of “service learning” that is now increasingly popular in many countries all over the world. In this case, our students learn and practice new computing skills, learn to teach and interact with Chinese students, interact with each other and the church team, spend a week in a city in China which they would not normally visit, and have great fun in the process.

It was hot! Daytime temperature was about 35 degrees Celsius. Even in the air conditioned classrooms, it was 30 degrees. But it was fun. HuangShi is one of the largest cities in Hubei, after Wuhan. Some of the local kids were mostly from relatively well-to-do families - it was obvious from their rosy round cheeks and healthy appearance. (The team sent to another, more rural school reported that the kids there were much poorer, but worked much harder in their studies.)

They were curious and eager. They were very interested in knowing about Hong Kong, about other cities in China, about universities, about foreign countries. They wanted to go to universities but to come home to HuangShi. A girl was interested in literature and wanted to go to Oxford. Another wanted to be an explorer.

They were also interested in Christianity. They felt they are free to believe in what they want and some have been to local churches. Many know, to differing degrees, about Christmas, Easter and Jesus. If you wish to know more about this aspect of the trip, send me email.

Our university students behaved admirably. They were fun-loving and energetic, resourceful, disciplined, demonstrated great teamwork among themselves, and mixed well with the church team as well as the local kids. They are students that we, as their teachers, can be proud of.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

1st July March for Universal Suffrage

The 1st July March has become a Hong Kong tradition since that first one in 2003, as a popular way to voice dissatisfaction with the government. For a while this year I wasn’t sure I wanted to participate because it wasn’t clear what the focus was. Then in the past 2 weeks it became clear that it would focus on demanding for universal suffrage, something I can clearly identify with.

My daughters, like many HongKongers, doubted the usefulness of the march, since the government was not likely to give us universal suffrage anytime soon, if ever. My response is that I should do something if I believe in it strongly enough, even if it seems impossible. If enough people work hard and long enough, the impossible will become possible. If we all wait for the impossible to become possible, they will also remain impossible. Universal suffrage will not solve all our problems, but it is better than what we have presently, and no more than what we deserve.

Eventually our two younger daughters came with me and my wife to Victoria Park before 3 PM. By then more than 2 of the 4 soccer fields were filled. It was really hot. The sun was beating down, everybody was sweating profusely - including many trendily-dressed young people. But all waited patiently, nobody complained. People with umbrellas tried to shade those standing nearby without being asked. There was a quiet camaraderie that was quite moving, and worthy of the hours of sweating and sun-baking by itself.

The first marchers started from Victoria Park at about 3:30PM. Our family started at about 4:15PM and arrived at Central about 6PM. How many people marched? The average between the numbers claimed by the organizers and the police was about 40,000. To me, marching in the crowd, it felt like a lot of people anyway

Monday, June 26, 2006

Flag Day

Flag Day is a unique Hong Kong tradition. On a Flag Day, typically a Saturday, thousands of mostly young people go on the streets to sell flags to raise funds for charities. Actually they put little stickers on people who made donations, typically some small change. On this past Saturday my second daughter went to sell flags for the first time, with my youngest daughter and I tagging along. It was a hot day at 32 degrees. But we all had a good time, and making some interesting observations at the same time.

Many people came to us to buy flags without being asked, since most HK people are quite familiar with this tradition and many want to help. At the same time, there are more people who deliberately avoided us.

We tried to approach people who were not walking too fast, have at least one free hand, and did not look unhappy. Roughly half of those we approached bought flags. Some said they do not have change; we would give them a flag anyway, hoping that they would make a donation next time. It seemed to me we had more female donors than males; but perhaps it was because we were close to the wet market.

I thought parents would like to set good examples for their children; so I was quite surprised that many parents with accompanying children actually declined to give. Apparently this rather counter-intuitive observation is quite well-known in the flag-selling community.

All in all, it was Saturday morning well spent.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Graffiti Aftermath

I was jogging along a footbridge running a highway flyover when I noticed a strong odor of paint thinners. Then I noticed 2 workers removing graffiti on the glass wall separating the highway from the footbridge. When I get closer, I was amazed to find that the worker was using his bare hands.

Paint thinners dissolve stubborn oil-based paints. We cannot tolerate even short exposure to such fumes. Imagine the effects on your hands and organs after long exposure.

I wonder whether the people who put up such graffiti in high exposure areas ever thought about the people who had to remove them. If they know what the workers have to do to remove the graffiti – and the workers must, at such highly visible areas – would they still insist on putting up the graffiti at such places?

It happened on Fathers’ Day. Judging from the age of the workers, they are most likely fathers too. How would their children feel, when they find out what their fathers have to do for a living?

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

June 4th in Victoria Park

Many people say we should move on, either forget about June 4th totally, or put it out of our minds and wait for history to draw the conclusion. I cannot. I still feel strongly about the injustice and the crimes committed 17 years ago. I want to do something to remind myself that I want this to be resolved, as soon as possible.

10s of thousands of people in Hong Kong still feel the same way. Hong Kong is the only place in China where people can openly voice their true feelings about June 4th. This year I brought along my eldest daughter, who have just finished her HK School Certificate Examinations. She is going to be 17 soon, having been born in late 1989, just before the Berlin Wall came down. Her mother and I had taken her with us, while still in her mother’s womb, to protests in front of the Chinese embassy in Ottawa, Canada. So in a way, she is a child of June 4th.

We will continue to remember June 4th in whatever way we can. Attached is a picture of some of the candles in Victoria Park in the evening of June 4th, 2006. Hopefully, some day soon, we can see the matter properly resolved.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Tsai Yuan-Pei (蔡元培) in Hong Kong

A while ago I learned that Tsai Yuan-Pei’s grave is in Hong Kong. Actually he lived in Hong Kong for several years before he died. He was, of course, one of the most esteemed persons in modern China, particularly in education and culture. He was a 進士 in the Tsing dynasty, participated in the revolution leading to the establishment of the Republic of China, was minister of education, but quitted the post when he became dissatisfied with the warlords then ruling China. He was the president of the University of Beijing for 10 years, contributing tremendously to the modernization of Chinese culture and the reputation of the University of Beijing. During the May 4 movement, he came to the rescue of the students arrested by the government. In 1938, he came to Hong Kong to treat his ailment. He died in Hong Kong in 1940, and was buried in 香港仔華人永遠墳場「資」字號地段.

His grave happens to be in the same cemetery as my grandparents. So I would pay my respects once or twice a year, each time I visit my grandparents. Attached is a picture taken on April 5 this year (2006). It can be seen that the place has been tidied and someone placed some flowers there. I have never seen anyone there at the grave site so far. But every time I was there, the site was clean and tidy, so obviously someone has been taking care of the site. I have taken my daughters there, explained his contribution to the modernization of China and to the students of China in particular, and hope that he will continue to be remembered. I would on occasion mention him to my students in our university. Unfortunately, not too many students are familiar with him.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Teaching as Mass Production in University

The teaching that is going on in universities in Hong Kong is changing rapidly. Classes are getting bigger as government funding is reduced. The background of the students studying the same subject is increasingly diversified as the entrance requirements and paths are liberalized, and programs of studies are made more flexible.

As a result it is getting harder and harder for the professor to tailor the teaching to suit the student. With 100 students sitting together in the same classroom, it is impossible for the professor even to get to know the names of many of the students, by the end of the 14 week semester. How can the professor possibly find out the characteristics of each of the students and teach accordingly? How do you teach computer programming to 100 students, 30 with programming experience acquired in secondary school or junior college, 30 with relatively strong mathematical and science background, and another 40 with arts background and little mathematics? What can the professor do but to pretend that all students are equal and feed them the same menu?

Student-based learning has been touted as the direction to go, in which the student takes charge of his or her own learning, with the professor more as a facilitator than a provider in the process of learning. The students in Hong Kong, however, have been trained for 13 years in a examination-driven, rigid curriculum where every single detail is prescribed. How can they be expected to miraculously switch to a student-based learning mode when they enter university?

In a typical secondary school there are about 40 students in a class, and in the last 2 years typically much less. In the first year in university the class size in the first year is much more likely to be 100 or more. With much frequent contact and a much larger class, what choices does a professor have, but to adopt mass production techniques?

I did my best to get to know my students’ names and what they are like. But it feels like a losing battle all the time.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A maid and her madam

An old woman in a wheelchair, looking out across the harbour, with a Philipino maid sitting next to her. They were on an elevated walkway between TsimShaTsui and HungHom on the Kowloon side, with a gorgeous panoramic view of Hong Kong Island across the harbour.

The walkway was 10 meters above street level, with no elevator access, just sloping ramps on either end. So the maid must have pushed the wheelchair up one of the ramps. They would also have to cross at least several streets even from the nearest residential buildings.

The maid’s left arm was around the old woman’s shoulders, her head touching the old woman’s, tenderly.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Goods and Services Tax and Elections

The goods and services tax (GST) as proposed in this year's budget is a good idea from the point of view of providing a more stable tax income and a broader tax base. It would be quite reasonable in a more open and democratic society where the tax payer has a more direct say on where and how the tax money so collected are spent. Unfortunately it is not the case in Hong Kong at the moment. It is more like taxation without representation.

It can be claimed that the Hong Kong tax payers are indirectly represented, however indirectly through the appointed councilors and small functional constituencies. By the same reasoning, it can be argued that the average Hong Kong citizens (who are not paying direct taxes such as income tax) are also indirectly contributing to the tax income by working hard and helping others make the money from which taxes are paid. Now they are being asked to pay more directly.

I am firmly in support of no taxation without representation, and the complementary taxation therefore representation. I trust that many people are happy to pay a little more direct taxes in the form of an universal GST but please give us also the same but deserved right to direct elections and universal suffrage.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Hong Kong Marathon Mishaps

This year’s Hong Kong Marathon attracted a lot more negative attention than past years, due to the bad air, 2 serious casualties, and large number of minor mishaps. I ran in the full marathon and saw the collapsed man on the on-ramp of the TsingMa Bridge. Someone was performing CPR on him and that was scary. But I later learned that he was not an inexperienced runner, and have participated in other marathons before. He is probably not someone who did not know what to expect.

About the thousands of people getting medical assistance, a large number of them were probably quite minor, like mine. I did stop for a bandage at about 15km for a blister, and later to get a dose of ointment for my tired legs which were threatening to cramp up. To me, these are not unexpected risks regularly associated with rigorous sports. In sports, we always try to push ourselves to be faster, stronger, more enduring, more agile, more something or the other. There are always hurts to endure and risks to take. Nothing comes without a price.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Walking together, separately

A few days ago I was on a bus and spotted two young men walking on the sidewalk. Something about them caught my attention. They seemed to be walking together – they were consistently side by side, about 2 feet apart; they cross streets together. But they were not talking to each other. Instead, each was holding a mobile phone to his ear. So here we have 2 people walking together, each engaging in his own world and not with each other.

It is said that there are more mobile phones in HK than people. In one way, mobile phones connect us to people from a distance. In another, they disconnect us from people who are right next to us.