Friday, March 30, 2007

Failing Students

A few years ago a student in the second year of our 3-year degree program did so poorly that his study had to be terminated according to our university’s regulations. Part of his defense was that he was so heavily involved in student association activities that his studies suffered. He pleaded that he had realized his mistakes and was confident that with hard work, he could perform much better and catch up.

We had some sympathies with him but felt that his performance up to that point was too far behind the required level to catch up – to maintain a C grade average. Hence we denied his first appeal. He persisted and eventually persuaded the dean of our faculty to grant him another chance.

Amazingly he started getting As and Bs instead of the Cs, Ds (marginal failures), and even Fs (failures) that he was consistently getting before. Eventually he did a good final year project and was able to graduate with a decent record.

His case tells us that in some cases a student who performed poorly can indeed turn around and be successful. Unfortunately he was an exception rather than the norm. Should we continue to keep giving them second and third chances? With limited resources, generosity towards one student may deny another student a chance to study at the university. How is one to decide?

Monday, March 26, 2007

Showers of Blessings 【恩雨之聲】 Walkathon in 天水圍

Here are some of the walkers who participated in the walkathon last Saturday. We started from a church in TinShuiWai South, walked along the “Stinking River” (according to a local student), crossed into TinShuiWai North, walked past the entrance to the Wetlands Park, and ended at a primary school. It rained before the walk, and dark clouds threatened briefly, but in the end God kept the rain from us.

Along the way, we saw mothers and their children picking up cardboard boxes to be exchanged for money and men playing Chinese chess or gambling with cards. Don't you think there is something odd about this picture? To be fair, we also saw a man cutting another men’s hair, and men and women singing together. There were also a few South Asian children playing outside a Pakistani community center. Quite a few children came looking at our balloons longingly, and smiled broadly when we gave them out. Children who don’t have a lot, it seems, can be easily entertained with simple pleasures. The more they have, on the other hand, the harder they are to please.

As we concluded our walk at the primary school, the evangelistic meeting started. The main event was a short movie about and personal sharing from a young man who failed all subjects in his school certificate examination after form 5. He came back to the church for help, made up his mind to change, eventually got to university, became a teacher, and received an award as an Outstanding Young Person a few years ago. Now he goes about telling young people there is hope in life. It was very well received by the several hundred mostly young people in the audience.

We concluded the day eating our dinner boxes in a small roadside park. It was an exhausting day, but we all came home feeling it was a wonderful experience.

Further information can be obtained from the SOBEM web site at . The 【恩雨之聲】 programs are real life testimonies as told directly by the persons involved, not re-enactments or dramatizations by actors. They are normally broadcasted on Sunday evenings at 11 PM on Asia TV, Local channel 亞視本港台.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

WanChai Blue House - details

This is one of the doors facing Stone Mullah Street (石水渠街). Note the style of the doors and windows.

Details of the two traditional door gods (門神) guarding the doors. The one on the left with a big beard is 尉遲恭, and the one on the right is 秦叔寶, both famous generals of 唐太宗.

Wooden stairs leading up to the first floor from the street. Note the wood paneled walls and mailboxes on the right, and particularly the electrical wiring on the left.

One of the first floor balconies. Note the railings, the doors and windows. Similar styles can still be found in some of the older districts such as SheungWan and WanChai. But getting rarer and rarer.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

WanChai Blue House

This is the famous Blue House in WanChai. It is just a couple of streets to the south of the Wanchai wet market, another landmark that the government wants to tear down. It was built before the Second World War, and there are not too many of these houses around anymore.

Recently I saw a TV commercial for the Rugby Tournament showing someone selling Flying Olives (飛機欖). From the street, a guy throws a tiny 飛機欖 up in the air. As another guy on the roof of the Blue House catches it, the 飛機欖 miraculously turns into a rugby. The rugby is passed a few times, and eventually a guy runs through a human wall and puts the rugby down for a “try”, and the rugby turns back into a tiny 飛機欖.

What a creative interplay of two cultural icons of Hong Kong, yet achieved in the service of a totally foreign sport. How many of use actually play rugby or even watch it?

What a shame to those of us who claim to treasure our culture and heritage. Why can’t we come up with more imaginative uses of our cultural icons, making them more valuable and thus giving people incentives to preserve them?

Friday, March 16, 2007

如焉 in Hong Kong

It was published yesterday in Hong Kong. And is now available at Commercial Press. I got my copy 3 hours ago. Presumably it is available in other bookstores as well. If you want to read just one book about China this year, this is it.

Thursday, March 15, 2007


This is a book by 胡发云 which has caused quite a stir in and outside China, and was apparently banned. The heroine is a woman who was introduced to the Internet by her young son. Through the online world a wide range of interesting characters were brought into the story: a famous writer who was once a highly placed government official but got into trouble in some of the political campaigns, a man with a low level technical job who ironically commanded tremendous respect in the online world because of his wide range of self-taught knowledge, critical thinking and writing, a young anti-establishment type who became part of the establishment but remain torn by the struggle between the desire for success and youthful ideals, a high government official with a heart and conscience, …

The interaction among these characters played out against the fabric of life in China in the midst of the online and real-life world in the midst of SARS. Highly recommended.

I could not find the book in Hong Kong but found it online at

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Blink or think?

Malcolm Gladwell’s best seller “blink” in 2005 argues that our minds possesses an adaptive unconscious that can “size up the world, warning people of danger, setting goals, and initiating action in a sophisticated and efficient manner”, and that “decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.” One of the cases touted as examples was a 6th century BC marble statue, a “kouros”, of a male youth presented to the J. Paul Getty Museum in California in 1983. All scientific tests indicated it was authentic. Fourteen months after their investigation began, the Getty was satisfied and agreed to buy the statue. But several experts felt something was not quite right when they saw it for the first time, without being able to explain why. Eventually, after much more thorough investigations, evidences were found that showed the statue might have been forged in a workshop in Rome.

Then in 2006, Michael LeGault published “Th!nk” which argued that “years of research and critical thinking about the topic must have laid the mental groundwork for such leaps”. It laments the decline of logic and reasoning in American life. It pointed to the years of declining student performances and institutionalized political correctness, moral relativism, trash culture, marketing, reliance on therapy, aversion of risk, the self-esteem industry, lack of standards in the workplace and classroom, and lax, hands-off parenting.

More people seem to identify with “blink” rather than “Th!nk”. It is better written, easier to read, and the philosophy it advocates is easier to follow. I think the position argued by “Th!nk” is sounder and more solid, although harder to live out. But ironically, the book feels more polemical than soundly-reasoned, although it does cite many references to support its arguments.

What do you think?

Perception and behaviour

Dijksterius and Knippenberg reported in their paper “The Relation Between Perception and Behaviour, or How to Win a Game of Trivial Pursuit” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in volume 74, number 4, pages 865 – 877, 1998, an interesting experiment.

Half of the subjects were asked to take 5 minutes to imagine what it means to be a professor and write down everything that came to mind. They then got 55.6% of 42 Trivia Pursiit questions right. The other group that was asked to think about soccer hooligans got only 42.6% of the questions right.

The “professor” group did not know more than the “hooligan” group. They were simply in a “smart” frame of mind. Perhaps being in a “smart” frame of mind help people concentrate? Think harder? Be more confident?

This and other similar studies were discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s best seller “blink”. I once told my students about this study but did not try to measure the result.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Calligraphy on the waterfront

A man regularly writes with a big brush, with water as ink, on the pavement just outside the pumping station next to the Tai Wan Shan Park. I think he is one of them who swim in the harbour but cannot be sure. Go there in the morning, around 9 AM, and you may find him there.

I enjoy his calligraphy as well as the poems. This particular line is from 白居易’s 長恨歌. By the way, there are numerous lines from 長恨歌 that have become part of popular culture, such as:

驪宮高處入青雲, 仙樂風飄處處聞

玉容寂寞淚闌干, 梨花一枝春帶雨

臨別殷勤重寄詞, 詞中有誓兩心知

七月七日長生殿, 夜半無人私語時

在天願作比翼烏, 在地願為連理枝

天長地久有時盡, 此恨綿綿無絕期.

It is amazing that a few words, put together in a certain way, can carry such rich imaginations and emotions. And sound so melodic. Memorize it, and you can truly enjoy it anytime, anywhere.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

What is this man doing?

It turns out a group of men and women swim every day (as far as I can tell) in the harbour just off from Tai Wan Shan Park (大環山公園) between Whampoa Gardens (黃埔花園) and Laguna Verde (海逸豪園). Most of them swim freely without towing a spare tire. This man probably wants to play it safe.

They evidently think the water is clean enough. But I notice that sometimes they have to dive into the water immediately after getting into the water, swim under water to get through a belt of oily garbage, and resurface about 20 meters off the water front. When they finish their swim, the process has to be reversed. They seem to be enjoying themselves, even in winter.

I would not get into the water myself. Would you?

What is this boat doing?

No, it is not fishing.

Yes, it is picking up the garbage in the harbour. It is one of the reasons that the harbour looks cleaner these days.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Fishing in Victoria Harbour

People do still fish in the Victoria Harbour, even though some people think the harbour is too polluted for the fish caught there to be eaten. This particular boat was fishing in the harbour just a bit off from Whampoa Gardens in early morning. I once saw a fishing boat putting down a 100 meter long net, and a smaller one pulling it up off the Laguna Verde. It was too far away to see whether they are catching any fish. But the fact that they keep coming back seems to indicate that there must be enough fish there. The water quality seems to have gotten better as well. There seems to be much less garbage in the harbour these days.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Jogging in TsimShaTsui

Out of the 6000+ people who entered the full marathon on Sunday, 4068 finished ahead of me. Taking into consideration the other thousands who finished the half-marathon and the 10 kilometre, and those who did not enter the races, there is really quite a sizable number of very fit people in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, there are many more who do not exercise.

I like to jog along the waterfront in TsimShaTsui, where the view is really spectacular. It is about 3 km from the TsimShaTsui Ferry to the Hung Hom Ferry, and another 1 km further down to the Fishermen’s Wharf. Besides the great view, there are lots of interesting sights along the way, so you will not be bored. I will post some of the other pictures I took when there is time.

Monday, March 05, 2007

I survived Hong Kong Marathon 07!

It took me 5 hours and 26 minutes, but I completed the 42 kilometres within the 5-1/2 hour limit, with only about 3 minutes to spare. My legs started cramping at about 30km. So for the rest of the time I was mainly limping and walking along, just like most of the people around me. I would stretch and then try to walk off the cramps. But as soon as I start to jog, one or both of the lower legs would cramp, sometimes immediately, sometimes after a few hundred meters. So, it was back to stretching and walking again. Numerous times I was tempted to quit and jump on the bus that would take me to the finishing line. But I really wanted to try to finish it.

Now I have to admit that the marathon may just be too much for my bag of old bones. My bruised toes, swollen ankles, and worse of all, creaky knees are trying to tell me something. Six years ago I told my wife I wished I could run just one marathon in my life. Now I have done that, kind off. So I can quit running really long distances. I think my family, and in particular, my wife, would be happy with that.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Territory-wide System Assessment (全港性系統評估)

The TSA is supposed to be a low-stakes test, aiming to measure the overall level of achievements in basic abilities in Chinese, English and Mathematics in classes and schools. It is not aimed at measuring the performance of individual students. Theoretically there should be no incentive for a student to study specifically for the test.

However, the reputation of the class, its teachers, and the school, consequently its admission statistics, potential allocation of resources, and ultimately, survival, in this day of declining birth rates and student population, are all at stake. Hence there is strong motivation for teachers and headmasters to ensure that their students perform well.

There is now a new business of producing books, exercises, training courses, etc., targeting at preparations for these TSA tests. There is a supply of such things because there is a demand. Many schools have regular “supplementary” classes and exercises to prepare their students.

Hong Kong is supposed to be trying to reduce the number and severity of public examinations and moving away from an examination-driven education culture. But the reality, sadly, seems quite different.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Cheating Teachers

A famous primary school was reported earlier in February in local newspapers to be caught systematically cheating in the Territory Wide System Assessment (全港性系統評估). This is a test administered to primary 3, primary 6 and secondary 3 students all over Hong Kong schools

This school was originally hailed as a 狀元學校 because of outstanding performance in the test. However, it was subsequently found to have cheated. It was reported that a teacher wrote the answers on the blackboard for the class in the English test. 10 students were found to have identical answers. The students performed well in difficult questions but make identical mistakes.

It is almost a reprint of the Chicago Public School case reported in “Freakonomics” by Levitt & Dubner in 2005. The Hong Kong Education and Manpower Bureau officials might have read the book or the case. The primary school teachers probably did not.

Some people claim to be surprised that teachers would cheat. I am more surprised that they are surprised. Give the potential impact on teacher reputation, school reputation, applications for admission, allocation of resources, etc., and the relative low risk of being caught - it is just too tempting. Some are bound to succumb.

“Freakonomics” further reported that there is evidence of cheating in 5% of the classrooms in the Chicago case. And in another study among North Carolina teachers, 35% of respondents reported witnessing colleagues cheating in some fashion.

I am also worried that the public examinations in Hong Kong are moving towards more school-based testing.