Friday, February 29, 2008

Wasting Time in English Classes

On average, a Hong Kong student in a local government-funded school spends at least 4 hours in classes on English each week. This does not include the time spent on doing exercises. Nor does it include, in English-medium schools, the time spent on learning other subjects supposedly using English. Why is it that, after 13 years, the typical Hong Kong student cannot read and write English at a reasonable level? Isn’t the time spent in English classes thus largely wasted?

Roughly the same amount of time is spent in mathematics classes. Yet the typical Hong Kong student is doing quite well in mathematics compared to students in other countries. Why is it that the English lessons are not producing similarly satisfactory results?

Why aren’t the students motivated to learn proper English - when everyone agrees that English is so important?

Why do so many of the students find the English classes boring - when reading and writing can be such rewarding activities if properly taught and enjoyed?

Why do so few ever discover the joy of reading and writing - when most of us should have the potential to do so?

Whose fault is it? The teachers? The schools? The government? The parents? The students?

I say the government must bear a large part of the responsibilities because it sets the policies governing language learning.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Learning English in Hong Kong

The real issue behind the Mother Tongue Policy is, of course, not really about learning in Chinese, but rather, learning English. Most parents are so eager for their children to learn English that many schools would claim to teach in English in order to attract the parents. In reality, however, because of the students’ lack of proficiency in English, and often the teachers’ lack of the same, the classes fail to motivate the students, and in the end fail to teach the students.

I strongly believe that most students, given the suitable environment, appropriate curriculum and qualified teachers, can master both Chinese and English before they enter university. Research has proven that languages are best learned when the children are very young, and there is no reason why they cannot be taught both Chinese and English in primary school. Lots of children in the elite schools in Hong Kong have done that. They are not necessarily born smarter than the other children. But they have the right teaching methods, the right teachers, and their parents probably have the needed resources.

Hong Kong is a relatively rich community. The government has proven willing to invest in education. But often it is the rigidity of the policies, the short-sightedness of the officials, the lack of good English teachers, and the outdatedness of the teaching methods, that conspire to turn out students woefully inadequate in English despite the resources invested. It is mind-boggling that after 13 years of English classes, most of our secondary school graduates cannot read and write English at a basic level. What a waste of the community’s resources and the students’ time!

Sometimes I think it is better to let the children watch cartoon in English rather than attending the typical class on English in Hong Kong.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Learning in Mother Tongue

Strong hints are being floated that the Mother Tongue Policy will be relaxed. For the past 10 years, Only slightly more than 100 secondary schools (114 to be exact) have been allowed to teach in English, while the rest (300+) must teach in Chinese. It is now said that more flexibility will be allowed, such as a school teaching some subjects in English and other subjects in Chinese, blurring the line between English medium and Chinese medium schools. If so, it should be a welcome change.

But any changes in education policy in Hong Kong is never as simple as it appears. Teaching in a child’s mother tongue is good in principle. But there are other consideration such as the desire and the need to learn a second language, providing equal access to quality education, having sufficient qualified teachers, the students’ ability to learn in a second language, etc.

Many have considered the past 10 years of mother tongue education a disaster, with the students affected a lost generation. It is generally agreed that the English language proficiency overall (particularly in Chinese medium schools, the majority) has declined, the Chinese language proficiency has not gotten any better, and the gains in other subjects minimal, if any.

Such a report card on mother tongue education is bad enough by themselves. But considering also the resentment generated among the schools, the students and the parents, the lost in productivity in schools forced to switch back and forth, plus the negative impact on university learning and the community as a whole, it is no wonder many people consider it a disaster.

Many have pointed to a simple fact: if the policies and the schools are so good, why don’t the government officials, particularly those in charge of education policy, send their children to local schools? Why are all their children in international schools or even overseas on government funding?

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Red-whiskered Bulbuls (紅耳鵯)

What is this? If you say: two Red-whiskered Bulbuls huddled together on a tree, then you must have very sharp eyes. They normally look more sleek and is one of the most common birds in Hong Kong. I have indeed seen them in many places around Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. These puffed up their feathers to look like fat hairballs because it is still quite cold, 14 degrees this morning, when I took the pictures in Shatin.

They are also called 高髻冠, for obvious reasons.


I was taking a stroll in YouKuaWan this morning when I bumped into this three month old puppy. He was so cute I had to take this picture and share it,

What is it about puppies that make people love them? Why it is that everyone finds them irresistible? Yes, I have heard of the theory of evolution favouring those baby animals that look cute because they are the ones taken care of by the adults. But it is just amazing that something so little and so seemingly un-complicated can bring so much joy to so many, irrespective of language, culture, race, age, ...

I hope you enjoy the photo as much as I do.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Public Intimacy - actually the reaction to it

It is not uncommon for young people to be affectionate to each other in public. But note the reaction of the man in the left. It is perhaps not that surprising, because this is in TouKuaWan, one of the older areas in Kowloon.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Road to Serfdom by F. A. Hayek

This is one of my favourite books. It was published in 1944 and remains as relevant today as ever.

In plain, simple language, it explains (in Milton Friedman’s words), “why it is that ‘good’ men in positions of power will produce evil, while the ordinary man without power but able to engage in voluntary cooperation with his neighbours will produce good.”It explains why collectivism necessarily leads to tyranny and misery, and individualism leads to freedom and plenty.

Collectivism is usually promoted as a means to achieve justice, equality, and security. Few people will argue against that ideal. However, collectivism requires planning. Planning inevitably suppresses individualism and forces some (and eventually most) to make sacrifices. Planning well requires impossibly large amounts of information. Democracy is inefficient and unable to produce the type of action to carry out the planning. Increasingly demands will appear for strong leadership, concentrated power, and coercive action. The result is dictatorship.

There are no diagrams (my favourite), no equations, no big and difficult words. Just simple, clear language, and relevant examples. It is a small format book with less than 300 pages. Hayek made his case convincingly and elegantly. I wish I can write as well.

Highly highly recommended.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Racy Photos and Morals

Many people discussing the racy photos saga seem to accept that what consenting adults do behind closed doors (the sex, the taking of such photos) is none of other people’s business. Only the stealing of such photos and their posting on the Internet were to be condemned. I do not agree. Something that does not violate any laws may still be immoral.

First of all, pretending to be one thing (pure and innocent) but doing the opposite in secret is certainly hypocritical and immoral.

Secondly, humans want to love and be loved. And true love can only survive and prosper in long term, stable, one to one relationships with strong commitments. Promiscuous behaviour is based on lust, not love. No one in love will want his or her lover to be promiscuous.

So, even if the racy photos never got on to the Internet, such promiscuous behaviour is still to be condemned. If that means I am old fashioned and not being open minded, so be it.

Finally, I wish to be clear that it is the behaviour that should be condemned, not the person. None of us is without sin. So if a person confesses of such behaviour and promises not to do it again, he or she should be commended.

Home-made Cheese Cake with Lemon Juice

While we are talking about food, one of my favourite topics, I have to show you this cheese cake, one of my wife’s signature dishes.

I don’t know how to make it. All I know is that there is a lot of cream cheese and some lemon juice in it. No baking needed. The strawberries are mainly for decoration.

And it is good. Creamy and smooth. Sweet but not overwhelming. Enhanced with the tanginess of lemon juice. I can eat two slices in one go.

Actually my wife makes other cheese cakes as well, equally good.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Stuffed Mud Carp (釀鯪魚)

My mother made us 釀鯪魚 two days ago. It was really really good. Partly because it recalled many childhood memories for me and my wife. But our daughters, who have no such memories, also liked it.

Chinese mud carp (鯪魚) is a very tasty fresh water fish. Unfortunately it also has a lot of small bones, which make them difficult to eat. So removing and beating the flesh into a paste and then stuffing the flesh back into its own skin is an ingenious way to enjoy the fish.

My mother had to buy two big mud carps, and ask the monger to skin the fish. Not too many mongers these days know how to do it. This one charged two dollars for it, which was a real bargain, considering the time and skill required.

Some dried pork and dried mushrooms were mixed with the fish’s flesh to enhance the flavour. The mixture was chopped and beaten into a paste, then stuffed back into the fish. Finally the stuffed fish were fried until they were golden brown, and sliced before serving. The stuffing was firm and slightly bouncy, tasted fresh and full of complex flavour. Even the bones were SO good.

It took my mother two hours to do it. We were all very thankful.

Street Sleepers Under Highway are Gone

Those street sleepers under the highway near the Hung Hom train station are gone, without a trace.

It might have something to do with the disruption of the train service in China. Because of the poor weather before the Chinese New Year, the through trains between Hong Kong and GuangZhou were delayed for many days. Those people who slept under the highway could have been some of the people who could not get on the trains.

That snowstorm forced us to pay attention to some of the problems faced by China in this period of rapid development. Much of the country’s infrastructure, including the railways, highways, hospitals, electrical supply, ..., environmental protection, ..., are woefully inadequate. The problems simply cannot be ignored.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Foolhardy Marathoner

Looking back, for me to run in the marathon was really foolhardy. I have been a jogger for more than 20 years, but I had only dreamt to run in the marathon.

To start with, I have no discernable athletic talent. I went to a soccer-mad secondary school, and soccer was compulsory for everyone on weekdays. But I was always the last one that anyone would pick to form a team - because I was so bad, compared to my schoolmates.

Part of my problem is severe flat feet. All my shoes get deformed as soon as I wear them. An orthopedist once told me I could exercise - but only moderately. So even after taking up jogging for many years I could only dreamt of running the marathon. Somehow, gradually, I started to run longer and longer distances. My feet, and particularly my ankles, would hurt after jogging, and I would limp for a couple of days. But typically I would recover.

About 4 years ago, I found that the swollen left ankle just wouldn’t heal, even after several months of physical therapy. Eventually the orthopedic clinic of the university made casts of my feet, and made a pair of arch support insoles for me. Because the flatfeet was so bad, they had to raise the inside of the arch support by several degrees to reduce the stress on the ligaments on the inside. Gradually the swelling subsided and I was able to run again. Now I wear them everywhere, and every time I run, including the marathons. Still, after running anything more than 10 kilometers, my ankles would hurt for a few days.

So it is a small miracle that I could even complete the marathon wearing the arch support, afor that I am deeply grateful to the professional staff of the clinic. And I am sorry that I made the people who care about me worry about me. In particular my wife, who disagreed with and yet tolerated my decision to run. I shouldn't do that again.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

I survived my last Marathon

As many of you know, today (17th February, 2008) we ran the Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon.

Similar to last year, I ran the first half reasonably well, completing the first 21km in about 2 hours and 15 minutes. I felt there may be a blister in my left foot and my left angle was hurting. Other than that I was OK.

The cramps started about at about 26km. similar to last year. I did a lot more stretching this year, both in training and just before the race. But it didn’t seen to help. I tried to walk it off. But as soon as I started running again, the cramps would come back, in the calfs as well as the thighs.

It was so frustrating that I wanted to quit and jump on the bus many times. What stopped me was that thought that there was still time, and it would seem cowardly to quit while there was still a chance to finish it. But deep down I knew the cramps would not go away. So I continued to walk and limp the rest of the way.

At one point, I put my leg on a ledge to rub some ointments on it. Big mistake! Sharp pains shot through it as the calf muscles cramped up as they were shortened. From that point on I tried not to bend my knee too much.

When I turned into the streets of Causeway Bay, there were lots of people on the street, and more people cheering for us stragglers. More importantly, I saw that there was a chance to finish before the 5hr 30min time limit. But I had to speed up to do that. So I literally gritted my teeth, tried to block the pain from my mind, and ran/limped through the last km. Many times I had to keep my knee straight to prevent the cramps from starting again. That must have looked weird. I finally arrived at the finishing line in Victoria Park in about 5 hrs 25 minutes, about the same as last year.

I knew it was foolhardy to run this year. It is just too much punishment for my old body. So my dear friends, if I should try to run again next year, please stop me!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

A Real Valentine

A bit of unsolicited advice for young people (who think they are) in love. A reality check, really.

If you are looking for someone who is pretty, smart, ambitious, and will be wildly successful, I cannot help you. But if you are looking for someone who is caring, loving, who will make a good life-long partner, try this.

Take him or her to a special school to visit those kids who are handicapped, autistic, mentally retarded, ... If he or she seems nervous at first and does not know what to do, don’t worry yet. Most people are like that in the beginning.

Given some time and encouragement, if he or she starts to warm to the children, tries to talk to them (the children may or may not respond explicitly, despite our best efforts), holds their hands, or even put them in his or her lap, then you have a keeper. If your friend can make them laugh, then you have a winner.

If he or she cannot get themselves to touch the children no matter what, then you have some serious thinking to do. This is not scientifically proven, of course, but I think it is a good indicator.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Valentine’s Day

This is one of the most beautiful flowers I have ever seen, and I would like to present this photo to my wife for Valentine’s Day.

Please don’t tell me I am being cheap. I could send her a bouquet of real roses costing four thousand dollars. But I don’t think she would appreciate it. The flowers wilt in a couple of days, but the photo lasts forever. And if you buy the same bouquet a week later, earlier, it will only cost a tenth of what it costs on Valentine’s Day. Even if you don’t care about the money, why should you allow someone to rob you this way?

If you plan to send your girl friend a bouquet for Valentine’s Day, I seriously suggest you donate the money to a charity, or some worthy cause, such as the Showers of Blessings Ministries - Hong Kong (恩雨之聲). Then present the receipt to your girlfriend. What if she prefers the bouquet to the donation? Dump her. She is not worth it.

Just to be fair: Girls, if your boy friend gives you a bouquet, ask him to make the donation instead. If he refuses, dump him. He is not worth it.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Modern Street Sleepers

A group of street sleepers have set up recently under a highway near the Hung Hum train station. They seemed much better off and equipped than the regular street sleepers in Hong Kong, who are normally dirty, smelly, with few belongings. Instead, these had semi-permanent cardboard boxes, stools, clean blankets and clothing, ... They even had a barking dog who was disturbed by the noise of lion dancing across the street.

They reminded me of the street sleepers in Japan. Those I saw in Tokyo had very neat, clean and roomy cardboard boxes. Some had bicycles. They took off their shoes and placed them neatly at the entrance to their boxes. There is one major difference, though. Those I saw in Japan set up their boxes only late in the evening. During the day, hugh crowds passed through the subway stations and ferry terminals - the sleepers and their boxes were no where to be seen. As the evening deepened, the neatly organized boxes sprang up miraculously.

These sleepers near the train station have been there for several days already, seemingly undisturbed, even in broad daylight.

In any case, it is sad and ironic to see people sleeping in the streets in such cold weather, while the economy and particularly the housing market is supposedly booming, and the government coffers overflowing.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Racy Photos - Warped Values

One of the main characters in the recent racy photo scandal appeared in public for the first time yesterday since the scandal - and today most Hong Kong newspapers put her in the front page. Even in the major English newspaper, which tends to put less emphasis on such matters, used 90% of the first page of the City section to cover the story.

In contrast, in a 2 inches by 2.5 inches column in a corner in the bottom of the same page, it covered the story of an abandoned baby. Which story is more tragic? Which demands our concern and action more? Racy photos of celebrities (should we even be surprised that they do such things)? Or a human being dumped near a rubbish bin immediately after birth - with umbilical cord attached? Who are his parents? What made them do such a terrible thing? How do they feel? What can be done to help?

What does it tell us about the values of our community?

Lion Dancing 舞獅

It is Chinese New Year and there must be lion dancing somewhere. It is really quite an art - and sport.

The lion head is quite heavy. Jumping around and waving the lion head on level ground is hard enough. Jumping around while waving the lion head on top of those long poles 梅花椿 is much harder. Perhaps the hardest is for the guy in the rear to hold up and to throw the guy in front onto the next set of poles. And the coordination.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

龍應台 的 “親愛的安德烈”

龍應台 is one of my favourite writers. But her new book struck an even stronger cord in me than the usual. When her son, Andreas, turned 18, she suddenly found that her little boy had turned into an adult that she did not understand at all. He seemed distant and reluctant to talk to her. She didn’t know what to say to him, what he was thinking, what his views were, what he cared about, why he did certain something or did not do something, his values, ... He spent all his time with his friends, but had nothing to say to his mother. He loved her, but that somehow didn’t mean that he had to know her, like her, talk to her.

That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? To all of us parents with growning-up children.

As a well-known writer, she did something that is difficult for the rest of us. She got him to agree to jointly write a newspaper column, as a way to get to know her son anew. The column was tremendously popular. Part of that became this book.

He explained why he liked his music but not hers, and his clothes but not hers. Why he and his friends liked to spend all their times in coffee shops. Why he preferred to explore China with his brother but not his mother. ...

She explained to him how much she wanted to pull the cigarette from his mouth but restrained herself because she has to respect that he is now an adult. ...

Above all, I think, they come to realize that they have a lot in common. Among them a sense of being human beings foremost, as opposed to being German, Chinese, Taiwanese, ... And a sense of justice and concern for the under-privileged. ...

It pained her when her son felt that he will be “mediocre” compared to his parents, both of whom are PhDs. Do you want to know her response? I suggest you read the book. There is a lot more in it.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Racy Internet Photos

This is the hottest topic in Hong Kong and overseas Chinese communities at the moment, occupying front pages for many days in newspapers, countless hours of airwaves, and pages and pages of forums and chat-rooms.

Discussions have revolved around questions such as: Are the photos real? Who posted them on the Internet? How were the photos obtained? Who took the pictures in the first place? Is it a violation of the law to download them? To keep them? To send them to friends? Is the police being selective/too harsh in law enforcement? Will someone get sued for damages? Will someone lose jobs or contracts? ...

It is a very useful object lesson on privacy and the use of the Internet, in terms of both etiquette and legality. It is increasing tremendously public awareness and knowledge on these important issues. It can only help the Hong Kong community to become more mature as Web citizens. In this sense it is very useful.

But there is one issue that have not been discussed as much as it deserves, in my opinion. What does it say about the morals (or the lack of it) of the young people of Hong Kong? Is it true that anything is OK between consenting adults behind closed doors? Is there really no right and wrong and proper behaviour? Do people not need to take responsibility for their conduct? If those photos were not posted on the Internet, then it was OK?

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Smoking Lanzhou

I do not remember seeing so many smoke stacks in the downtown of a city anywhere else. Looking out from my hotel window in the business district of Lanzhou one morning, smoke was bellowing every direction I look.

Later I learned that at least some of the smoke was produced by boilers for heating, just like what they do at the Jubilee School in Chankou. Considering that most of the heating is produced by burning coal, and coal burning is the largest world-wide source of carbon-dioxide emissions, ... Added to that sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ... no wonder the air in Lanzhou is bad.

China is modernizing extremely rapidly. In one generation its has made up a lot of lost time. It can be argued that the Chinese people is living better now than at any other time in the past hundred years, if not more.

But the damage to the environment is also enormous, and the consequences are becoming more and more difficult to ignore. It is sincerely hoped that the leaders have the wisdom to derive a more balanced plan for development.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Education for the poor of China

Gansu (甘肅) is one of the poorest provinces in China. And DingXi (定西) one of its poorest regions. On the road between Lanzhou and its airport, we passed by many brick kilns.

Shape the loess into rectangular blocks, stack them in the kiln, fire for many hours. Presto, you got bricks.

Apparently the loess (黃土) is geographically unstable and erodes easily. Over the years the fertile top layer had been eroded away by water or wind. And the remaining layer is infertile. Coupled with the lack of water, there isn’t that much that can be done with it, but to make brick. No wonder the people are so poor.

Image what it is like to be an orphan in DingXi. Getting an education is the best way to improve one’s life, just like in most other places in China. Building schools and keeping hte children in school is one of the best things that we can do for them. And the children appreciate it. Just like the students in Hubei and other places in China, the students and their family know that this is their way out of a miserable life. They work extremely hard, and they don’t complain. With the expanding economy and the hard work, hope is at hand.

Contrast with what many of our young people in Hong Kong are doing with their lives. When they finally wake up from their slumber, it may already be too late.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

What do we do with what we are entrusted?

We may be quite happy for and even proud of being pretty, smart, wealthy, athletic, musical, ... But have we stopped to consider whether we deserve to be such? And why we are given so much?

Jesus said, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”[Luke 12:48]

What we have now is not really ours to keep, it is merely entrusted to us - for a purpose. And one day we have to give an account on what we have been entrusted with. Sometimes I shudder to think what God is going to demand from those who are “filthy” rich, so to speak.

So the real question is: what do we do with what we have been given - whether it be wealth, beauty, wisdom, health, musical talent, athletic talent, ...?

When we see someone in need, instead of asking: why doesn’t God do something about it? - perhaps we should ask ourselves: what can I do about it? Sometime it does not really take a lot to improve another person’s life. But do we care enough to lend a hand?