Monday, March 31, 2008

Octopi invasion

I was jogging along the TsimShaTsui East Promenade yesterday when a little boy suddenly jumped up screaming, with something a few inches long dangling from his fishing rod. At first I thought it was a puffer fish, which turned out to be this little octopus. It tried to escape but it didn’t look promising.

Half an hour later, I found that someone else had caught this other little octopus, who tried to splash at me.

In the 6 years in which I have been jogging along TST East, I have never seen someone catch an octopus. Then two on the same day, within half an hour. The rate of increase was two divided by zero = infinity! If this was not an invasion, I don’t know what is!

Sunday, March 30, 2008

What is this?

It will be obvious when I post the rest of the picture tomorrow.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Reading and Thinking

Last evening I was discussing examination pressure with a group of students and scholars from mainland China. A first year student brought up the popular book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey. He explained how one of those habits - being proactive - may help. A research assistant picked up the thread and the two of them recalled the seven habits.

I was amazed. Not by the book. I was aware of it, and felt the ideas were kind of common sense. But I was impressed that these young people seemed genuinely interested in learning and applying these self-improvement methods.

Sadly, I have not met too many young people from Hong Kong who seem to have the same enthusiasm in reading and thinking.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Leaning House of Tai O

It was my mother who pointed this white leaning house out to me. This does not look as dramatic as The Leaning Tower of Pisa because it is only three storeys tall. It is probably about 25 feet in height, while the Tower of Pisa is said to be 186 feet, about seven times taller.

The house is sitting on a sand bar. It is leaning probably because the foundation did not go deep enough. When the sand settled unevenly, the house began to lean to one side. This is probably what Jesus meant when he said in (Matthew 7:26) we should not build houses on sand.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Tai O egret

This egret flew low over the river, dipped to catch the fish, and then landed on the edge of the boat. It actually caught the fish only by its fin, rather precariously.

One flip, the fish’s head was in its beak. Another flip, it was lined up and swallowed. Just beautiful.

Tai O

Tai O is one of the many fun places to be, without having to leave Hong Kong. Many of those famous houses on stilts have survived, so far. Many are sparsely furnished. But we also saw one house (this one was on land, however) with 7 air conditioner units.

Imagine a house like this one - with the front door opening onto the street (through which this picture was taken), and the back door (at the center of this picture) opening towards the ocean. Wouldn’t it be neat?

It has unused salt flats and wetlands full of mangrove trees, mud skippers, crabs, snails, clams, ... One can even take a ride in a speed boat to see the dolphins - we saw speed boats going out every minutes. But I am not sure whether they (the dolphins, I mean) really enjoy such frequent intrusions.

These are not red bricks. They are blocks of shrimp paste. They can be used in vegetable dishes, stir fried dishes, fried rices, steamed pork, ... A bit salty, but very fragrant and delicious.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Easter Sunday - Hope

On this Easter Sunday morning, our pastor reminded us that the door to Jesus’ tomb was open and the tomb was empty. That Jesus had been resurrected. Because Jesus has overcome death, we can have hope. Because He is risen, we do not have to live in fear. Because He is God, we cannot hide behind excuses.

This is the hope that we can be with God when we leave this world. This is the hope that we can transcend the misery and sufferings of this world. This is the hope that evil will eventually be overcome. This is the hope that gives us the strength to do the right thing. This is the hope that helps us keep on praying for the same person for 40 years. This is the hope that urges us to spread the good news in spite of certain rejection. This is the hope that sustains us in the face of difficulties and persecution.

Without hope, life is really not worth living.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

What were you doing Saturday at noon?

On this particular Saturday morning, which was a holiday, I had read one chapter from each of two books, read and replied several email messages for work and otherwise, read online newspapers for half an hour, took my youngest daughter to MacDonald’s for breakfast, read a hard copy newspaper for an hour, went jogging for an hour, and took some photographs of the TsimShaTsui East promenade. By noon, I was on my way home after buying some 油炸鬼 to go with our home-made congee lunch (made with smoked turkey bones - yummy).

Along the way, I heard this lady in blue telling her friend she was buying breakfast for her daughter who was yet to get up.

I was not surprised that some people get up late. But I do wonder what does it tell us about our young people in Hong Kong. And what does it tell us about the mothers in Hong Kong?

I do know there are a lot of night people in Hong Kong, some because of necessity and others by preference. But mornings are the best time of the day. The air is fresh and cool, not yet completely polluted. The sun is low in the sky, bright though not too hot yet. The streets are relatively clean and the garbage have not yet piled up. We ourselves are fresh and full of energy. People you meet are also starting out and energetic. This is the best time to go out and see the world, to work, to do things. What a waste to spend it in bed.

And the parents. They really do do everything for their children, so that the children can do as little as possible. Ostensibly so that they can concentrate on their studies, on their work. But do they? Often the result is over-reliance. Lately many of our colleagues have been discussing how we have to save enough money not just for their children’s education, but also to buy apartments for them, or at least to pay for the down payment for the apartment. For fear that the children, when they grow up, might not be able to afford buying an apartment. Is this truly the expectations of Hong Kong parents? It is rather sad if it is true.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Good (Bad) Friday

Today is Good Friday. Went to worship service this morning. Actually today should be “Bad” Friday for this is the day that we sent the Son of God to His death on the cross. Our pastor made us feel we were the ones who did that. And of course, we really did.

Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world. For me and for you. We may or may not realize it, but He did do it. He didn’t die just for Peter, John, Paul, and Mary. He died for me.

Because He did, we now have hope. The world is really a miserable place. We can be happy at times, but only when we ignore all the misery around and ahead of us. Sooner or later though, they catch up with us.

Without God, there is no real justice. Without Jesus dying on the cross for our sins, there is no way we can be justified under God’s justice.

Thank God for Jesus.

Taxi crashing into fire engine

Traffic accidents are nothing new in Hong Kong. But it is not every day that you see something crashing into a fire engine.

All vehicles are supposed to give way to fire engines. In Hong Kong it is not uncommon to see drivers pretending that they do not see or hear the fire engines - hence not giving way to them. But it is still quite extra-ordinary to find a car crashing into a fire engine.

This happened about 5 PM today (20th March, 2008) at the junction of Chatham Road and Austin Road, right outside the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. The fire engine was facing the north west.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Papier mache offerings

Where can you find a shop which sells sneakers, badminton rackets, basketballs, gold and silver ingots, billions of dollars in paper money, stuffed animals, computers, stereos, mobile phones, microwave ovens, dim sum, ..., all in a 200 feet shop?

These are not real items, of course, but papier mache models to be sent to the dead in the underworld by burning.

Traditionally people burn houses, clothing, gold and silver ingots, and paper money. I remember pasting silver and gold colored foils on paper squares, and folding them into ingots. They still do that. But these are also becoming more modernized, and much more varied. It is quite an industry, and really amazing how intricate they make them. If only one can really help the dead in this manner.

Monday, March 17, 2008

A Thousand Splendid Suns

When Khaled Hosseini, the author of The Kite Runner, published A Thousand Splendid Suns last year, I wasn’t too keen to read it. It was not that I didn’t like The Kite Runner. But I was concerned that the new book might be just more of the same.

I was eventually persuaded to read it by my daughter, again. It then turned out to be, and not to be, more of the same. Yes, it was about Afghanistan in the past 30 years, and, yes, it was centered around the lives of and friendship between two persons. But, no, the story was told from the perspective of women, the suffering was even deeper, and the human spirit was more feisty, more hopeful.

Mariam was an illegitimate daughter who was given away for marriage when her existence made life difficult for her father. Later she had to share her repressive husband, Rasheed, with Laila, a feisty girl who lost her parents when the Taliban attacked Kabul. They both suffered terribly in their own way. They fought initially, but eventually bonded deeply. Somehow they never gave up trying to escape from their misery.

In the comfort of my home in Hong Kong, it is hard to imagine being given away for marriage, not being able to go out without being wrapped up in a burqa, not being able to go out without the company of a male relative, not being able to go to school, being stoned for adultery, ...

Under the Taliban, the women suffer even more than men. Yet Mariam and Laila never gave up. Eventually one gave up her life to give the other hope.

I like A Thousand Splendid Suns more than The Kite Runner.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Kite Runner

My daughters often ask me to recommend books for them to read. That’s something that I enjoy very much. So much so that I would volunteer recommendations without being asked. But lately they have started to give me recommendations, which I also enjoy. The Kite Runner was one of those.

The Kite Runner did not disappoint. In fact, I am glad I read it. I learned a lot from it. About Afghanistan. About sufferings. About human beings - the ugly side, mostly.

The story was about the complex relationships between two boys, Amir and Hassan, his loyal friend and servant. Amir wanted to win in a kite-flying competition, and Hassan was going to do all he could to help him win. That led to an ugly event which scarred them both, and they could not be friends anymore.

Many years after fleeing the Russian invasion, Amir returned to Afghanistan for redemption. Throughout the story, I read of the suffering of the Afghanistan people under the Russian invasion, the continuous civil wars, the Taliban.

It was not really what I would call an enjoyable reading experience. You could not help but be touched by the human drama, and the suffering. But there were just too much of the dark side of human beings. Through out most of the book, I found myself anticipating and dreading the calamity that I knew was going to happen. There was a glimmer of hope, but I would like to see more of it.

I would still recommend the book. The truth is ugly and painful to face. But it is better to face it than to pretend it is not there.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Preliminary effects of mother tongue education

Most parents do not want to send their children to Chinese-medium schools. Now, the first major study on the effects of the mother-tongue education policy gives the parents more reasons not to.

According to a study by Dr. Tsang, Wing-kwong, students who study in Chinese-medium schools from form 1 to form 5 is only about 50% as likely to enter a university in Hong Kong as compared to those who study in English-medium schools. If their school switches to English in form 4, they perform better but still lack behind those in English-medium schools, by about 14%.

They do perform better initially, in science and social science subjects. But the differences narrow by form 5. And by the time of the A level examinations, their advantages have totally disappeared. They do perform consistently better in Chinese, but are consistently worse off in English.

For most Hong Kong students, getting into university IS the objective. And English IS critically important. From this perspective, the Chinese-medium schools under the current policies is certainly not a good choice.

About 40% of the students who enter secondary school are considered suitable to learn in English. But only about 30% of school places are in English-medium schools. So, even if are considered by the government to be suitable to learn in English, there is still a one in three possibility that you will end up in a Chinese-medium school.

You are fortunate if you live in Wanchai or western-central on Hong Kong Island - because your chance of entering a English-medium school is more than 50% overall.

However, if you live in the out-lying islands or Saigon, your chance is less than 10%. It is better in Yuen Long, Northern New Territories, Tuen Mun and Kwai-Tsing - but your chance is still less than 20%.

Hong Kong is a place of inequalities.

Note: Dr. Tsang’s study covers only the first 2 batches of students in Chinese-medium schools, and we all know the reliability (or un-reliability) of such studies. So, take it with a grain of salt.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Dish most cruel

What is the most cruel dish? Rice in a small pot - 煲仔飯 - of course. 煲仔 - get it? 煲仔 means small pot. But it can also mean “cook your son”. That’s what my daughters call a 爛 gag.

Jokes aside, this is one of the best ways to eat rice. Put rice and water in a 砂煲 and start cooking. When the rice is almost done, add your favourite meat: spare ribs, preserved sausages, preserved duck, chicken, salted fish, ... Then continue to cook until the rice at the bottom is slightly crispy brown. The oil and the juice from the meat seeps into and permeates the rice. Take the pot off the fire and let it ripen for a few minutes. It ensures that the rice is fully and evenly cooked. More importantly, the rice at the bottom dries up slightly and separates from the pot easily - it does not stick to the pot. Hmm ... it smells and tastes SO good. It costs perhaps 30 dollars, but is no less enjoyable than something 10 times more expensive.

At some of these small restaurants, the cooking of 煲仔飯 is done outside, right on the side walk. So you can watch your pot of rice being cooked authentically from scratch. It is an art. Watch out for the periodic turning of the pot to ensure that the rice is cooked evenly.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

To raise a reader

How do we get our children to read? No doubt it is a common desire of parents. Of course the school that the child attends has a huge influence on the child. But we may or may not have the money, the connection, or the luck of the draw to get our children into the desired school. In any case I believe we should not relay totally on the school. The education of our children is too important to entrust completely to others.

I think we should start reading to our children while they are still babies. Before they can read, or speak, or even sit up properly, we can start reading to them. There are tons of colorful, toy-like books for that purpose. And it is so enjoyable that parents who don’t do it are really missing a lot.

When they start to talk and recognize words, we can read with them. When they start to read on their own. Our job is not done. We have to read alongside them. Don’t ever stop.

Some parents complain that their children used to be readers. But somehow, at some point in time the children just stop. Perhaps they discovered television, or computer games, or other distractions. Of course it can happen anytime in a person’s life. But the longer the children have been reading, the less likely it is that they will suddenly just stop.

We canot just buy them books and tell them to read. What are they to think when they are told to read, while their parents watch television, play mahjong, bet on horses and soccer, go to canto-pop concerts, or just gossip? It would be obvious to them that reading is not as important or enjoyable as they are told. Otherwise, why wouldn’t their parents do it?

I believe the best way to raise a reader is to be one myself. It is hard, it is time consuming, and it is demanding. But I think it is the best investment that we can make in our children. And it really is enjoyable in itself.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Farmed fish

I love (to watch and to eat) fish, particularly groupers or other coral fish. They are so colorful, so elegant, and - so tasty. I heard that Hong Kong imports 22,000 tons of salt-water fish yearly, valued at 3.3 billon dollars.

At the same time, I understand that our eating so much coral fish is depleting the stock so much that some species are being threatened with extinction. To eat - or not to eat. Such a dilemma.

We can, of course, eat farmed coral fish. But so far they are not doing such a good job farming coral fish. The flesh is usually tougher, and much less tasty. I can even distinguish farmed coral fish from ocean-caught ones just by looking at them, most of the time. They are usually fatter, rounder, darker and more muted in colour. Some members of my family would complain if I bought a farmed fish accidentally.

I heard that Hong Kong produces only 600 tons of farmed salt-water fish, mainly from cages floating in the sea. That’s miniscule compared to the ocean catch. Part of the reason is that the sea water around Hong Kong is so polluted and the temperature so unstable. So there is a hugh potential market for farmed coral fish.

Now some people are beginning to farm fish on land. They seem to have solved the problems of farming using man-made sea-water. The cost is higher. But they have better control of the water quality, and the fish get sick less. They claim that the quality of the fish so produced is getting better, and approaching wild catches. They are concentrating on fast growing species such as giant groupers. I am hoping they can move on to leopard groupers, spotted coral groupers, slender groupers, camouflage groupers, etc.

I am really looking forward to the day when farmed coral fish is just as good as wild catches. Then I can eat them with a clear conscience.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Reading - rather the lack of it

While we are on the topic of books, The Cat observed on her blog that she didn’t see any students reading in the staging area at a recent robotics competition. I was there as well and I was similarly amazed.

There were hundreds of primary and secondary school students in the hall. Many of them were busy working on their robots, as expected. But there was also a large number who were just sitting and waiting, perhaps in between events. Some students from an elite all-girls school were studying their notes, presumably for an upcoming test.

Some were playing cards. A few were reading newspapers or gossip magazines. Many were just walking around, or just sitting there, looking bored. None were reading books.

As The Cat observed, the biggest difference between the elite schools and the rest is perhaps not in the output (how well the students do). Nor the input (the quality of the students entering the schools). It may be the attitude of the students towards learning, in what they do with their time. They are elite schools because they are able to cultivate a culture of curiosity, of striving for excellence, of working hard to achieve your goal, of the desire and ability to enjoy the satisfaction of academic achievement.

Students and books should go hand in hand, be inseparable. It is a sad day for me to see students without books, or books without readers.

Killed by Books

A book shop owner died recently while working in the warehouse where he stored his books. That was 羅志華, owner of 二樓書店 青文書屋, which closed a couple of years ago. He was working alone during the Chinese New Year holidays when boxes of books fell on him, and killed him. It was said that death came quickly and he did not suffer too much. But his death was not discovered for more than 10 days.

He was a true lover of books and was, in fact, trying to re-open his book shop. I didn’t know him personally but had been a long term customer. More than a hundred people attended his memorial service held at a book shop in Central. Many articles have been written about him in newspapers, blogs, ... all over Hong Kong. His death touched a nerve, particularly among other book lovers. In Chinese, we say 物傷其類.

Second floor bookstores is a unique Hong Kong phenomena. One can make a decent business selling text books and stationery. But not just plain books of literature, history, philosophy, etc. Many such bookstores cannot afford the high rents of street-level stores, hence they have to move upstairs. Most bookstores in Hong Kong are very small.

This is really sad. Among Chinese societies, Hong Kong is the most prosperous and open, with the fewest restrictions and taboos. Yet the book-reading population is so thin that we cannot support bookstores of a decent size. While in Taipei and any mainland city of a reasonable size, one can find numerous mega-bookstores filled with people.

Books are the main vehicle for depositing and propagating a people’s culture, its thoughts, its feelings, its soul. Is Hong Kong destined to be a soul-less city? Do we want to be known as the generation in which Hong Kong lost its soul?

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Associate Degrees - how much are they worth?

They were invented so that more young people in Hong Kong can participate in post-secondary education - without having to create more university places, and without the government having to spend a lot of money, because much of the associate degree places receive little or no funding support from the government.

So, are they good value for the money?

Some associate degree programs are offered by community colleges associated with universities. These are the best ones, because they can draw upon tangible and intangible resources available in the universities such as the experiences of the staff, curricula, procedures, connections, etc. Many of their staff used to work in universities, on higher diploma and even degree programs. Stepping down from degree to associate degree, or sideways from higher diploma to associate degree is relatively easy.

Some are offered by organizations that used to offer diplomas, certificates, or the like. for them, it is a step up in the academic ladder and it is not easy. They are not getting a lot of help either. Most of these programs struggle and some have already shut down.

Some are offered in association with overseas institutions. These can be of varying quality and in general they are not as good as those with strong associations with local universities. Many people in Hong Kong tend to be impressed by overseas universities, particularly those with familiar sounding names. But the quality of education in Hong Kong has improved tremendously in the past 15 years. So much so that we are now exceeded only by the very top tier universities overseas.

What is more important is that overseas institutions offer programs in Hong Kong for financial gain, not because of altruistic motives. Often their contribution is not much more than the name, and the basic course material. The delivery is mostly by locally-hired staff, who are not paid that well, to ensure healthy returns to the overseas institution. So the local hires do most of the work, while the profits revert to the overseas institution.

When they enter the universities (and these are the fortunate ones), even the top graduates from the best associate degree programs struggle to keep up. Those who thrive are the exception, not the norm.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

LeiYueMun (鯉魚門) at night

Hong Kong is really a fantastic sight, particularly at night. Here we are standing on the water front at SaiWanHo (西灣河) looking towards the east.

In the middle are the boats moored in the ShauKiWan typhoon shelter. To the upper left is LeiYueMun. Between them is the LeiYueMun Channel at the eastern end of Victoria Harbour. The line of bright lights at the top and slightly to the right of the photo is Junk Bay, or TseungKwanO (將軍澳).

It is beautiful, isn’t it.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Associate Degrees - where do the graduates go?

They are more or less the equivalent of form 7 plus the first year in three-year university degree programs. And they are supposed to prepare the student for further studies, presumably to go on to earn a bachelor’s degree. Unfortunately, as mentioned before, the number of full-time degree places at universities in Hong Kong are rather limited.

So, those who can afford it, enter overseas universities, in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, etc. These countries welcome them with open arms because these students are a good source of income.

There are also other opportunities to study for a degree in Hong Kong, mainly in part-time programs offered by local universities, or overseas universities. That’s why many of the associate degree programs can claim that a large percentage of their graduates progress to study in bachelor’s degree programs.

Those with good results may even be accepted into the second year of three-year degree programs. Even with these fortunate ones, however, life may not be easy. Many have found that the standards at the universities are much higher than that at the community colleges. Sometimes, they have to take subjects with titles similar to those they took in their community colleges. So they were lured into a false sense of security. But they found out soon enough that the subjects are much more demanding han before.

There are, of course, some who continue to excel in universities. But it is not uncommon for associate degree graduates to find that their academic performance drop by half of a grade, or even one full grade. For example, they may drop from an average grade of B+ to B, or even C+, after they enter reputable universities from reputable community colleges.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Community colleges in Hong Kong

60 per cent of Hong Kong’s secondary school graduates are said to be able to participate in post-secondary education. But all of Hong Kong’s universities together offer only 14,500 places each year, about 16.5% of the agre group. How come? 16.5% is very different from 60%, no matter how you look at it. How can both numbers be true? Either someone is lying, or they are playing with the statistics.

Here is why. Much of the 60% are not actually in universities. They are studying associate degrees at community colleges such as this one, more or less the equivalent of form 7 plus the first year in three-year university degree programs. Or they are studying the more traditional higher diplomas, diplomas, certificates, etc. Many are enticed into associate degree programs with the prospect of entering into university after completing their associate degrees.

The reality? The participation rate at universities remain at 16.5% of the age group. Indeed some places originally intended for students who took the Advanced Level Examinations have been given to associate degree holders, and some hundreds of places have been created especially for associate degree holders. But that is miniscule compared to the tens of thousands of fresh associate degree holders each year. Most are disappointed. Those who can afford it go overseas.

This must rank as one of the biggest deceptions in the history of education.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Hong Kong Students’ Chinese Proficiency

Lamenting the English proficiency in Hong Kong has become a sort of national sport. The Chinese proficiency, in contrast, seems to garner less attention. That does not necessarily mean the situation is more satisfactory in Chinese. Compared to the mainland and Taiwan, my impression is that Hong Kong students are much inferior in the use of Chinese.

When I was in Beijing last October, I found this lady shopkeeper sitting on the sidewalk outside her store reading. It was not a big book, but it was all words and seemed to contain no pictures. I challenge you to find a young shopkeeper in Hong Kong reading anything other than comics, gossip, or trendy magazines.

When I was in DingXi, Gansu this January, the driver of our minivan was reading “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”(三國演義). It was the original literal version, not the abridged or comics version. And he had read it three times already. I challenge you to find a minibus or taxi driver in Hong Kong reading 三國演義. There are probably not that many professors in Hong Kong who have read it three times!

Hong Kong people, and not just students, talk a lot. But we rarely read. Except gossip, of course. Not just in English, but also in Chinese.

It is a rare person/machine/system that can keep on generating output without a way to replenish itself by taking input. But we HongKongers seem to thrive in it. Or do we? Perhaps much of the output is just hot air!