Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Terra Cotta Army (兵马俑)

After our work at Jubilee School in Gansu, we took our students to Xian for a bit of academic and cultural exchange. After visiting Xian Jiaotung University, we also took them on an obligatory visit to see Emperor Qin’s Terra Cotta Army. As we all know by now, practically every soldier, horse, etc., was broken into numerous pieces, and it took a tremendous amount of painstaking work to put each of the statues back together.

I was surprised to find that the place looked exactly the same as in 2003, when I was there the last time. Not much excavation or restoration seemed to have been done. On the Monday afternoon, these women were the only ones working at the site; and I said work a little liberally - there seemed to be more chatting than work going on. At this rate, the site would probably not look very different after another 2000 years.

It was said that the colour of the terra cotta would fade as soon as they are exposed to the air because of oxidation. Actually ways have already been found to prevent or at least control the discoloring. Given that so many people are so eager to find out what other treasures lie in Emperor Qin’s burial site, I doubt whether this is the real reason that excavation has stopped.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Worshiping forbidden - in contrast to grace

This photo was taken near the entrance to a village somewhere in the New Territories. This is the first time I have seen such a notice, but its meaning is obvious enough. 「伯公」is the name of the the spirit that supposedly guards the land. Alternately he is also called 「土地公」,「福德爺」,「福德正神」, 「大伯爺」, or「后土」if he is supposedly guarding a graveyard.

As to why worshiping by outsiders is forbidden here? I don’t really know. Perhaps the villagers are afraid the “benefits” may be usurped?

This idea of exclusive worship is quite alien to us Christians. We believe God loves all mankind. We know God by His grace which is freely given to us. Hence we would love to share it freely with all those who are willing.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Executive Responsibility

Dick Fuld, CEO of Lehman Brothers, made US $490 million just from selling shares of the company over the years. Now that Lehman Brothers is bankrupt, he will lose his job and a lot of money. But he will still receive at least another $20 million on the way out. Dick Fuld will not have to work another day and still live filthily richly.

What of the small shareholders holding basically worthless stock? And all the other people who did not even realize they were investing in risky instruments ...

What about Merrill Lynch’s CEO? It was reported that John Thain stands to share a $200 million payout with two senior lieutenants. He was hired last December to steer the company out of trouble. It turned out Merrill Lynch had to be sold to the Bank of America within a year.

In a fairer world, top executives of a company would be held accountable for the performance of a company. In the case of catastrophic failures such as what happened to Lehman Brothers, Merriall Lynch, etc., they have gone off much too easily.

It seems the higher they get, the bigger the crock, and the more obscene the take. It is excesses like these that make the capitalist system seem such a pig for ordinary people.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Beijing Coma

The novel Beijing Coma, which came out this year, wrote about the June 4 massacre from the perspective of a student protester who was shot in the head, went into a coma, and regained consciousness years later, while still completely paralyzed. People around him thought he was in a vegetative state. In fact, he was fully conscious, even with heightened senses because of his paralysis. It is a fascinating instrument, and the interplay between his thoughts against the thoughts and actions of those around him, including his mother, his friends, and neighbours, is eye-opening and captivating.

As to the depiction of events before, during, and after the protests and massacre, they were largely accurate as far as I can tell. It referred to hundreds of “class enemies” being eaten in GuangXi province during the Cultural Revolution - well-attested to by numerous accounts. Families of the executed having to pay for the bullet used in the execution - widely-know facts. Tied-up bodies of people killed in the Cultural Revolution floating down to Hong Kong - I still remember reading about them in the newspapers in Hong Kong. As to the events related to June 4, the references are so numerous and accessible there is no need for me to point them out.

It is highly recommended, both for those of us who lived through those times, as well as those who were too young to personally experience those times, who now wish to find out for themselves what happened and why.

By the way, I would have preferred to read the book in Chinese - as I suspect many of us would. Unfortunately, the book has been published only in English so far. The Chinese version will come out only next year.

Poster War on June 4th

A mini poster war has broken out at our university in the last couple of days.

It started with a poster on our Democracy Wall criticizing the student union for its stance on commemorating the June 4 massacre. It basically claimed that the Beijing students killed the soldiers sent to suppress the student uprising - instead of the students being massacred by the soldiers sent to suppress the student’s peaceful protest against corruption and for democracy - as is generally believed outside mainland China.

The poster provoked a flurry of responses, including a copy of the Wen Wei Po on June 5, 1989, protesting against the massacre on its front page. The fact that the Wen Wei Po was, and still is, considered one of the most pro-Communist newspapers in Hong Kong, and even it came out strongly against the massacre is one of the strongest evidences that something was seriously wrong with the government’s actions. Of course, for people like us who lived through those times as adults in relatively free societies, with open access to a variety of sources, there is little doubt that the Beijing students were peacefully protesting against corruption, and demanding more democracy. In the end, however, they were brutally suppressed, with many dying or otherwise suffering terribly in the process.

Flying between clouds

Those on top were clouds. But those below were not snow; they were also clouds. Our plane was flying between two layers of clouds on our way from Hong Kong to Xian last Friday. The sun was really bright above the clouds, and the view was just beautiful. You could almost feel God smiling at you over there.

I simply cannot believe something as wonderful as these can exit without a cause or purpose.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Xian Clinic

It was only after I walked past this door on a side street in 韩森寨 in the east of Xian when I realized that it was a clinic. Would you come here to be treated if you get sick in Xian?

The clinic reminded me of a bit of history behind 韩森寨. It has been said to the burial place of the father (庄襄王) of the First Emperor of China (秦始皇). Alternatively, it has also said to be the burial place of 刘进, the son of 汉武帝刘彻. 汉武帝 killed his son (刘进) when he suspected 刘进 of trying to put a curse on him by 巫蛊. This was the infamous 巫蛊之祸”. Believe it or not.

By the way, I was looking for the mound rumoured to be the grave of 庄襄王. On my way, I found a street market ... and lots of interesting people ... and interesting-looking food.

I did not eat anything there - honest!

Teaching in Xian

I had to deliver two full days of lectures for a subject in a Masters program in Information Systems in Xian over the weekend. I used a lot of case studies. Some of which are well-known cases such as Google’s search engine, the Wikipedia open source encyclopedia, Chris Anderson’s Long Tail, etc. Others are projects that I have personally been involved in, such as the building of a digital library at Project Gutenberg, data mining on a crime database, text mining for human resource management, etc. I also included assignments done by previous batches of students.

I used an interactive style in the lectures, asking them questions and encouraging them to ask questions. Then I gave them time to conduct group discussions and invited some of them to present the results. I told them repeatedly that it was not how much facts they memorized, and whether the answer to a question was yes or no that matter. It was how they analyze a new problem, and be able to justify their answers with facts or sound arguments. In short, the techniques I used are quite common in Western universities.

To my students in Xian, however, this is something new. They were attentive in the class, and were clearly eager to understand what I was trying to discuss with them. They told me they found the emphasis on practical applications as well as research-based insights into the case studies refreshing. The applauded at the end of the first day, and clapped even louder on the second and last day. Their response made the hard work worth it. On the plan ride back to Hong Kong immediately after the classes on Sunday, I was totally exhausted but happy with the experience.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Traffic - Chinese Style

On the way from the airport on Friday, our car stopped at a red traffic light, waiting to turn left. Within the less than one minute before the traffic turned green, a total of four vehicles came from behind us and turned left. Two of them were buses and two were big trucks. Two of them passed us on the left, and two passed us on the right. Amazing.

A Good 刀削麵 Dinner

A four-reminbi bowl of 炸醬刀削麵 (sliced noodle with meat source), a four-reminbi bottle of cold beer, and a good book - a perfect dinner, almost. The one thing that could have made it better was some good company. Unfortunately I was alone in Xian last Friday, so I had to make do with a book.

刀削麵 is a kind of noodle popular in Shanxi (山西). The noodle is sliced with a special knife directly from a large lump of dough. The noodle’s cross section looks like a flat triangle, and naturally, the longer and thinner the noodle, the harder it is to slice it from the dough. I have seen performances in hotels where the “noodles” so made were rather short, only about 2 to 3 inches long. The noddles I had this evening were more than 6 inches long, and relatively thin; and this is just a little road-side noodle shop. It is a bit more chewy than the usual Cantonese noodles, perhaps because the dough has to be kind of firm to be sliced. But this is just the way I like my noodles.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Celebrity Privileges

Yesterday our airplane landed at the Xian airport, but we were not allowed to exit the airplane for quite a while. The pilot announced that it was because the immigration officials had not arrived yet. I found it rather hard to believe and could not remember ever hearing of such a thing before. But this being China, I guessed anything could happen.

When I looked out the window, I could see several people in uniforms crowding the landing outside the gangway linking the airplane to the terminal. They were craning their necks to stare at something near the door of the airplane. I thought to myself: was it because they had difficulties opening the door to the plane? If so, that would not be good. However, they seemed to be smiling - so it could not have been that bad.

Eventually we were let off, perhaps after 10 minutes. There was an unusual number of airport personnel along the way. That was also odd in itself, and doubly so since they did not seem to be doing anything important other than just standing there.

It was only after I got in the rental car that I found out what happened. All the commotion was because a certain Mr. J. Zhou (Chow), a singer from Hong Kong, was on our plane. We were held back to let him get off first. It was not helped by the fact that there was obviously no shortage of people gathering to gawk at him. Apparently he came to Xian to give a concert.

I have to admit I got a bit annoyed by the whole thing. Why should the whole plane-load of people be inconvenienced because of him? Why couldn’t he get off just like everybody else? Did he pay extra for the privilege?

On another trip this summer, upon arriving at Los Angeles, I think, our whole plane-load of people were held back to allow a sick woman to get off first. She had to squeeze through from the back of the plane to the front, with the help of a stewardess. Later she was seen in a wheelchair. In that case I had absolutely no complaint; just sympathy for the woman. But this Mr. Zhou? Give me a break, please!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Chicken and Duck Market (雞鴨欄)

When I was small, many many years ago, I wasn’t quite aware of those trees on Forbes Street. To me, it was simply Chicken and Duck Market (雞鴨欄) then, because the street was lined with poultry wholesalers. It was filthy, smelly but fun, choked full of not just chicken and ducks - but also pigeons, quails, ..., and may others I could not name.

We were living in a small brickhouse on a hill side behind Forbes Street. At one point, my father built a wire-mesh cage to raise pigeons. The number of pigeons grew quickly, not just because the were laying eggs, but more because many pigeons that escaped from the stalls on Forbes Street congregated at out place.

By the way, does anyone want to know how to kill a pigeon without seeing blood?

Trees that grow on walls

When that tree in Stanley fell and killed a young lady, some people in the Hong Kong Government seemed to panic and started chopping down many trees that may or may not cause a problem. They have even chopped down some of the small trees that grow on a rocky wall outside the University of Hong Kong. That is a real pity, although we probably should not be surprised by now that the government would react in this way.

Trees that grow on rocky walls has become part of the scenery in Hong Kong. These trees on Forbes Street in Kennedy Town are some of my favourites. The way the government is operating, these sights may not remain for long. The government seems to operate this way: old trees that pose a danger have to go, any tree that obstructs has to be trimmed or chopped, and young trees are not worth preserving. Under this philosophy, it is a miracle that any tree has a chance to grow old enough to be deemed worth preserving.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Full Moon

The sky was surprisingly clear in the evening of the Mid Autumn Festival. But by the time I found the moon, it was already high in the sky. However, it did remind me of some photographs I took about two months ago, also on a full moon.

The first photo was of the setting sun at Camp Pendleton near San Diego in Southern California in late July. The sun was setting behind some palm trees near the beach, while we were having a barbecue. It was quite hot when we played beach volleyball under the sun earlier during the day. But by the time the sun was setting, it was cool enough to warrant wearing a wind-breaker.

The second photo was of the rising moon at Shell Beach (near Pismo Beach) half way between Los Angeles and San Francisco just a few days earlier. We were coming back from a walk on the beach, when we found the orange-red moon rising above the horizon.

In the man-made concrete jungle of Hong Kong, it is easy to forget that such sights even exist. But on the Pacific Coast of California (as well as many other places on earth), you see such beautiful views of God’s creation every day. It does help to remind us of what we are doing here on earth. When we are face to face with God’s creation, and hence God Himself, there is nowhere to hide, and nothing else to distract us. We are compelled to ask ourselves, “What am I doing here?”

Monday, September 15, 2008

Really Old Friends

We celebrated Mid-Autumn Festival with some really old (long-time) friends. My wife and I met L & N 32 years ago. For quite some time, a small group of us Hong Kong students attending university at Rochester met for Bible study at L & N’s apartment on Saturday mornings and enjoyed sumptuous lunches there afterwards. It was through the study of Romans in their apartment that I truly undertand what it means to be a Christian. Their apartment became our home away from home, and we are eternally grateful.

L & N have no children. But they have many spiritual children like us, through many years of serving God as counselor, professor, and pastor.

N is recovering from a minor stroke. Last evening our family went over to their place at Wu Kai Sha Village to have dinner with them. Other than a slight slurring of speech and having to walk with a stick, N was looking good and in high spirits.

N has always been a lover of cats. Here is Twinkle at 17 years old, the equivalent of a human person at 80 years of age. He was initially cool but warmed up to some gentle caressing.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


I heard a loud but dull “thud” while I was crossing a footbridge over the Hung Hom exit of the Cross-Harbour Tunnel. When I looked over the rails this was what I saw. Even though I did not see it, it was rather obvious what happened: the container truck crashed into the back of the van. What was not so clear was whether the container truck was simply driving too fast, or the van slowed suddenly.

In any case, nobody seemed to have been hurt. There were some words exchanged, but both sides seemed to be calm and civilized. In a minute of so, both vehicles were pulled to the side of the busy road. I can still see them from my window as I am typing. Just a small glimpse into life on the roads in Hong Kong.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Death and Life

At the Jubilee school, some potatoes were stored in an underground cellar. For some reason, perhaps because of too much moisture, the potatoes started to rot. When we went down the cellar, we found this macabre but beautiful sight. The rotting potatoes gave out a foul smell; but they were also sprouting - fresh-looking shoots were everywhere.

They reminded me of John 12:24: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Death and life do go hand-in-hand. If we wish to help (give life to) others, we must be willing to make sacrifices. I have learned my lessons abundantly going to Gansu this time.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Cicero and the Legislative Council Elections

The election of members to the Legislative Council of Hong Kong is now over. Generally I believe in a more liberal and democratic system, and universal suffrage. However, there are also some benefits in having an Upper House to provide some balance to the Lower House. If the Lower House is directly elected then the Upper House may be selected in some other form. The British and the American systems both have some form of Upper House.

The life of the great orator and politician Marcus Cicero provides a fascinating picture of the incredibly complex balancing act that is the Roman republican political system.

Cicero had been a Consul, the highest executive in the Roman republic. Two elected Consuls alternate in executive seniority month by month, and held office for one year only. There was a ladder of other posts up which aspiring politicians had to climb before they became eligible for the top job, the Consulship. The most junior was life membership in the Senate, with several hundred members. There were 20 Quaestors responsible for taxes and payments. 4 Aediles handled civic matters. 8 Praetors acted as judges. Only past Praetors can stand for Consulship. In the event of a dire military or political emergency, a Dictator could be appointed on the nomination of the Consuls - a Dictator held office for a maximum of 6 months. Former Consuls and Praetors were appointed governors of provinces. Former Consuls can be appointed Censors whose task was to review the membership of the Senate and remove those who were thought to be unworthy. It was unusual for former Consuls to win the Consulship again, ... One of the key issues was the balance of power.

The members of our Legislative Council elected from Functional Constituencies are supposed to provide that balance. But so many of them are outrageously unworthy. Some have bought bogus academic qualifications. Some are blatantly lazy. Some are elected by as little as 60 votes. Many are worse - returned unopposed. In some constituencies if you are very rich, owning several companies, you can control multiple votes. ... In contrast, in some of the geographical constituencies, you may not be able to secure a seat even if you have 20,000 votes. What kind of warped system is this? Perhaps we should also have some Censors to remove those blatantly unworthy?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Sunflower mathematics

During a break at Jubilee, I chanced upon this sunflower. To start with, this is not one single flower but a head (composite flower) of numerous florets (small flowers). The florets mature into black and white striped sunflower seeds. The sunflower seed, of course, is actually the fruit of the plant. The seed is inside the inedible husk.

In Lanzhou, we found people carrying what looked like deep-dish pizzas, which turned out to be sunflowers sold as snacks at two to four reminbi a head. You don’t eat the flower, of course; you eat the seeds. I bought one of the bigger ones, and it is now drying in my office.

Take a close look at the florets. Each is oriented at an angle to its neighbours - that angle is called the golden angle. Because of this, the florets form a pattern of successive left and right spirals - and the number of left spirals and the number of right spirals are successive Fibonacci numbers (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, ...) - where each number is the sum of the previous 2 numbers, except for the first 2. This one has 34 in one direction and 55 in another on the outside - count them. I was told bigger ones have 89 and 144 but I haven’t verified it yet.

Amazing, isn’t it? Why did God make them this way, I wonder?

Friday, September 05, 2008

Simple Pleasures

One morning at Jubilee, I bumped into this little bee nibbling at a small flower no more than an inch across. My lens was practically touching its wings, and drove it off the flower more than once. But it simply hovered for a while and insisted on returning to the flower.

This fierce-looking dog, Michael, turned out to be very friendly. It dropped its ears, lowered its head and wagged its tail rigorously when it saw me from a distance. Then it tried to jump on me and bit my hand playfully when I patted it on its head.

But when I crouched down to take a photo at its level - big mistake! It panicked, ran back to its shelter and refused to come out. It was probably afraid that I was going to pick up a rock to throw at it. After some coaxing, fortunately, it poked its head out, then the neck, and finally the whole body. But it was more cautious than before.

This little kitten would sit on your lap and doze off if you were nice to it. It does great things for your ego when such a lovely creature displays so much affection and trust in you.

The kids at Jubilee do not have much in terms of material possessions. But simple pleasures such as these are God given and do not really cost much.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Difficult Goodbye

Kids running after our bus when we left Jubilee School - the orphan school in Gansu.

A chubby 8 year old girl at Jubilee was one of our favourites. She seemed happy and well-adjusted, particularly in comparison to some others who seemed more troubled. It was only after we came back to Hong Kong that I learned of the darker side of her story.

Her father was beaten to death. Her mother left home. When her grandfather tracked down her mother, her mother chose her sister and rejected her - she had to return reluctantly to Gansu with her grandfather. When her grandfather begged Jubilee to accept her at the orphanage, she must have felt being rejected one more time. When asked whether she would be willing to go with her mother should her mother come to fetch her, her reply was, “I will tell her to go away!” It took a long time before she could share her story with the staff at Jubilee. Eventually, she found the strength to forgive her mother and her father’s killer.

Her story was not the worst - every child has a story unhappy in their own way.

Knowing the stories such as this makes the parting even harder. How can one not want to hold these kids and cry with them? I pray that, God willing, Jubilee can be a healing place for these kids. He has to, He is the only one who can. It is our privilege to be of any help.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Friendly Folks in Changkou

On a morning walk in Changkou, I poked my head gingerly through these open doors, and was greeted by a tidy courtyard. Surrounded by traditional-looking houses, and some big sunflowers.

At first the courtyard seemed deserted. Soon an elderly lady emerged. I got ready to beat a hasty retreat but she seemed friendly. She actually invited us to look around when she found out that we were from Hong Kong and were helping out at the Jubilee School. Then her equally friendly hushand also emerged. And we chatted.

They have been living there for ages; their son works at a local construction site (I wonder whether it is the potato-processing factory being built near the Jubilee School); their grandchildren are in school (will they stay in town when they grow up?); ...

The houses were built in traditional styles, with tiled roofs supported by wooden beams, wooden framed windows (covered with plastic instead of paper), coal fired kangs (炕), ...

They came to the door to send us off when we bid them farewell.

Despite the skull cap, they are Hans. As evidenced by the pigs that they keep.

Not surprisingly, part of the pigs’ diet consists of dried potatoes.