Friday, October 31, 2008

Salted Fish Head Soup 鹹魚頭豆腐芥菜湯

Remember this salted garouper that my sister-in-law gave us? Last evening my wife made soup with the head, together with tou foo (豆腐) and 大芥菜. The soup was milky white and really tasty. It had the sweetness of the garouper but none of the fishiness.

My daughters normally would not eat fish heads. But last evening we picked the head clean. The meat was still firm but not dry, favourful but not overpoweringly salty after boiling in the soup. One of my daughters even ate an eye (I ate the other). In the process I almost got scratched by the fish’s teeth. Fortunately, I did not. But imagine being bitten by a salted, dead-as-nails, fish. It would rank up there with my friend being stung by a wasp in the swimming pool.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Illuminated Trees

Just a bunch of trees illuminated against the night sky. Taken with my friend’s new GPS-equipped camera, it came out quite nice. Thought I should share it with my friends.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

No-study-required Degree

The following is an email that appeared in my mailbox this morning. It is self-explanatory. They used to be quite rare. Now they appear regularly, even when the SPAM filter is turned on.

Dishonesty is, of course, as old as humanity itself. It is nothing new, it does not surprise us. But that is a still problem.

We are living better, growing bigger, more knowledgeable, building bigger and more powerful machine. But are we behaving any better? No. Is this progress? I don't think so. Is this where we want humanity to be going? Not for me. I would rather be a honest person than a rich, healthy, smart, powerful but lying jerk.


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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Death Wishes

My wife and I imagined how saddened W’s parents must be by their son’s passing away.

I know, however, that some parents wish that their children die before they do. Who are they?

Parents of severely-handicapped children who need special, life-long care, that’s who. Not because they do not love their children, but precisely because they love their children so much. They feel that no one will love their children as much as they do. The thinking goes like this: my child requires life-long special care that only parents can give. Who is going to look after my special child after I die?

Some consider that the lives of such severely-handicapped children are nothing but suffering, hence with little or no meaning. Both the children themselves and their parents are condemned to some kind of life-sentence. The same is said about people suffering from painful and debilitating chronic illnesses and given no hope of recovery. Hence it is considered better for their lives to be ended early, even with help.

Not so in the eye of God, however. He can turn even seemingly hopeless situations into lessons of enduring love and hope. It is easier said than done, of course. But with God, anything is possible. We hope, ultimately, not for temporary earthly salvation, but eternal heavenly deliverance.

In the Face of Death

Just came back from W’s funeral this evening.

We were so happy for him, and the others in the Sunday School class, when they got baptized in September. In my mind, he has always been tall and thin, ever since I met him at church earlier this year. We all knew that he had cancer, had a liver transplant, and was undergoing various treatments. But he had been walking and talking and working, so calm and clear-headed and hopeful, that death seemed far away. Until one day in early October when he came to church in wheelchairs. Then his condition deteriorated rapidly and passed away about 10 days ago.

I had suspected that he lost weight because of the illness. But only when I saw those pictures of him before he got sick, at the funeral this evening, that I realized how big he was. Such a big man, who weighed more than 200 pounds, could be reduced to skin and bones by liver cancer. And a spirited man, walking and eating, and standing tall at his baptism one month, can be dead in the next month.

It wasn’t a really sad funeral, however. His wife, his two daughters, his younger brother, and many of his friends there are Christians. We are hopeful that we will meet again.

Staring death in the face forces us to consider what, ultimately, is important in life. Certainly not the size of our apartment or bank account, not how well known or highly placed we are in society, not how pretty we are or how hard our bodies are, not how widely we have travelled or how highly educated we are. But loved ones, whether we will get to see them again, knowing where we are going. Now that is important. At least for me.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Free Congee

This was my Cantonese Rice Congee 及第粥 lunch this afternoon, together with soybean milk 豆漿 and 炸兩. At 30 degree Celsius outdoors. I wouldn’t normally do it, not because I do not like congee (which I love), but because of the heat. However ...

I read about this congee shop at Oi Man Estate (愛民邨) which has been giving out free congee to the seniors - and I just have to see it for myself. I can confirm now that it is real. The owner is a real person in flesh and blood, who was washing dishes while I ate. He does not look too educated or rich, yet he is doing something that many of us can, but do not.

A lot of people have responded. Not just the old folks who come to enjoy the free congee. But also people who come to donate money, rice, dried scallops, dried meat, ..., to show support by buying his congee.

It is heart warming to see people who care, who actually does something concrete to help in a time of trouble. It has been too depressing to see so many greedy people who care only about how much money they make, how they can get their names onto papers and even buildings, how they can grab the most power, ...

Friday, October 24, 2008

Smartness and Wisdom

The people working in the finance industry are some of the smartest people in the world. Many of them went to the best business schools. No doubt some got in because of their rich parents. But many proved their worth by excellent performance. They are smartly dressed, speak eloquently, and made huge salaries and even bigger bonuses. They are no doubt very smart people.

Yet they are also the same people who got the whole world into this mess. Why did they fail to see the danger in creating and selling these derivatives at huge risks. Perhaps they did, but were simply blinded by their greed. Or perhaps they truly did not see the risks. In either case, they are inexcusably foolish.

Why are so many people so smart and yet so foolish? Why are people so good at making short term and small gains, and yet so foolish in managing things that really matter in the long run?

They remind me of the rich man in the Gospel According To Luke, Chapter 12, verses 12 to 21, who tore down his barns and built bigger ones, to store all his grains and goods, thinking he could then sit back and relax, eat, drink and be merry. But God said, “You fool! This very night your life will be taken from you.”

Sadly, many of us mistook smartness for wisdom.

By the way, the photo is that of a chapel at Oxford University, symbolic of God being the true wisdom in a world of knowledge.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Taxi Driver In a bad mood

The driver of our taxi earlier this afternoon was obviously in a bad mood. He did not use foul language but was grumbling continuously throughout the trip.

As soon as we got in the taxi he started complaining that everybody on the street seemed to be in a bad mood because of the financial crisis, that people had no patience at all and got angry at the drop of a hat, that it was understandable because the Hang Sang Index had dropped from 30,000+ points to 14,000 points, that everybody had lost money and kept on losing money, that people were afraid of losing their jobs, that people working for the government are the only ones whose jobs are safe but most people do not work for the government, that it was not helped by people predicting the worst was yet to come, that I did not seem sufficiently unhappy at this bad situation, that he had waited for an hour to get his taxi filled up with natural gas, that poor governmental policy was responsible for there being so few natural gas stations - hence he had to wait so long, that he had to drive a taxi because he lost his 20,000 dollar job as an office worker because his boss’s business was failing, that at 63 he could not get a job as a security guard because he could not get proper labor insurance, that at 63 he was not as strong as his younger competitors for the security guard jobs, that people were not hiring taxis because of the poor economic situation, that it was the end of his 12 hour shift and he had not earned any money after expenses were deducted, ... All these in a 15 minute taxi ride - amazing.

Surely it is not unusual to find taxi drivers in a bad mood. But the degree of suffering in the city is truly palpable, epitomized by his diatribe.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Two Part Test with a Twist

I tried a new way to give a test on my students last week. Instead of a test that lasted an hour, I divided the test into two halves. After finishing the first half an hour, I collected the papers and let the students study for an hour, then I gave them the second half of the test. The students were informed of this arrangement a week before the test.

The students did not know before hand, but part of the questions (S) in the second half of the test had appeared in the first half, and the rest (M) were modified slightly. I had expected that the students would study the material that they had difficulties with. Because of this, and that they had more time to consider the questions, they should be able to do better on S. But M might actually confuse them, therefore they might actually do worse.

The results were pretty much as expected. The average mark on the questions that were the same (S) improved by about 7.5%. Among the 64 students, 47% did better on S, 38% got the same marks, and only 14% did worse. Among the students whose marks were below average in the first half, 55% improved on S, and only 10% did worse. Among those whose marks were above average, 38% improved on S, and 15% did worse. So it can be argued that the weaker students benefited from this experiment more than the stronger ones.

But the drop in the average mark for the modified questions (M) - a drop of 17% - was quite a bit larger than I expected. Perhaps, when I tried to make the questions different, I actually made them harder.

During the break, I observed that many students were studying hard, as expected. Several actually came up to asked me about some of the questions in the test. I answered the questions openly and used the white board, so that all those who wanted to, could follow our discussions. This was partly to try to be fair to everyone, and partly because the purpose of the experiment was to help them to study in the first place.

I also noticed that some of the students (more than 10% of the class) were just sitting there, or taking a nap. Some of them told me that they felt it might be better to rest, so that they could be fresher for the second half - which may not be a bad idea. What I could not determine was whether there was any correlations between what they did during the break and their performance on the second half of the test. I would love to find out next time.

It was a fascinating experiment, for me anyway.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Living Beyond Our Means

I do not like to be in debt. I have never taken a loan to buy a car. When I take our a mortgage to buy a house I do my best to pay off the mortgage, even though it may make “financial sense” to invest the money elsewhere. That makes me, and people who think in the same way, a kind of dinosaur in this world of debt financing. I feel uncomfortable spending money that I do not own.

Innovative financial services allow people to “leverage”. It means essentially to borrow money to invest, hoping to achieve a higher return for the money that is actually owned.

It is supposedly a smart way to invest. Indeed many of the people who work in finances graduated from some of the best universities, and have been making obscene amounts of money. Yet it is also these same people who got the whole world into this mess. Now we are counting on them to get us out of it. Forgive me for not holding out a lot of hope on them.

Another way to describe this way of living is the old fashioned “living beyond our means.”

The photo is of Central at night, as seen from an airplane just before landing. It is the heart of financial services in Hong Kong and it is glitteringly beautiful. Everybody wants a piece of it - and now we are in a mess. But what is it that we really want in life? Is it really just the glitter that we want? Or something that is not so glamorous but ultimately more satisfying?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Faith in the Finance System

I had my first taste of how the finance system works when I graduated from university in the USA, and got my first job. My first application for a credit card was rejected even though I had a decent salary as an engineer. The reason was I had no credit history - a record of borrowing and repaying money. It was only when I told them that I had took out a loan from the university and was beginning to repay it, then I got my first credit card. So I learned two things. Firstly, the banks were quite cautious. Secondly, a person who owes money was considered more trustworthy than someone who owes nothing. The second lesson is still true, but not the first one.

The operative word is confidence (faith, belief, trust, ...). The banks have to have faith that when I borrow money from them, buy a book using my credit card, take out a loan to buy a car, or take out a mortgage to buy a house - that I will repay them.

When the housing prices keep on rising, people believe it is safe to buy a house that costs 10 or even 20 times the money that they actually have. When people have difficulty obtaining mortgages, the government encourages banks to lend to them, believing the rising market will make the lending safe. Thus is born the subprime mortgages and loans. Banks become more aggressive in lending. Banks then devise ingenious ways to get other people to share the risks in such shaky lending.

The now infamous mini-bond is actually a kind of insurance. The investment banks were afraid that the risky loans may not be repaid. So they created an instrument which is essentially an agreement that the investment bank will pay the buyer a certain amount of money if the risky loans do get repaid, but the buyer gets less money (or in the worse case, nothing) if the risky loans do not get repaid (defaults). Most people did not realize they were providing insurance to the multi-billion dollar investment banks. They were essentially betting against someone defaulting their subprime mortgages and loans. Now they know, but it is too late.

Suddenly someone realized that the loans were much too risky and the faith they had were not justified. So they stopped lending money and asked for loans to be repaid. Once that started, everybody lost faith, and the system collapsed.

It turns out much of our faith in the finance system, and the people who operate it, have been misplaced.

By the way, if you cannot identify it, the photos are both of San Francisco. On our way back from Los Angels this August, the plane was hugging the California and the cloud cover happened to break when we passed by San Francisco. The cluster of tall buildings in downtown San Francisco is one of the financial centers of the USA. On the ground, they look very solid and impressive. From high in sky, they look more like models and much less solid.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Shattered Faith

“The credit crisis has shattered U.S. consumers’ faith in financial institutions, ... a stunning loss of confidence in the Federal Reserve, ...” said a news dispatch from Reuters a few days ago. The words confidence, faith, trust, etc., have been used a lot of these days. Mostly the lack of them is lamented, actually.

The crux of the current crisis is the banks’ reluctance to lend money, not even to other banks - because they do not believe that the money will be repaid. That’s a stunning indictment of the financial system as it stands.

We used to trust that (the smart people who run) the banks and financial institutions know what they are doing, that the financial system works. That it is OK even if only about 10% of our deposits are kept in the bank. That I can buy a two million dollar apartment even if I only have two hundred thousand dollars. That people who take out mortgages will repay them. That people who borrow money from the bank will return them. That banks will not suddenly go bankrupt.

Suddenly we found out that these people aren’t that smart after-all. That the financial system does not always work. That the stock prices will not go on increasing. That housing prices will not keep on rising. That banks do go bankrupt. That failures of the financial system can be catastrophic.

The world cannot operate without trust. We have to trust something, or someone. But trust can be misplaced. Who would you rather trust?

Fallible people? Faulty financial markets? Money? Power? Knowledge? Love? As for me and my family, we prefer to trust the Creator of the universe. He has proven to be worthy of our confidence.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Please Donate Your Blood

By now, you are probably used to it. Every three to four months, an article like this appears here.

This is what was left on my right arm - a small puncture - as a memento for donating blood today. At little cost to you - there is very little pain, and you body makes up for the lost blood soon enough - you can help someone in need, perhaps even save his or her life. Why not?

The whole process takes only about half an hour. First you fill out a questionnaire. Then they prick your finger to draw a drop of blood, to test whether your blood coagulates nicely. Then they stick a needle about 1 millimeter thick into a vein on your arm, to draw 500 cubic centimeter of blood (which actually takes only about 5 minutes). Then you rest for 10 minutes, have a cup of tea, and you can go. You will certainly feel good about it for quite a while afterwards, and you can show off your wound (actually they give you a small band-aid to cover it) to your friends and loved ones.

If you wish to donate, you may wish to consider the Blood Donation Center in Central, on Devoux Road. It is never crowded, so you don’t have to wait. In contrast, you may have to wait for an hour before you get to donate at the center in Mongkok because it is so crowded. The center in Shatin is another good choice.

Please do consider it, if you have not done so already.

The Farmers (and their Children) of China

Over the past years, I have met many young people from the rural areas in China. Most children from the cities are single children, as expected under the one-child policy. Many from the rural areas, however, have brothers and sisters, some as many as four - a boy I met last year has 4 elder sisters. It is also quite common for their fathers and elder brothers and sisters to be away from home, working in some coastal regions such as Zhejiang, Shenzhen, Fujian, etc.

It is not surprising for people to want to get away from the farms, since the average income in the cities is estimated to be six times higher than average income in the rural areas. In comparison, the corresponding number in most other countries is said to be one and a half times.

In the mean time, the tax burden on the farmers is said to be four times higher in the rural areas than in the cities. These include expenses for construction of government buildings, administrative expenses, salaries for officials, education, family planning, militia training, public health, public transport, ... The central government has pushed to streamline the collection of taxes, and actual reduction of taxes. At the same time, it is also setting policies for expansions of social services such as free education. While little or no additional money is provided by the central government, guess where the money is coming from?

While moving to a more market-based economy is good for the nation in the long run, it is a huge challenge to engineer a smooth transition.

In the mean time, their best hope is for the children to study hard and to get into one of the elite universities, and then a high-paying job in the main cities. Some of them are actually in our universities now.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Farming Population in China

China has always been a nation of farmers. Keeping the farmers contented in the countryside, while producing enough food for the whole country, has been a national priority for thousands of years. If productivity is low because of poor weather, corruption, war, poor policies, or some other causes, the whole nation suffers. Books such as the rigorously-researched 中國農民調查 detailed some of current problems the peasants are faced with.

If, on the other hand, appropriate policies and market forces are allowed to operate on the farmlands, increasing farmland productivity to a level comparable to developed countries, what would be the consequences? Prosperity would likely come to part of the population, particularly those who own the land. But what about those who are no longer needed on the farms?

5% of the population in the European Union, and 1.7% in the U.S.A. are farmers. That’s all that is needed to produce enough food to feed the population, more or less. In comparison, about 60% of the population in China are farmers. So, if the farms of China become only half as productive as those in Europe, half of her population, that is, about 600,000,000 people will no longer be needed on the farms.

That’s a seismic shift in demographics. What are these people going to do? Will enough jobs be created so that these extra bodies can be gainfully occupied, and the mouths fed, so to speak? Where are they going to live? They will likely want to move to the cities to find jobs. Can they be accommodated? It is not easy governing China.

These questions are common knowledge, of course. Just that having traveled in the countryside in China a bit in the past years, these issues strike me much closer now.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Strips of Hard Farmland

At first glance, this scene near Lanzhou seems to consist of nothing but barren hills - except for some courtyard houses in the upper right hand corner. Upon closer inspection, however, it is evident there are narrow strips of farmland etched on the long narrow valleys. Imagine the labor involved in carving out these fields from the harsh landscape, and in cultivating them.

If this is how it looks at the height of summer in August, can we imagine how it would look in winter? How do people actually survive winters there?

Why do people insist on living such a hard life there? Perhaps they don’t really have a choice? Why?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Another Rural Revolution in China?

30 years ago, in 1978, 18 farmers in Xiaogang village in Fengyang (鳳陽) county in Anhui province secretly agreed to divide community-owned farmland into smaller pieces called household contracts, for each family to cultivate. Each household promised to deliver a required quota of grain to the commune and the state. They would then keep the surplus. Now that they have the incentive to work hard and produce more, grain output increased 6 times in the first year. They have helped to launch a rural revolution.

(By the way, this Fengyang is same as that 鳳陽 as in the folk song 鳳陽花鼓.)

30 years later, there is a different problem. The land is divided into very small plots. The greener photo was of fields near Changsha in Hunan in Southern China in August. It is picturesquely lush but not efficient.

The browner photo was of fields near Lanzhou in Gansu in North-Western China on the same day. It is not even that pretty because of the chronic shortage of water.

Part of the problem is that the land cannot be sold. The rural land is owned by the state. Farmers only have 30 year land use rights, which they are allowed to sell to other farmers in a limited way, but not to companies. They often cannot even use the land as collateral to obtain a loan. These prevent efficient commercial farming in a large scale, as is widely practiced in North America and elsewhere. Rural productivity and earnings have stagnated and lag far behind the cities.

Now, it is said that the peasants may be allowed to buy or sell land-use rights. More efficient land use and much larger forms are anticipated. Will the introduction of market forces launch another rural revolution?

Many farmers would like to sell the land and move to the cities to find work there. But that may worsen the problems in the cities. Keeping the peasants contented on the farms has been a thousands year old national objective. Will the new rural revolution accelerate the swelling of the urban population? How would that change the face of China?

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Sympathy for beggar?

A beggar was sitting on the ground in a Yaumatei underpass this morning, as I returned home from my jog. Both of his lower legs were swollen, sickly pink with brown blotches. They caught my attention. But like most people who passed by, I could not bear to look at them for long.

I couldn’t help to notice, however, that his lower legs were swollen in a way that they appeared to be covered by thick, additional layers of skin. What gave me that impression, I realized later, was that there was a ring of depression just below the knee on each of his legs. And the rings looked suspiciously like what tight, heavy rubber bands might do to your skin. Could it be possible that the condition was, heaven forbid, man-made, or worse, self-inflicted?

What sort of warped thinking, or desperation, would drive someone to do something like that?

Am I being too cynical?

Friday, October 10, 2008

Why do we work?

Noting the collapse of investment banks and the global financial crisis, some of us engineering professors are speculating whether students’ interests might shift from investment and finance to something more “solid” like engineering and computing.

In our discussions, it was observed that many students choose investment and finance because they heard of people making so much money in such a short time that successful ones can retire in their 40s. It implies that they do not like the job or career, but endure it just for the money.

It is something I do not fully comprehend. I want to make some money with my job, at least enough to live on and support my family. No doubt about it. But I also enjoy my job. I would continue to work even if I am suddenly so rich that I can retire immediately. Perhaps not as hard as now, but I would certainly continue to work. My interests are quite broad. So I can imagine myself equally happy with another career (perhaps even more so). But I would not want to take up a job which pays more but which I do not enjoy.

Ultimately we humans want to be happy and satisfied. Many people claim that they do not love money, but simply the freedom to pursue personal fulfillment that money brings. However, judging from our behaviour, many of us do really love money and work mainly for money afterall. Perhaps we are cheating ourselves. How sad it is.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Making Dried Shrimp 蝦干

The fishing population in Aberdeen has been shrinking for many years. There are fewer and fewer fishing boats making their homes there, and there are fewer and fewer people making their lives in fishing. But they are still there.

One can still find women peeling shrimp to dry them, presumably to make 蝦干. In the background, salted fish are being dried.

蝦干 are peeled and then sun dried, remaining straight. They taste very good when steamed, with a bit of soy source.

They are not the same as 蝦米, which are cooked (which makes them curl up) with the shells on, and then the shells removed.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Salted Grouper (石班鹹魚)

My sister-in-law gave us a foot-and-a-half long salted grouper yesterday. My guess is it is a malabar grouper (花鬼班). I actually went through TsimShaTsui with my daughters afterwards, with the tail of the fish sticking out of a small shopping bag. I was not surprised that more than once people nearby commented on a strange smell; but I was surprised that none of them realized it was simply salted fish.

In the evening, I had to chop it up into smaller pieces. Have you tried to chop up a big salted fish? Believe me, it is hard work.

But my work paid off promptly and fabulously. My wife made “salted fish and chicken fried rice” (鹹魚雞粒炒飯) with a piece of the fish today and we finished the small mountain of rice off in record time. It was that good.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Cai Yuanpei (蔡元培) on 重陽節

I went to the Aberdeen Cemetery with my relatives to “sweep the grave”of my grandparents today. In fact, there is no grave to be swept. Only their ashes are kept there because of lack of space. Such is Hong Kong. Anyway, we do that twice a year, on 清明節 and 重陽節. Sometimes there are more than 20 of us there. Today we had 18.

And as usual, I sneaked off afterwards for a few minutes to pay my respects at 蔡元培‘s grave. As you can see, I was not the only one. Someone had placed flowers and incense at his grave before I did. What makes people come to his grave today even though he has been dead for 68 years? (He died in Hong Kong in 1940.)

Is it because he was one of the (many would say simply THE) greatest educators of modern China? Because he was the president of Beijing University during the May 4th Movement (五四运动)? That he supported the students and tried to help those arrested, and was forced to resign from Beijing University because of it? Have you ever heard of such a thing? In China?

That’s why I go there to pay my respects every year, sometimes twice a year.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Death of a Banker - part 2

When I brought up this case while speaking at a church this morning, it struck a cord in a way I did not expect.

It turned out that a lady at the service used to work for the banker. She told me he was a really caring person. She was only working part-time and yet he tried hard to place her at a good position, and promised her help when she needed it. She told me he was under pressure to “deliver some people”- an euphemism for identifying people to be fired. She felt quitting wasn’t really a good solution for him as his replacement would still (be under pressure to) carry out the command. I have to agree with her, in a certain way.

But I do believe God will give us strength to stand up to unjust demands, or to give us wisdom to resist them without outright confrontation, or to find ingenius ways to change the situation, ... He will help us somehow. Often we are afraid to stand up because we are afraid of the consequences - making a bad impression on the management, losing face, losing our jobs, ... Faith in God, and faith in that God will take care of us somehow, will help us withstand the pressure. This is not merely a psychological prop. God is real and He can indeed look after us. We may still quit or lose our jobs. But we will survive, and be stronger for it. Sometimes losing our jobs may be the best things that happened to us.

It is not always the case that people making the most money, and occupying the loftiest positions are the winners, and the people at the opposite ends are the losers. What good is it that we earn the whole world but ended up losing our souls?

That’s what Jesus meant when He said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Saturday, October 04, 2008

The Death of a Banker

In July a senior manager of a major bank in Hong Kong jumped to his death. I was in the USA then and did not pay too much attention.

Only recently did I find out that he was a schoolmate of mine, just one year behind me in secondary school. I knew him, but not well. He had worked for the bank for a long time and was responsible for one of the prime commercial districts in Hong Kong. I was told that he felt pressured by his superiors to achieve better results, and to pass the pressure onto his subordinates. He couldn’t handle the burden, so he jumped.

We all felt he had other options, such as quitting the job, or better yet, forcing the bank to fire him by refusing to carry out what he felt were unjustified demands. He was a successful man in the eyes of men. Even if he were to quit his job and not work for another day, he would probably still lead a comfortable life. Sadly, he chose to end his life instead.

After his death, the bank paid for all the funeral expenses. And many hundreds of the bank’s employees came to the funeral. Perhaps the bank felt guilty? And his colleagues felt the same as he did? All these happened before the current financial crisis worsen. We can imagine the pressure must be even worse now.

I believe Jesus was speaking about people like him (and us) when He said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Indeed the best option is to trust in God and He will lighten our burdens.

Friday, October 03, 2008

The Evolution of Xian

This is a historical map of Xian in the museum next to“Little Wild Goose Pagoda” (小雁塔). The museum was not very impressive. This map was pretty much the only exhibit that interested me - because it captured succinctly the historical evolution of the city over the 3100 years of its history.

The city was in the lower left hand corner of the map (South-West), called "Fenghao" (丰鎬) as the capital of the (Western) Zhou (周) Dynasty, beginning around 1046BC.

It was in the upper left (North-West) as the capital of the Qin (秦) Dynasty, Xianyang (咸阳). The famous palace E Fang Gong (阿房宮), which was said to burn for 3 months after being looted by Xiang Yu (項羽), was slightly to the south of Xianyang.

It then moved towards the South-East as the capital Changan (長安) of the Han (汉) Dynasty, in 206 AD.

It moved further south-east as Daxing (大興) in the Sui (隋) Dynasty in 581 AD. And then as Changan (長安) again in the Tang (唐) Dynasty beginning in 618 AD.

It was renamed as Xian (西安) only in 1369 AD, in the Ming Dynasty. The city walls as they stand now (around the small rectangle in the center of the photo) dated only from the Ming Dynasty. Not much of the palaces, temples, houses, city walls, etc. prior to that survived. The only things that are in abundance are tombs. But whenever I found myself in Xian, I couldn’t help but to think: many many historial figures had stood where I stand, and numerous historical events had happened right in front of me, just that it was many years ago. I was in awe.

Xian, like the rest of China, has a very long history. While much of the “hardware” had been lost, there remains a lot of “software” - the history, the literature, the philosophies, the “national character”, etc., which make up a large part of what it is to be Chinese. But most people these days do not seem to care about the software. Most of us Chinese are proud of being Chinese. But what does it really mean to be Chinese?

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Mobile Telescopes

Have you driven a telescope before? I wouldn’t mind giving it a try. It surely looked impressive with a big gun behind and above you.

It is actually a thriving business in Xian. After dark, operators would drive these mobile teelscopes over to the square next to the Drum Tower, set them up, and charge people for peering through them. I have not seen them in other cities yet. But I do not travel that much.

When a team of these green laser-guided telescopes were set up pointing at the night sky, they made an impressive sight. They certainly drew quite a crowd.

Two years ago, when I saw them for the first time, they were scattered on the big square between the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower. This year, I found them on the street next to the Drum Tower, probably driven away from the square by the police. Less then 5 minutes after we found them, surely enough, the police arrived and drove them away. In another 5 minutes, however, they converged again on the Drum Tower. Free market forces seemed to be thriving.