Sunday, November 30, 2008

Banquets and refugees

A friend wondered why I was sullen at the wedding banquet. One of the reasons I was in a foul mood was a simple calculation I did on the way to the banquet: The banquet at the posh hotel probably cost $8,000 per table. With 30 tables, the banquet cost at least a cool $240,000.

Earlier that afternoon, our team met with some social workers from Caritas over a number of projects about refurbishing old computers to be distributed to students from poor families. After delivery, some minimal support have to be provided to the families. Otherwise, even very simple problems such as an unplugged cable would render the computers unusable. We discussed recruiting students volunteers in different locations to provide the needed support. Some of the computers will actually be shipped to Cameroon in Africa. They are considering sending four volunteers over there for three months to one year to handle the delivery and distribution. It probably costs $30,000 to send one person to Cameroon. Living expenses there is very low. But the airplane ticket is quite expensive.

Separately, our team have also been discussing an almost absurd problem that just arose concerning a project with another NGO, Christian Action. We have been working with them to run weekend workshops for some children of refugees stuck in Hong Kong. A series of workshops were suddenly called off because the transportation budget for taking the children to the university from home has just been cut due to some emergency. The amount in question is only several hundred dollars per workshop. These kids, whose parents cannot work and are forced to depend on handouts to survive, cannot enjoy some free diversion and training because of a few hundred lousy dollars! We did offer to donate the transportation costs from our own pockets; but some workshops still had to be cancelled or rescheduled.

The $240,000 could have financed both of these projects and more. Just one little red pocket (I was told the going rate is $500-$1,000) that each of the guests give the newlyweds is enough to finance the transportation costs for all the kids for one workshop. That’s part of why I was sullen. I am not really against posh banquets; weddings are joyous occasions worth celebrating. But we relatively blessed people in Hong Kong should have the capacity to take care of the needy among us while we enjoy ourselves.

One of these days, God is going to ask us: Why didn’t you help one of those little ones in need while you could? What did you do with the wealth entrusted to you? What are we going to say then?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

President’s Award for Services

A friend sent me this newspaper clipping when she saw my photo in it. What happened was that our team was presented the President’s Award at our university on this past Monday. Mainly for the service learning projects that we have been carrying out over many years, in Hong Kong and mainland China. At last count, there have been more than 30 projects of various types, with a wide range of recipients and partners.

There have been numerous workshops and summer camps for primary and secondary school students, on web page design, multimedia, robotics, intelligent garments, .... Parties, workshops, and wireless network setup for a special school. Workshops for children of refugees stuck in Hong Kong. Robot competitions for primary and secondary schools. IT workshops for young offenders under superintendent caution. Web site development for brain disease patients and other NGOs. IT workshops for the elderly. Information System development for the Police and Justice Departments. Anti-drug campaigns in collaboration with the Police. Training and workshops on innovation for a large number of schools. Robotics-based science and design short courses in the regular curriculum for schools. ...

In the past three years, we took our students to Hubei province three times to organize information technology-related summer camps in three different secondary schools in two locations. We also took our students to Gansu province twice to install a computer network at a primary school for orphans in a remote mountainous area, and provide training to their teachers and students. We are going back to the school next summer and are also exploring other challenging opportunities to serve.

We are true and passionate believers in service learning, in which our students learn compassion, civic responsibility, people skills, and real-life impact of their profession through authentic and challenging services.

We are very grateful to the university and particularly the former head of our department, who have consistently supported our projects with suggestions, time, space, facilities, and most importantly, finances. We are, of course, very happy with the students who participate enthusiastically, who keep returning to help.

I am, ultimately, thankful to God who allow me to live out my faith in this wonderful way. And for giving me two fantastic partners, V and G, in this adventure.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Earthly Inhabitants

If aliens from another planet did come to orbit ours to check it out, what would they have concluded about the Earth?

I suspect they might observe that Earth is inhabited by a dominant species of hard-bodied creatures with fixed wings. These creatures move awkwardly and slowly on land, but are capable of flying long distances. These “flyers” fly from one nest to another, where they are fed and serviced by a much smaller but much more numerous species of soft-bodied “walkers”.

At irregular and infrequent intervals, a very smaller number of flyers would mate, often near their nests, sparking spectacular fireballs. They will then be escorted back to their nests. At some of these nests, off-springs are regularly produced, fully grown. It seems the reproductive process is very efficient, as the offsprings-to-matings ratio is very high.

Walkers multiply even more rapidly but matings having not been observed in the open at all. Walker reproductive behaviour remains a mystery, perhaps because they mate inside their own nests, hence very difficult to observe.

There is another species of hard-bodied “rovers” which also live on land but move faster than the walkers. They mate more frequently but less spectacularly. They are more numerous than flyers but less so than walkers.

A species of hard-bodied “floaters” can move on water. They are more numerous and also mate more frequently than flyers. But they are less numerous and also mate less frequently than rovers.

There are other species but they don’t seem to play significant roles in the Earth’s ecosphere.

That's probably not how we see ourselves. But appearances can be deceptive.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Quality of Hong Kong Newspapers - and Readers?

There are only 4 articles on the front page of South China Morning Post this morning. One is essentially a quarter-page photo of a wedding. The groom is famous for being the son of a very rich man, the ex-husband of a daughter of another very rich man, and the boyfriend of numerous celebrities. The bride is a former Miss Hong Kong. The short article in large font emphasized the price of the groom’s mansion and the cost of the wedding, which was said to be "sweet and moving."

The title of another article “Recession keeps HK golfers playing at home” says it all. I wonder how the editors of the newspaper decided that these are the most noteworthy news of the day.

Most of the “major” newspapers in Hong Kong seem to focus on either the rich and famous, or the infamous - murders, suicides, scams, depravities, ...

When criticized, newspapers often claim they simply print what their readers want to read. If that is the case, what does it say about us HongKongers? I really would like to believe we are better than that.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Sirens of Bagdad

The Americans say they went to Iraq to liberate the Iraqis from a tyrant and to fight terrorism. Why is it that some Iraqis hate the Western world so much? The Sirens of Bagdad tries to tell it from the point of view of those who feel they have suffered great injustices at the hands of the Western world.

A young Bedouin from a village in the Iraqi desert was traumatised when an nervous American soldier at a check point mistook his autistic friend for a terrorist and shot him dead. He then suffered the greatest insult when Americans raiding his home exposed his father’s genitals in front of him. He went to Bagdad to avenge the insult and got mixed up with the fedayeen - an armed resistance group against the occupiers.

There he met his old friend Omar who had gone to Bagdad earlier with a similar purpose but was subsequently disillusioned by the reckless massacre of innocent people. Omar advised him to “Fight for your country, not against the whole world”, but he just wouldn’t listen. Later, Omar was killed by his fedayeen associates because of a misunderstanding - for which he was partly responsible.

He then got his wish - he was chosen to be the carrier for an attack on the West by a deadly, incontrollable virus, ...

It is a fascinating peek into the psyche of some of these radicalized people. It also probes at a deadly serious question. Why and how are some of these seemingly ordinary people who normally abhor violence turned into radicals willing to sacrifice their lives to strike out at the world indiscriminately?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Under the Ladder

Would you walk under the ladder in the photo? I wouldn’t and I didn’t this morning. Not because it is bad luck - I don’t believe in such things. But because of the man and the big bucket on it. Many people, however, seemed oblivious of it and walked right through.

It reminded me of what happened to a woman on a sidewalk in Aberdeen a couple of days ago. A flying screw driver plunged its 5 inch blade completely into the woman’s calf. She was then sent to the emergency room of a hospital with the screw driver in her calf. Even more amazingly, the screwdriver was not removed from her leg until the following morning, because the doctors were so busy. Can you believe it?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Family Affection

A man holding up a drink for his wife while their two children watched expectantly. They didn’t look like tourists; they didn’t look very well-dressed either. The woman had a scarf on her head, perhaps for the sake of modesty. She bent down twice to drink; the other members shared the drink afterwards. They are probably not well-off; but the family seemed to be close to each other. Perhaps a south asian family living in Hong Kong?

I don’t know their story. But for sure there is a story there. It is not easy for south asians to make a living in Hong Kong. Even sending their children to school is a problem. They often find it difficult to fit into main stream schools with strong emphasis on the Chinese language. But English School Foundation schools and international schools are expensive and not easy to get into. So they often end up in one of those English medium schools with relatively poor academic performance, with limited options.

Life may not be easy, but certainly not without meaning. The love between man and wife, among siblings, among parents and children, among relatives; the joy of success; the anguish of setbacks - certainly would mean a lot to them.

Life itself is purposeful. There is no doubt about it. There is life not because some inorganic substance became organic, not because some lifeless substance suddenly acquired life, not because some low life form elevated itself into a higher life form, ..., eventually resulting in this family fascinating me with a little act of affection. Each step in this enormously long string of events would be miraculous. And miraculous is the right word for the way in which God created life. For a purpose. For us to find out.

Sunset Above the Clouds

We were flying back from Los Angeles to Hong Kong when I looked out the window and saw this. It was just brilliant and continued for quite a while longer than I thought it would. Perhaps it was because we were flying towards the west, in the direction of the setting sun. Chasing the sun, so to speak, like 夸父逐日 in the Chinese legends.

Some would believe that such beauty is just a result of energy becoming elementary particles, which formed light atoms, which formed gases, which created heavier atoms and molecules, which formed stars and planets, which created clouds and other natural phenomena, all without particular purposes.

I find it easier to believe that God created all these for a purpose that we are finding out.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Contrast Across the Shenzhen River

Each time I fly over the Lok Ma Chau border crossing enroute from Hong Kong to inland cities in mainland China, I can not but marvel at the contrast between the two sides of the border along the Shenzhen River. On the left hand (Hong Kong) side, it is an expanse of sleepy green fields. On the right hand (Shenzhen) side, it is another expanse of ever-growing high rises. One would be excused for thinking that the two sides have been mistakenly switched.

To some extent, this image is deceptive. Development in the border area on the Hong Kong side has been forbidden mainly for security reasons. But development on the Shenzhen side has been heightened because of its proximity to Hong Kong.

Nevertheless, the contrast is impressive and telling. Thirty years ago there were nothing but farming in Shenzhen, with a population of 30,000. It was also a highly restricted area for security reasons. Many people, including one of my cousins, used Shenzhen as a staging area to escape to Hong Kong.

Today Shenzhen is a thriving metropolis with 14 million inhabitants. It has its own problems. But people are no longer compelled to brave shark-infested waters because they are starving; there are so many opportunities that people from all over China flock to Shenzhen to find work; the streets are wide and tidy; the shops are full of goods and people. It is a demonstration of the tremendous impact of government policies. The policies do not even have to be perfect (it is an impossibility); they just have to be relatively rational.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Thirty Years Ago

In 1976, Mao TzeDong died, and the Gang of Four were arrested. In November 1978, The “contract responsibility system” started in Anhui province, kicking off the economic reform that resulted in the China today.

In the summer of 1978, I went to mainland China for the first time, with my father and my sister. It was a very different China then.

In Guangzhou (廣州), the largest city in southern China, the main streets had 4 lanes, 2 of which were for bicycles. The bicycle lanes were just as wide as the vehicle lanes, and were always full. But the few motor vehicles on the street were all military trucks or otherwise governmental. The streets were very safe because there were so little traffic other than bicycles.

The restaurant we went to had three sections. One for foreigners, a second for compatriots from Hong Kong and Macau (港澳同胞), and finally, a third for mainlanders. The environment, the food, and the prices were all different. As HK-Macau compatriots, we were not allowed to pay by reminbi, but must pay by foreign exchange vouchers (外匯劵).

The rice served were not white but brown (actually red - the husks were removed from the rice but not all the red-colored bran). They were eaten then not because it was healthier (as is the fashion these days), but because they were cheaper. There were grits in the rice so we had to eat very carefully.

My aunt, like other mainlanders, was not allowed into our hotel.

We took a boat and went to my aunt’s village in DongGuan (東莞), at the heart of the fertile Pearl River Delta. My aunt’s relatives grew lichee, and had enough to eat, but not much else. The main room in the house had a small table in the middle, set against the back wall, and one stool on either side. I can remember no other obvious furniture.

We were offered sweet soup. In Hong Kong, sweet soups are made with red beans, green beans, lotus seeds with eggs, bean curd sheets and eggs, sweet potatoes, etc. In Dongguan our sweet soup was made with two spoonfuls of sugar and hot water. In the evening, we ate outside; then we sat outside or in the dark because electricity was so precious.

Among the many children I saw, there was a girl who was about eight years old, slender and pretty. She could not hear or speak; but she always smiled. She should be 38 now and I have always wondered what her life has been like.

It was Dongguan in the photo, taken in August this year, 30 years after my first visit.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Roasted Sweet Potatoes

The lady vendor in TsimShaTsui wasn’t too happy when I took the picture yesterday, but I just couldn’t resist the vivid colors. So I just hit and run - I did say sorry though.

People say the purple ones taste better. As for me, I like both of them.

Warped Container

What happened to this container?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Basketball Kid

A bunch of kids were playing basketball, dribbling, running, passing, bumping, shooting, blocking, having fun.

A lone kid sat on a bench beside the court, watching. Why wasn’t he playing? Perhaps he did not know them? Perhaps we was not good enough? Perhaps he did not have good social skills?

When I was in high school, we had to play soccer everyday (school rules). Usually the two best players were appointed captains, and they took turns to choose players for each side. I was always one of the last to be picked because I was so poor at soccer. I believe if the captains had the option of refusing to take someone they didn’t want, they would. But they didn’t, fortunately.

Over the years, my love for soccer grew, and I kept on playing, through university, while working in the USA, in Canada, and in Hong Kong. I still play once in a while and I am usually not the worst player on the field. But I still remember the feeling of being the one nobody wanted.

I had to go home and could not find out what happened to that kid. But I did say a prayer for him.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

School Bag Carrying

There are a lot of Japanese kids in our apartment complex. A school bus comes to the complex to pick them up in the morning. (Not the green one, that's our shuttle bus.) Most of the kids in this photo are Japanese.

As far as I can see, all Japanese students carry their school bags themselves on their way to school. Their mothers accompany them to the school bus. But the kids carry their bags themselves. Even the very young ones.

In contrast, most Chinese kids are accompanied by their maids or mothers. It is the maids and mothers who carry the kids’ bags, not the kids themselves. Even for some students who are already in secondary school.

What does that say about the independence of our children in Hong Kong?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


I had always thought 打破沙盤問到底 means: "one is so insistent on asking a question, it is like searching so hard for something in the pot that one breaks the pot." It does not really sound right but I could not come up with a better explanation.

Until a few days ago. It turned out the saying is actually 打破沙盤璺到底. 璺 sounds like 問 but means “crack”, rather than “ask”. So the saying actually means: "... it is like a crack in the pot extending all the way to the bottom when the pot is broken." Now that makes more sense, doesn’t it?

Whom did I learn this from? My youngest daughter. So I learn something new everyday. Even from someone decades younger than I am.

Chinese is really a fascinating language. And never underestimate young people.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Miriam Makeba - Mama Africa

Miriam Makeba is dead. She has been nicknamed “Mama Africa”, which refers to her being the musical symbol of the struggle against apartheid. One of my favourite songs of hers is Pata Pata. Very rhythmic and a very good voice. In The Click Song, she sings in the Xhosa Click language from South Africa. I cannot imagine how people do it - clicking while you speak and sing. (I guess people may also say Cantonese is impossible, with the many tricky tones.) Many of her songs can be found on youtube. Highly recommended.

She started her singing career in South Africa. Because of her criticism of apartheid, she was forced into exile in 1960. She continued to speak out against apartheid with her music for years. while it seemed hopeless in South Africa. Her South African citizenship was revoked but she was granted honorary citizenship of ten countries.

Nelson Mandela persuaded her to return to South Africa in 1990, when he himself was released from prison.

Nelson Mandela and the fall of apartheid in South Africa is, of course, nothing short of a miracle. People can scarcely believe that such an entrenched evil system can be brought down without a bloody revolutionary civil war. Yet that’s what happened and Miriam Makeba is part of that miracle. As is Nelson Mandela and many others who believe truth and justice are mightier than evil and violence. Today South Africa still has its problems, but apartheid is no more, and it is one of the free-est and wealthy-est countries in Africa.

This is what I imagine an African sunset may be like (it is actually California). I have never been to Africa, so I don’t have a photo of Africa to put here (I do hope to remedy that sometime).

By the way, it is a sad commentary on the South China Morning Post that I cannot find any mention of her death in the newspaper today, and the fact that international news is now relegated to only four pages starting from page 10.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The miracle of a child

I am fascinated by small children. When I see a baby looking intently at something, I have to wonder what is going on in her mind.

They seem to know so little, and capable of less. Yet even the youngest child is a keen observer of the world, constructs her own understanding of it, makes up her own mind, and then insists on getting her way. If you don’t believe it, just ask any mother who tries to feed a baby something that the baby does not like.

Some people choose to believe that a person’s mind is nothing but a bunch of neurons, constructed by chance without purpose, firing according to some laws of physics or chemistry without purpose, resulting in some behaviour under nobody’s control but nature, serving no one’s particular purpose. Some people believe there is no such thing as a mind, other than a bunch of neurons firing in a certain pattern.

I find it extremely hard to believe that a child comes into this world without purpose, that “purpose” is only what we human beings ascribe to it. Why would this idea of “purpose” arise if there is no such thing in the first place?

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Fishing with Chocolate

I noticed this man waving a net on a long pole on the TsimShaTsui Promenade Saturday morning. It turned out he was fishing. He threw a ball of bread into the water, and waited. When the fish bite, he simply scooped them up with the net.

It was surprisingly effective. Every minute or two he brought the net up, with one to four rabbitfish (泥鯭) in it, each about 4 inches long. He does not actually eat them. Instead, he feeds them to his cat. So somewhere in the city is a happy cat eating really fresh fish. The water smells pretty bad, perhaps from the sewage emptying into the harbour. So it is probably not a good idea to eat the fish caught there.

The ball of bread was tied to the pole through a string so he won’t lose it. He said his secret was chocolate - a piece of chocolate was inserted into the ball of bread to attract the fish, something I have never heard of.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Tai-Tais Having Tea

Sometime last week I had afternoon tea in a coffee shop with my youngest daughter after her tough piano examination.

On our left sat two well-dressed young ladies, heavily made up, in fancy clothes, short skirts, and leather boots. They carried many shopping bags but exchanged few words between them. I guessed they must have been tired after a serious shopping spree.

On our right were two more ladies. I didn’t intend to eavesdrop but couldn’t really block out the conversation since they were just three feet away. Apparently they were discussing a mutual lady friend’s impending wedding.

O: They are going to have to spend a lot of money. We spent so much on ours we were paying off our debt for months afterwards.

N: Why did you do that, and how did you borrow so much money?

O: Oh, it was just handy to have money to spend on the wedding. And it was easy to borrow. You see, we had 10 credit cards. We just charged 20,000 on each card, and we ended up with 200,000 dollars to spend. Of course, it took us 6 months to pay it back.

N: I guess you can afford it, since your husband makes so much money as a pilot.

O: Oh, it is not as good as you think. He is worried about losing his job. Pilots are actually under a lot of pressure. They have to take several tests a month. If you don’t pass the tests, you are out. Not demoted. But out of the job.

N: ... You should come out more, just like the old days before you get married.

O: I don’t know. These days I don’t seem motivated to do anything since I stopped working. I stay home so much, I don’t even bother to keep myself in good shape. I look half decent today because I spent some time to put on make up. Most days, I don’t even bother.

N: Back to our friend, she is afraid that her future husband my lose interest in her.

O: I told her she should not be so easy. She should play hard to get and refuse to see him some days. I even told her she could stay with me. But she said she only gets to see him three days a week. If she refuses to see him some of the time, then it means she will only see him for two days a week or less. She just couldn’t do it.

... at this point we left the coffee shop because it was too hot in there.

I pray that my daughters would not grow up to be like anyone of the ladies in the coffee shop.

Disclaimer: I mean no disrespect to wives who say home. I salute the many of them who sacrifice their careers to raise children, support their husbands, and do tremendous volunteer work.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Siamese Banana Split

Before and after.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Quality of Politicians

Barack Obama, in his victory speech after wining the election for the Presidency of the USA, said, “And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president, too.”

US President George Bush publicly congratulated Barack Obama on his historic victory and vowed “complete cooperation”.

Senator John McCain conceded defeat and said, “ I applaud him for it. ... offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together, ... I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face.

In contrast, what have we got in Hong Kong?

A Chief Executive who boasts that he favours people who support him and distances himself from people who hold different opinions. A Chief Executive who cannot tolerate even a mild challenge from a secondary school student on his performance on environmental issues. ...

A Legislative Council representative who told some members of his functional constituency that he was not going to represent their views because they did not vote for him. Another representative who slept through meetings and gave protesters the finger. ...

Political appointees who, beyond political connections, do not seem to be otherwise qualified. ...

With “politicians” of this caliber, indeed we might not really be ready for full scale democracy.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Kaitak Wilderness

This is the old Kaitak Airport today (Sunday a week ago, to be precise). In fact, it has been mostly like this for the past 10 years, since the airport was moved in 1998. I have been coming here once in a while in the past several years and it hasn’t changed much.

This was what it looked like two years ago. For a while young people came here to play cricket, fly remote-control airplanes, ride bicycles, etc. The young people have since been chased off and kept out. The holes in the fences have been plugged. And someone let loose several rabid dogs there, scaring people like me away.

Land is always at a premium in Hong Kong, particularly in the city. Why does the government leave such a big piece of land in the middle of the city to go to waste for so long? And while it fiddles its fingers, taking its time to decide what to do with the old airport, why can’t it allow people to use it for recreation? As for myself, I wouldn’t mind continuing to jog there except for the rabid dogs.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Lizard and cricket

It is obvious what the lizard is thinking - dinner! But what is in the mind of the cricket? Is it oblivious? Frozen with fear?

The situation of many of the small “investors” in the financial market is probably not much different from that of the cricket.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Paper Shrimp

Do you like our shrimp?

My youngest daughter started it, and I finished it, while we were waiting for the food to be served at a birthday banquet.

Can you guess what it was made of?

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Halloween Shooting

A 12 year old boy went trick-or-treating in South Carolina, USA. He knocked on the door of a house with the porch light turned on - often taken as a sign that someone is home and ready for trick-or-treating.

A man inside, however, thought he was being robbed, and opened fire with an AK-47, an assault rifle, through the door. At least 29 rounds were fired, killing the boy.

The story can be found in the New York Times,, and other sources.