Friday, January 30, 2009

How much is the life of a dog worth?

A dog was trapped between two walls. A lot of people had tried a lot of ways to get it out, to no avail. The dog was getting weaker and obviously could not last much longer.

One way to rescue the dog was to remove a few bricks from one of the walls. Unfortunately, each of the walls was part of an ancestor hall in which villagers worship their ancestors. People were afraid dismantling even part of the walls might cause damage to the “fengshui” and bring bad luck to the villagers. It was asserted that any such action require the consent of all villagers, including those who were overseas - an impossibility given the urgency of the situation. No one was willing to take the responsibility to allow firemen to remove even a few bricks.

Some argued that the ancestors, even if they were actually in a position to be upset, would not really be too upset if a few bricks were removed to save a life. A bad thing was done for a good cause - the ancestors would understand. But the argument fell on deaf ears.

Some villagers put it this way: what is more important? the life of a dog? or the lives of so many villagers? - implying it was obviously (to them anyway) the later. It was a false argument anyway since, as explained in the previous paragraph, it was quite unlikely that the villagers' lives would be adversely affected. Others said too much fuss had been made on a mere dog. Yet others complained that the commotion (people trying to save the dog) was hindering the New Year celebrations in front of the ancestor halls.

In the end the dog was taken out of the walls after being stuck for more than 4 days (no bricks were removed). But it was too late, the poor dog died soon afterwards.

It is yet another sad commentary on the value system of some of us in Hong Kong. It was said that we should respect each other’s beliefs. But I think this is too much. Our actions (or the lack of it) speak louder than our words.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Beautiful Sunset over Clouds

These photographs of the sunset above the clouds were taken somewhere over the northern Pacific enroute from Los Angeles to Hong Kong in the summer of 2008. The sunset lasted an extraordinarily long time because we were flying towards the west, essentially chasing after the sun. The fantastic colours were literally changing every second. I was very tired, but I just could not turn away from the show.

My daughter said the pictures reminded her of paintings of some of the famous masters. She probably had in mind Gainsborough, Courbet, Giorgione, etc. I think the masters have done a great job trying to capture the show put up by nature. We can try, but ultimately cannot improve on God’s original, living work.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Clouds over the Pacific

Here are some of my favourite photographs of clouds, taken over the West coast of North America last summer (2008).

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Role Model

Yesterday I lectured my two younger girls - the oldest one escaped because she was not in Hong Kong. In the process I brought up two persons as possible role models.

One is a former highly-placed civil servant turned “politician”. He is certainly very smart, capable, successful, and powerful. He is also well known for his quick temper, arrogance, and intolerance of dissent. Many people who worked with or for him are critical of him after they left government. His claim to be unconcerned about praises and criticisms ("mere clouds in the sky") sounded hollow and contrived.

The other is another former civil servant, but lowly-placed, who turned into an almost-full-time volunteer - my father. He has no formal education, and little money. Yet he make friends everywhere - his peers at work, his subordinates, his superiors, his nephews and nieces, his neighbours, people at his church, workers and residents at the old folks’ home and other organizations where he volunteered, ... He is cheerful, very handy and always ready to help. He never complains - except to my mother, it appears.

It should be obvious which of the two I want my girls to imitate.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Cheerful Old Lady

An old friend has been suffering from nasal cavity cancer for years; yet remaining optimistic and strong in his faith in God. Another old friend suffering from terminal colon cancer is taking painkillers continuously; yet he seems to be taking it in stride. A lady friend is facing troubles at home. Another one is having problems at work. All around me, suffering abounds.

Somehow the image of an old lady I met on a bus on New Year’s Eve came to mind. I got on the 5C bus at the TsimShaTsui Ferry about 6PM. It was getting dark, most people around seemed to be tired after a day’s work. I settled in the seat next to the window on a 2-person seat, on a raised platform. An old lady got on the bus and tried to get in the seat next to me. It seemed that she did not have the strength to get up the platform. So I grabbed her arm and pulled her up. She smiled and thanked me.

Her hair was all silvered, like my mother. Her back was slightly crooked. She seemed to be in the eighties, at least seventies. Yet there was a child-like cheerfulness about her.

She seemed to be uncomfortable sitting in the aisle seat, in the front row. She looked around, and saw a 1-person seat that was turned sideways, facing the aisle rather than the front of the bus. She pondered for a moment, and decided to move across the aisle. She got down, slowly, and pulled herself up to the other side. Once she settled in her new seat, she smiled at me again, and explained that she felt more secure in the other seat.

The old lady dressed plainly and did not seemed rich. In fact, the 5C does not serve the richer districts. In any case, rich people simply do not ride in the public buses. She was so old she had difficulties walking and getting on the bus. She did not seem to have a lot of reasons to be happy. However, she was the most cheerful person I met that afternoon. Why is that?

How do people stay happy when they don’t have much, and even in adversity?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Showers of Blessings 恩雨之聲

The Showers of Blessings programs will return to Asia TV Home Channel in February. Please help to spread the word.

May God bless you.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Free Congee - No More

Remember the congee stall in Homantin what gave out free congee back in October - November last year? Sadly, like most other good things in Hong Kong, it was too good to last.

Soon after the case was reported in the newspapers, the number of people who came to enjoy the free food snowballed. Even working around the clock, the owner and his staff still could not satisfy the demand. The situation was out of control. He was totally exhausted. So he quit.

I went past the place last Sunday. The stall was still in business - but under a new administration. The previous owner was nowhere to be seen. And there were no more free congee.

It was a heart-warming story. But too good to last in Hong Kong.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Just wish to share with my friends photos of a litter of puppies we met in Huizhou. They are so cute and so much fun to be with. Playing with them is good, natural therapy.

The last one is not really a puppy. But he is cute too.

Rebuilding Lives with The Gospel

On that obscure hillside outside the city of Huizhou, something quite remarkable is going on. What is happening there is that many broken lives are being rebuilt. They don’t have much. No piped water, no entertainment, no Internet, very little money. But they have hope.

Essentially given up by the society, they have nowhere to go to. But here they found hope. They found people who are willing to help them. Why would the pastor and his team be willing to give up comfortable city living to come here to take care of them? To build the houses, to grow the vegetables, to plant the fruit trees, ... And most importantly, to patiently teach them the Bible, to pray for them and with them, to endure the resistance and even rejection, to risk the wrath of some of those in power? The only answer is the love of God.

And it has proven to be remarkably effective. Such information for China is difficult to obtain. But Hong Kong is an open book. The Hong Kong government’s own reports list numerous Christian non-government organizations offering voluntary drug treatment and rehabilitation services: Barnabas Charitable Service Association, Caritas Wong Yiu Nam Center, Christian New Being Fellowship, Christian New Life Association, Christian Zheng Sheng Association, Drug Addict Counselling and Rehabilitation Services, Finish Evangelical Lutheran Mission - Ling Oi Center, Glorious Praise Fellowship, HK Christian Service Jockey Club Lodge of the Rising Sun, Mission Ark - Christian New Life Association, Operation Dawn, Remar Association HK, St. Stephen’s Society, Wu Oi Christian Center, ... I have always known that they exist; but I did not realize that there are so many of them!

And they are highly effective. In one case, the detoxification rate was listed as 93% while the rehabilitation rate was 74%.

That’s the reason why such work is slowly being allowed to happen in mainland China. It is hard and risky work. The people who carry out such work do not get a lot of recognition, and certainly little or no monetary reward. But God will surely reward them Himself. And that’s better than anything man can possibly give.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Rehabilitation with The Gospel

On Saturday, we took some students with us to visit a rehabilitation center at Huizhou (惠州) in GuangDong (廣東) province. Rehabilitation here relies on The Gospel rather than the more common practice of medicine. The method has proven to be highly effective in decades of practice in Hong Kong, and is now being tried in mainland China.

The people here are mainly trying to recover from psychological or drug-related problems. Here they practice simple, self-sufficient living. They grow vegetables, cultivate fruit trees, and farm fish. They also study the Bible and pray. It has proven to be highly effective even in the short time that it has been operating. (Just over a year, I believe.) Some of them had been taking various drugs for their psychological problems for many years without resolution. Since they arrived here, they have stopped taking medicine - and they have become much calmer and stable. Many have already completed the cycle of treatment and returned home to normal life. It is really quite amazing.

They live in several small, attached houses on a large slopping hillside, two small fish ponds, a vegetable garden, and lots of fruit trees. There is no piped water; but there is plenty of spring water from the mountain behind them. The natural environment, the open space, the wild life, and the clear sky is refreshing. In particular, the litter of six (3-month old) puppies is a lot of fun.

We came here as part of our Community Outreach Merit Program. We try to learn more about the center and its people, to show them we care, and to explore possible further projects with them. Information Technology is probably not something that they need urgently. But we feel that we can still help them with other things, such as their building projects.

The students who came with us seem excited and interested. We will see if something can be done for the people here. We left home early in the morning, came home about midnight and were completely exhausted. But all in all, it was a good experience.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Will to Learn

There seems to be an unspoken but prevalent view among Hong Kong’s policy makers that the majority of our students cannot master two languages. Hence these students must concentrate on studying in Chinese, and then try to learn a bit of English on the side.

That’s a condescending and even hypocritical attitude. Most students are capable of learning two languages, even language as diverse as Chinese and English, if they are given the proper environment. There is plenty of evidence, even among our own children, of such success. And certainly most of our elevated officials’ own children are bilingual, having gone through elite local primary schools, been sent to the UK for high school and then on to university on tax-payers’ money.

Children learn languages best when they are very young. The later that they start, the harder it becomes.

And what do our young people spend their time on? TV (at least 3 hours each day on average, I heard). Inane comics and computer games. Listening to pretty singers who cannot sing. Watching pretty actors and actresses who cannot act. Some of them are not even that pretty.

We, as parents, let them. And then we turn around and lament that our children are not interested in studying; speak poor Chinese and worse English (or is it the other way round?)

If those hours of watching TV and playing computer games are spent reading, e.g., books such as A Long Way Gone, they would have known that life is not always easy, being able to study in a comfortable environment is not something to be taken for granted (some kids are forced to be child soldiers, to torture others, and to kill), and a lot more - and they would speak and use much better English as well as Chinese.

Do we have the will to help our children learn? Do we have the courage to provide them with the environment they need to succeed?

Learning English Outside Classes

As much as students are influenced by their teachers, I believe class-based learning is only a small part of learning English in Hong Kong. English is so radically different from Chinese, in the sounds, the structures, the grammar, the writing, the history, the stories, the idioms, the poetry, ..., that it is impossible to learn it merely as a subject.

Learning English in isolation results in sentences like these: "The building is renovating. Excuse me for bringing trouble to you." "Your coat is broken." "I recommend you to take a long vacation." "Come to here." "Little children are difficult to understand that." ...

There must be a conducive environment inside and outside the school, in the form of other subjects in which English is used, teachers who are fluent in English, fellow classmates who are as eager to use it, exposure to English in recreation, music, radio broadcasts, television, books, magazines, ...

That’s why these few elite, truly English-medium schools are so effective. They have the resources and the environment. Most parents understand it. Somehow, many of our policy makers don’t. That’s really sad. Or they actually do, but keep saying something else because of political reasons. I don’t know which is worse.

By the way, the fact that some people manage to learn good English without a conducive environment does not mean that such an environment is not important. It simply means some people are exceptionally smart or determined.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Learning English In The School

My wife and I come into contact with students from a wide variety of schools regularly. We observe that students from the same school often speak English in the same way. As a rule, students from the elite English medium schools do speak English better, and many of these schools are run by Christians or Catholics. Obviously the students are heavily influenced by their teachers and the school culture.

Too often, however - and sadly - students from the same school make the same mistakes, in pronunciations, spellings, grammar, ... For that, the teachers must also be responsible.

From this point of view, getting into the right school is important. And the parents know that. There are, of course, students who rise above the circumstances because of their own effort and determination (or their parents’). But it is much harder; and because of that, they deserve our respect. They also demonstrate that our destiny is in our own hands.

Language or Culture

My friend The Cat is right. We in Hong Kong tend to think of English as a tool. We learn it to get into a better school and a better job, to make more money.

Clearly this utilitarian view of the language is not strong enough motivation for most people to put enough efforts into learning the language. We go through the motions of setting up the systems and classes, we say the right things about how important it is, we fight to get our children into the “good” schools. In the end, however, the heart does not seem to be there. Even the teachers (many of them anyway) do not seem willing to make additional efforts to improve themselves.

We forget that English, just like any other language, is part of a culture. Without a deep appreciation of the context in which the language is used, the people who use the language, and the beliefs underlying the language, we cannot use the language properly. Learning the grammar is not enough. We will, at best, use the language mechanically. We need to be able to think and reason in the language. Not merely to translate our finished thoughts into it.

A genuine interest in other people is a much more sustainable, much more powerful, and much more healthy incentive to learn their language. Are we open minded enough to have that interest?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Using English in Hong Kong

For once, I support the government’s proposal to “fine-tune” the policy on the medium of instruction. Giving more flexibility to the schools, and more opportunities for more students to learn in English is a step in the right direction. There will be problems in execution. But they are secondary issues.

A larger and harder issue is the environment for learning and using English in the community. The government officials, business leaders and parents say that English is important. But the community’s actions do not always reflect that emphasis. It is like we are schizophrenic, saying one thing and doing another.

There are now fewer English newspapers and readers. The English TV stations have become multi-lingual. English movies are now dubbed in Chinese. Local singers do not sing English songs any more. The government itself is using more Chinese and less English ...

The community is telling the students by its actions that English is less important than before. It is not willing to pay the price for the stated goal.

There are still many students with good English, most of them coming from elite schools. There are, however, also a number of them who learned to speak and write good English by their own efforts. They are not getting a lot of help from the community.

Do we, as a community, really have the will to help our children improve their English?

Friday, January 09, 2009

“Fine Tuning” of Language Policy

The government submitted a proposal to “fine tune” the Medium of Instruction Policy in which the limits on teaching in English in the junior forms will be relaxed. Under the current policy, 114 “English Medium” secondary schools can, and must, teach in English. The other ~300 “Chinese Medium” schools must teach in Chinese.

There are two major items in the “fine tuning” proposal. Firstly, schools can run English-medium classes if 85% of the students in a class meet government criteria for being taught in English (in the top 40% of their age group). Secondly, up to 25% of lesson time in Chinese-medium classes can be in English. Since the English subject, by itself, can take up to 25% of lesson time, that would mean that in Chinese-medium classes, 50% of the classes can be in English.

Both supporting and opposing opinions have been expressed since the announcement, as expected. In my opinion, a proposal which gives more flexibility to the schools is in the right direction.

Considering the huge amount of resources, time, and effort that has been put into learning English in the schools in Hong Kong, the result is disappointingly poor. Many of the top ~16% of students that get into universities in Hong Kong are not really capable of learning in English. They have difficulties listening to lectures delivered completely in English. They have difficulties reading English text books and often rely on Chinese translations of English textbooks. They have difficulties writing reports and presenting their work in English.

Many are not ready when they leave secondary schools and enter university; even though many of them do get much better by the time they graduate from university. My conclusion is drawn from 15 years of teaching in a university and observations from other universities in Hong Kong.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Egret (One or Two?)

On our way to TaiMeiTuk in the morning, we saw an egret patiently waiting for its catch at the mouth of the Lam Tuen River at Taipo. The photograph was taken from the West, looking East. Note that the sun was behind the egret, in the East.

On our way back, four hours later, the egret was again perched there. The sun was then in the West, behind us. But the egret didn’t seem to have moved. Was it possible?

We suspected it might have been a decoy - how can an egret perch in the same place for 4 hours? Upon closer scrutiny of the photographs, however, I can confirm that its posture was slightly different from one photograph to another. Perhaps it wasn’t even the same egret on the way back? But it was hard to tell, from some 50 meters away. For me, it will remain an unresolved mystery.

Just some of the small pleasures of life. And they are free. I hope you like them.

Bike Ride to TaiMeiTuk

We went on our end-of-term bike ride to TaiMeiTuk (and back) earlier today. It was about 20 kilometers from Shartin to TaiMeiTuk, and it took us about 1.5 hours each way. We arrived at the foot of PatSinLeng (Mountain of the Eight Celestials) about noon, and it was majestic. Unfortunately, it also reminded me of the tragic hill fire years ago. The mountain looked so peaceful, it was hard to imagine that several lives were lost, and others suffered terribly up there.

It was surprisingly quiet at the big dam of the Plover Cove Reservoir. Perhaps it was because it was a week day, and we arrived relatively early. We were able to just sit, absorb the sunlight in the cool air, and enjoy the serenity.

A kite (a real one) was circulating above our heads. I wish I can do that too.

A cat was looking at its shadow on the rocks. What was it thinking about? Cats look thoughtful when they just look at you without making a sound. Dogs, on the other hand, look silly when they are overly eager to please. Perhaps we humans are like that too.

At the foot of the big dam on the seaward side, I found some tiny mangroves growing right out of the seawater, between the rocks. These things are tenacious. Given a chance, they will grow like crazy. I hope they will be given the chance, and the next time I get there, there will be something new to enjoy.

The sun was gradually setting lower, making a beautiful picture with the silhouettes of the idling boats on the water. Many more people were arriving, setting up for barbecue, and making much noise. It was a good time to retreat.