Saturday, October 31, 2009

Friday, October 30, 2009

Housing in Hong Kong

The median household income in Hong Kong is about HK$16,000 per month. That is about $192,000 per year.

Government data shows the average flat price is 7.6 years of median household income. In comparison, the United Nations standard is 3 years, and the World Bank standard is 4 years - both much lower than the figure in Hong Kong (according to an article in the South China Morning Post today). That means we spend double of our income on buying our flats, compared to other countries.

The data in Hong Kong means an average flat costs $1,459,200. According to property agent Midland Realty, the average flat costs $4,234 per square foot last month. That means the average flat is about 345 square feet. And that is only the nominal, saleable area. The actual usable space is probably 70% of that, which is 241 square feet. If your household has 3 persons in it, then each person gets 80 square feet. In USA, it is 785; Germany - 413; France - 367; Japan - 367; United Kingdom - 354; South Korea - 261; China - 250.

We Hong Kong people think that ours is a developed society, that we are as rich as most other countries in the world. But much of our wealth is virtual, locked up in the value of our flats. it is not really something that we can enjoy, except as self-deception in our heads, inflating our egos. We are really quite miserable in the way we live, the quality of our living. The people who are really rich are the land owners and real estate developers.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A little street intrigue

A man and a young woman stood in front of a hairsalon. The man seems to be in his 30s. He is not tall, but well-built, in a black T-shirt that is much too tight, making him look very muscular. The woman seem really young, probably in her late teens or early 20s. She is wearing a very tight, short skirt. She keeps on tugging on the hem of her skirt. If she does not want people to see what the skirt obviously does not cover, why does she not wear a longer one?

The man tells the young woman to go home first, then enters the salon. The young woman walks away to the left of the salon, but turns her head backwards every few steps. She walks to the end of the street, crosses, and then turns right. She keeps turning her head, and looks in the direction of the salon. Is she watching to see whether the man is following her?

She gets to the end of the block, and turns left. She can no longer see the salon. But she slows down and keeps turning her head to look backwards. She stops before getting to the end of the block. She seems to be talking on the phone; but, to whom? The man in the salon? Or someone else?

She turns around, and walks back to the corner. She does not turn the corner, but pokes her head out to peek. After about the third peek, a young man appears around the corner. Not the man in the too-tight black T-shirt. But a skinny young man in a loose-fitting white T-shirt. They continue to walk together, away from the salon.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Chinese Chess (中國象棋) on the street

Lots of people, mainly adult men, play Chinese Chess (中國象棋) in the parks, on the streets, in Hong Kong. I often stop to watch, when there is time.

However, the game may not be as innocent as it seems. Some men can give you a handicap of as many as 3 moves. That is, he will let you make 3 moves before he makes the first one. But he still beats you. And when you do, you have to pay him 100 dollars.

A lot of people do not just play for leisure.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Cai Yuanpei (蔡元培) on 重陽節

As usual, I went with my relatives to Aberdeen Cemetery to “sweep the grave” of my grandparents yesterday. I have fond memories of my grandma, even though she was practically blind.

And as usual, I sneaked off afterwards for a few minutes to pay my respects at 蔡元培‘s grave. Someone had placed flowers at his grave. As I stood there, a man and a woman came, bowed their heads, and took off. Cai died in Hong Kong in 1940. What makes people come to his grave today even though he has been dead for 69 years? We are not his descendants. We have never been taught by him. We have never even met him.

For me, it is 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. There are not too many people like him, particularly in modern China.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Your brain on music (4) - mirror neurons

Some scientists were studying the brain mechanisms in monkeys responsible for movements such as reaching and grasping. They read the output from a single neuron in the monkey’s brain as the monkey reach for pieces of food. At one point, one of the scientists reached for a banana, and the monkey’s neuron started to fire - even though the monkey did not move. They have discovered mirror neurons.

Mirror neurons are those that fire when performing an action and when observing someone else performing that action. The purpose of mirror neurons is presumably to train and prepare the organism to make movements that it has not made before.

Mirror neurons may be what helps an infant learn to imitate the faces that parents make at them. They may also be firing when we see or hear musicians perform. Many musicians can play back a musical part on their instruments after they have heard it only once. Mirror neurons are likely involved in this ability.

I wish I have more of these mirror neurons.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Your brain on music (3) - Why do we like the music that we like?

A year after they are born, children recognize and prefer music they were exposed to in the womb. Young children start to show a preference for the music of their culture by age two. As they mature, children start to tire of easily predictable music and search for music that holds more challenge. The teen years are the turning point for musical preferences. Many sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease, despite profound memory loss, can still remember songs from their teenage years. Most people form their taste of music by the age of eighteen or twenty.

Our brain undergoes a period of rapid neural development after birth, continuing for the first years of life. During this time, new neural connections are forming more rapidly than any other time in our lives. During our mid-childhood years, the brain starts to prune these connections, retaining only the most important and most often used ones. This becomes the basis for our understanding of music, and ultimately the basis of what we like in music.

Part of the reason we remember songs from our teenage years is because these years were times of self-discovery, and as a consequence, they were emotionally charged. We tend to remember things that have an emotional component because our amygdala and neurotransmitters act in concert to tag the memories as something important. There does not seem to be a cutoff point fo acquiring new tastes in music. But most people have formed their tastes by the age of 18 or 20.

What is true with music is probably also true with most other aspects in life. That’s why we encourage students to study topics that they enjoy. They tend to be better at such topics, willing to put more efforts into them, and more efficient in learning them.

We also find that 18-20 tend to be a very indicative age for students, in terms of study habits, preferences, and attitudes. For example, a student who is a procrastinator when he is 20 is very unlikely to change.

{They were performing Pingtan (評彈) in a Suzhou (蘇州) teahouse, back in 2006. It is a kind of storytelling and singing accompanied by music. I couldn't quite understand what they said (in the Suzhou dialect) but loved the sound and the rhythm, when I heard it the first time in 2006. Now I know why I did.}

Friday, October 23, 2009

Your brain on music (2) - Are musicians born, or made?

A year after they are born, children recognize and prefer music they were exposed to in the womb.

Even just a small exposure to music lessons as a child creates neural circuits for music processing that are enhanced and more efficient than for those who lack training.

In several studies, the very best conservatory students were found to have practiced the most. In another study, students were secretly classified into 2 groups based on teachers’ perception of their talent. Several years later, the students who achieved the highest performance ratings were those who had practiced the most, irrespective of which “talent” group they had been assigned to previously.

From numerous studies, the emerging picture is that 10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert in anything.

The strength of a memory is related to how many times the original stimulus has been experienced. Memory strength is also a function of how much we care about the experience, and we tend to code as important things that carry with them a lot of emotion.

If I really like a piece of music, I am going to want to practice it more, I am going to attach neuro-chemical tags to each piece of memory that label it as important, I am more likely to pay attention to subtle differences. Dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with emotional regulation, alertness, and mood, is released, and the dopaminergic system aids in the encoding of the memory trace.

Successful people actually have had many more failures than unsuccessful people. Because successful people have a stick-to-it-iveness. They don’t quit.

The best guess that scientists currently have about the role of genes and the environment in complex cognitive behaviours is that each is responsible for about 50 percent of the story.

{The young lady was playing in the Piazza Navona in Rome}

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Your Brain on Music (1) - Why do we enjoy music?

Our inner year is connected to the auditory cortex, in the middle of our brain, which processes sound, analyses the tones, forms perceptions, etc.

But there are also direct connections from our inner ear to the cerebellum, a center of motor control and emotion, and the most primitive part of the human brain, in the back of our brain near the stem. This path bypasses the auditory cortex, the central receiving area for hearing in the middle of our brain. Our response to music is at least partly pre- or unconscious because a part of it goes through the cerebellum rather than the frontal lobes - the center of the most advanced cognitions in humans. {The photo is a scan of my wife's brain. Beautiful photo, isn't it?}

At the same time, there are two-way connections between the frontal lobe and the cerebellum, connecting the most advanced to the most primitive parts of the bran. Music, however, also excites the ventral striatum, the center of the brain’s reward system. That’s at least part of the reason why music is so enjoyable.

Some of the best musicians, when they are performing, try to get themselves into the same frame of mind and frame of heart that they were in when they wrote the song. They need their brains to match the emotional state that they are trying to express.

As listeners, some of our brain states will match those of the musicians we are listening to. We surrender to music when we listen to it. We allow ourselves to trust the composers and musicians with a part of our hearts and our spirits; we let the music take us somewhere outside of ourselves.

The power of music, like other arts, is that it can connect us to one another. And we now know a little more how it works. Fascinating, isn’t it? Read the book to find out more about it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Running on (almost) empty

S comes out of the apartment block, intending to run 10 kilometers on the Tsimshatsui East Promenade as usual. Just a few steps into it, however, his legs start feeling heavy. His stomach feels bloated from the big lunch. He regrets eating noodles and congee for lunch, instead of just noodles. He wants to stop and turn back.

But it feels silly, to stop so soon after taking the trouble to change and to come downstairs. What is he going to tell his family? So he staggers along for a little while. Perhaps, he thought, I can run a kilometer and at least sweat a little, so that the run is not a total waste.

One hundred meters onwards, he remembers suddenly that he has been having a headache since the run the day before. Perhaps he is dehydrated because he has not been drinking enough water? He shakes his head to see whether he is still having a headache. Indeed! It feels like something is sloshing around in his head. Perhaps he should stop now? He is not going to drop dead because of a headache, is he?

One kilometer afterwards, his legs continues to feel heavy. He shakes his head. Yes, the headache is still there. Perhaps he should stop shaking his head? But he is still paddling along, and feels he can last a little while longer yet.

A couple of kilometers later, he is still running. And is actually feeling a little better. He remembers he is having a headache. But it does not feel as bad as before. He dares not shake his head, however.

About 8 kilometers into the run, he is felling pretty good. Perhaps he can last 10 kilometers afterall.

10 kilometers, and he is on a high. He is practically sprinting, and feels he can run forever.

He runs up a slope, down the other side towards TST, turns around, up the slope again, and down again towards Hung Hom.

Suddenly, he realized he has already run 12 kilometers. Having accomplished more than what he set out to do, his legs feel terribly heavy. The high is gone. There is absolutely no energy left. He simply could not go on, and stopped almost immediately.

It is a strangely exhilarating experience. But he remembers that it has happened many times before.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Running a congee shop

It takes a lot of people to run a congee shop. One to dish out the congees which require simply pouring, such as 白粥, 艇仔粥, 豬紅粥, 皮蛋瘦肉粥, 免治牛肉粥, 魚片粥. One to cook the specialty congees such as 及第粥, 豬腰豬肝粥. One to steam the 腸粉. One to fry the 油炸鬼, 牛脷酥. 煎堆. One to serve those eating in the shop. One to serve take out orders. One to collect the used bowls and dishes, and to wash them. One to cook congee inside. ... I counted at least 8 people working in the shop one morning.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Congee talk

An old lady, probably in her 70s: “That 炸兩 (fried dough wrapped in rice noodle roll) of yours looks really good.”
Author: “Yeah.”
L: “Enjoy it while you are still young. I could not afford it when I was young. Now I am too old to enjoy it.”
A:“Is it because it is “hot”(熱氣)?”
L:“Yeah. Whenever I eat it, I will get a sore throat and other problems. It works every time.”
A:“Can you get something “cool”such as “cool tea” (涼茶) to counter balance it?”
L:“No. It (熱氣) works too fast. I feel the effect right away. Even if I drink something cool it is too late already.”
A: “Yeah. It seems bad things affect you more quickly. But good things take too long to work.”
L: “Yeah. I don’t know why. So, enjoy it while you are still young.”
A: “Actually I am not that young.”
L: “At least you are young enough to eat it. It does not affect you as much.”
Her made-to-oder 牛肉腸 (steamed rice roll stuffed with beef) arrived after a long while.
A: “Your 牛腸 looks very good too.”
L: “Yeah. The 腸粉 (steamed rice rolls) here are better than those in restaurants. That’s why there are so many people here. I come here for it all the time.”
A: “I got to go. See you.”
L: “See you.”

This little congee shop in Hung Hom is one of my favourite eateries. It is very crowded, particular in the morning. Most of the patrons seem to be people from the neighborhood. For some reason, many old ladies come to eat by themselves. This one struck up a conversation with me while I was enjoying my 艇仔粥 and 炸兩. That’s part of the fun of eating here - the people seem more “real”, and down to earth.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Power and faith

Thanks to Chris for pointing out that interesting article “End world hunger? Sell the Vatican” from the Associated Press which was apparently published just hours before (or after) my previous post. I think it is a really good idea. Why does a church need so much wealth anyway?

Sarah Silverman’s proposal was about wealth while my post was on power. The two are so intertwined they can not really be separated. Hence it is not surprising at all that Jesus’ teachings on them are the same: don’t seek them!

He told a rich young man who was otherwise perfect to sell all his belongings, to give to the poor. I am sure Jesus would have said the same thing to wealthy churches nowadays. He told James and John, who sought to sit at His right and left in heaven, that they should not. Instead, Jesus told them to be prepared to suffer like Him.

Jesus himself rejected the power to dazzle the world with the miracle of turning rocks into bread. He rejected the power to rule the world. He rejected the protection from harm. Wealth, power and miracles are surely useful. But Jesus achieved much more - indeed, the impossible task of saving the world - by His sacrifices.

The world’s usual methods of power and wealth are useful, but ultimately cannot really solve the world’s problems. Which have more to do with selfishness, vengefulness, jealousy, covetousness, ..., all moral issues. It is time we try God’s method.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Organization and power

Most of the criticisms of and objections to Christianity (such as those in “Why I am not a Christian” by Betrand Russell) are actually directed at the organizations of Christianity, rather than the faith itself. Although it is often not very easy to tell them apart.

Many people feel that Christians must be organized in order to achieve anything. Churches to serve the congregations. Councils to coordinate among churches. Missionary societies to send and support missionaries. Boards to operate schools, hospitals, and charities. Many feel that we need to be organized and to seek the power in order to do good work. To help the poor, to re-distribute wealth, to bring justice to the world, and even to preach the Gospel.

But I notice that Jesus said next to nothing about getting organized. He said we should repent of our sins and turn to God. He said God blesses those who are poor, who mourn, who are humble, who hunger and thirst for justice, who are merciful, whose hearts are pure, who work for peace, and who are persecuted for doing right. He said we should not do our good deeds publicly. He said we should pray, privately. He said we have to be like children to enter the kingdom of God. He commanded us to preach the good news of salvation to all the nations.

He did say we should serve each other instead of striving to be leaders - that’s as close as it gets to organization building and power seeking. And what he said was essentially: don’t! He was more concerned about the attitude - what is in the heart - rather than the action itself, of course.

Monday, October 12, 2009


These are 水柿, a kind of persimmon, or kaki (柿子). It is related to, but different from 紅柿, which is more common in Hong Kong these days. 紅柿 is very astringent (澀) until it is fully ripe. When 紅柿 is ripe, it is very soft and sweet. 水柿 is also astringent due to the presence of tanin. But the tanin is neutralized by putting it in lime water (石灰水). That is why there is a layer of white powder on its skin. It does look ugly and moldy, perhaps that is part of the reason why it is not popular these days.

However, wash away the white powder and peel it. And you will be rewarded with the beautifully symmetric, firm, crisp, sweet, orange color “flesh”. The good ones are just as good as those Japanese persimmons that are popular these days. But at a fraction of the price. Typically you can get 8 to 10 水柿 for 10 HK dollars. Whereas you probably have to pay 10 times or more for a real Japanese persimmon.

It should be obvious 水柿 is one of my favourites. Unfortunately, they are available only for a few weeks each year, which is right this moment.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

辛亥革命 武昌起義

1911年10月10日革命黨人成功地發動了武昌起義。逐步使清朝走向滅亡。武昌起義結束了中國兩千年的封建帝制,建立了亞洲第一個民主共和國 — 中華民國。 是為辛亥革命。

This was the headquarters of the (Hubei Army, of the military government, of the) Republic of China - established by the revolutionaries on the day following the day of the revolution. It was formerly the consultative council of the Hubei province in the Qing Dynasty.

The 18 stars on the flag represent the 18 provinces in effect at that point.

This was a poster from the military government. It announced the revolution to overthrow the Qing Dynasty (not yet complete at that time), and to replace it by the Republic of China (in a very precarious state at that point).

A map showing the fighting between the Qing army and the revolutionary army. We all know the outcome of the revolution by now. At the time, however, it was far from certain. More than 10 uprisings had been organized before then, and all of them failed.

If I were there at the time, would I have had the courage to stand on the side of the revolution, knowing that it was very likely to fail?

Do I have the courage to stand on the side of the oppressed, who are by definition out of power, now? What would God want me to do?

Self preservation

In Dao De Jing (道德經), written about 500 BC, there are these words: “聖人 ... 生 而 不 有 , 為 而 不 恃 , 功 成 而 弗 居 。 夫 惟 弗 居 , 是 以 不 去 。 ”

Loosely translated, it means: (The saint) nurtures but does not claim ownership over the result. Builds up but does not boast of his work. Succeeds but does not cling on his success. It is precisely because he does not boast of nor even cling on his successes, that his status is secure.

In the New Testament in the Bible, written some 500 years later, we read these words on Jesus Christ:

“Think of the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all, when the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death - and the worst kind of death at that - a crucifixion. Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth - even those long ago dead and buried - will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.” [Philippians 2: 5 -11]

It is not impossible but highly unlikely that the authors of these books knew of each other. But some of the thoughts are remarkably similar. It is perhaps because Chinese sages, in their observations of the universe, have uncovered some of the wisdom of the creation. But without specific revelations from God, they can only arrive at a partial understanding. Only when Jesus came and revealed God’s plan through His own life, do we have a more complete picture.

Friday, October 09, 2009

My prayer today and everyday

My God, remind me today that you live and reign in my life.

Teach me to recognize you and acknowledge you in nature, in the world around me and beyond.

Allow me to be an agent of your kingdom by helping to bring peace to the world.

Help me be like Jesus, who heals the sick, comforts those who hurt, frees those who are bonded, and brings life.

I trust you for what I need, for both body and soul. Help me to respond to those in need.

Forgive me for what I have done wrong, and help me to forgive in turn.

Do not allow me to slip down the path to evil, and help me to resist the temptation to do so.

- This is, of course, my version of the prayer Jesus taught His disciples. It was inspired by Philip Yancy’s version in his book “Prayer - Does it make any difference?”

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

When atheism becomes religion

This is a book with one message only, but an important one. Many prominent atheists today blame religion for the worst of human depravity, superstition and ignorance. They claim that once we free ourselves from religion we will be able to march forward as a species to their utopia. They are using the evil of many religious institutions to condemn faith in God itself. They have curiously ignore those who found through their faith the strength to stand up against injustice.

A belief in the limitless possibilities of science, and the belief that science will save us from ourselves, has replaced, for many, faith in God. Evil, however, cannot be eradicated through education. Knowledge brings with it benefits, including self-awareness and power. But it also tempts us to play God. New technologies can be used to wage war and strengthen tyranny. The worst tyrannies in human history were actually carried out by utopian idealists. There is no reason to believe that science can help us become more moral. Science is, at best, neutral in this regard.

The author, Chris Hedges, believes in sin. Sin as acknowledgement that “we can never be omnipotent, that we are bound and limited by human flaws and self-interest. ... The concept of sin is a check on the utopian dreams of a perfect world. It prevents us from believing ... that the material advances of science and technology equal an intrinsic moral improvement in our species.”

Hedges is as critical of religious fundamentalists as of atheists. This book is somewhat repetitive, in the way that it argues for the message in its title in each chapter, from a variety of perspectives. But it is worth reading because of the importance of the message. It is quite short and easy to read.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Roasted Pork (燒肉)

For 60 dollars, you get a catty of roasted pork, and a chicken. It really is a very good deal. No wonder there are so many people pushing to buy, or just gawking.

My favourite is roasted ribs (燒腩肉). The meat is soft, juicy and succulent. There is a bit of fat in the meat, with a crispy crust. Just perfect.

The fact that they have to promote the business this way is an indication it is not an easy business to run. This shop opened only a couple of weeks ago. There had been a roasted meat shop at that location for as long as I can remember, which closed last month all of a sudden. Another one on the same short street, which opened only a couple of years ago, also closed at the same time.

For a long time, there were three major roasted meat shops in the neighbourhood. Now there are at least six.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Democrats are those without power

Most political parties, when they are not in power, criticize the government of being undemocratic, favouring the wealthy and well-connected, ignoring the weak and poor. They demand more tolerance for dissenters, that the government listens to the 'people', distribute the wealth.

When the same people are in power, however, they suddenly (or gradually, for those with a bit more self-awareness) discover a different perspective. Matters have to be considered in the context of the bigger picture and all the information, which only those in power are in possession of. The people out of power have narrow interests and limited information, hence cannot be trusted to make decisions that is best for the community as a whole.

Democrats have a habit of becoming autocrats when they are in power.

The same is true of so many other unequal power relationships: party members vs leaders, employees vs supervisors, small countries vs superpowers, ...

There are exceptions, of course. And I know personally some very notable ones. But it is the rarity of the democrat-in-power that proves the rule.

Thursday, October 01, 2009



This book recorded many personal histories of the generation of people who went through 1949. The author’s mother, the wife of a military police, drifted through the war and ended up in Taiwan, leaving her brother behind in China. 8,000 secondary school students tried to continue to study while drifting through China through the war. 5,000 secondary school students from Hunan drifted through China, with 200 ending in Taiwan. One of whom was 王尚義, who wrote 野鴿子的黃昏.

There were Chinese soldiers, Japanese soldiers, Communist soldiers, and Nationalist soldiers. Taiwanese youths forced to fight the war on the Japanese side. Chinese youths forced to fight on the Communist side. Chinese youths forced to fight on the Nationalist side. Nationalist soldiers captured by the Communists and then forced to fight on the Communist side. A Chinese diplomat murdered in a Japanese prison camp in New Guinea. An Australian prisoner of war who survived a Japanese prison camp.

This is a book about people, not ideologies. It helps me to understand the generation, including my own parents, who went through that era. There were glimmers of hope and dignity. Mostly it was the vastness, and the depth of the suffering, and cruelty in the name of victory, survival, or vengeance - that struck me. There is also a wealth of the indomitable human spirit in the midst of all the suffering.

Read it for yourself. It is not an easy read, for people who suffers with those who suffer. But you will not be disappointed.