Thursday, December 31, 2009

Where do you sit in class?

Where in the class room do you usually sit? Among us teachers, it is believed that the better students generally sit closer to the front. But is that true? I decided to test that hypothesis.

At the beginning of the semester, I took a photograph of the students in their seats in the lecture hall. At the end of the semester, after I have finished grading, I plot a graph of the overall performance of the students (vertical axis) against the distance between their seats and the lecturer (horizontal exis). Indeed, there is a noticeable negative correlation there. The closer they are to the lecturer, the better their perfomance tends to be.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


It is a Big Character Poster on the Democracy Wall on campus. I don't always agree with the posters there. But this is one that I agree with whole-heartedly.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Molting gecko food

My friend G bought some crickets for her geckos. While the crickets were jumping around in the cage trying to avoid being eaten alive, one of them started molting. I don’t like insects. But the process of molting was fascinating. When it climbed out from its shell, it was kind of off-white and rather lethargic. Looking almost like a wax model.

A couple of hours later, it had darkened quite a bit, into another regular, dark brown, disgusting-looking, high-jumping cricket. Yuck.

G decided to reward it by freeing it, instead of letting the geckos eat it. I guess being thrown out of the window was better than being eaten alive.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Two Seniors in 東頭邨

Two seniors cross each other’s path on Christmas Eve in Tung Tau Tsuen (東頭邨). They are probably similar in age, but are doing very differently in their lives. One is being helped in crossing the road by a daughter, and accompanied by a grand-daughter holding a great-grand-son. It is a picture of a happy cross-generational household. The other, his back bent at 90 degrees at the neck, is pushing an ice-cream cart by himself. Is he selling ice-cream? Or is he simply collecting junk with abandoned ice-cream boxes? He probably lives alone too. Why does life treat them so differently?

How do we account for the way our lives play out? Is it due to how hard I work? How smart I am? How good a person I am? What family I was born into? Is it by merit? By luck?

Is here a purpose behind it? Of course there is. But do we know what it is?

Friday, December 25, 2009

Hong Chi - Hands on hands

Many of the kids who stay at Hong Chi Number 3 School are severely handicapped. They cannot walk, cannot talk, cannot eat by themselves and cannot even sit up straight. Basically they have very little control of their muscles. Their cannot hold anything in their hands because their hands curl up into balls. It must be very hard living a life this way.

Even though we can spend very little time with them, I like to help them enjoy that little bit of time. Whenever I can, I try to massage their hands, and help them to open their hands. I have to force their hands to open, and it feels like they are fighting me. But I know their resistance is involuntary. Because I can see in their eyes they enjoy having their hands massaged. Because I can feel their hands relax when I massage their hands. Sometimes their hands relax enough to open up, to lay flat on the table, to hold up a ball or a pen. I can sense that they enjoy it. Even though they cannot speak. Some would grunt. Some would turn to look at you. They use their eyes to tell you how they feel. How sad it is that when we, who have much more powerful means of speech, choose to hurt each other.

What we can do is not much. But I believe more kindness is always better than less.

Hong Chi Christmas Party

On Christmas Eve, a team of us from the department went to Hong Chi PineHill Special School again - to organize a Christmas Party for the kids there. It has become a tradition of our department by now - this is our 4th such party, I believe.

The tradition originated in 1993 or 94, when my wife took our family to visit the school at Christmas, and fell in love with the severely-handicapped pre-school kids. My family has been visiting them evey year since then. When our department got more involved in service learning, we started bringing our students to organize these Christmas Parties for them.

Ths year we have 20+ volunteers of staff and students, and there is a similar number of kids from the school. Actually the school has a lot more kids. Because their health is generally poorer, and the H1N1 is a real threat to them, the school could only allow the bigger and healthier kids to participate.

We talked to them, played with them, and had a lot of fun. Some of the kids also performed a magic show for us. The kids seemed genuinely happy. About half of them were in wheel chairs. Many could not talk. But we could see the joy in their faces.

Some of the kids we have met before recognized us. There is one boy that I first met in the pre-school section years ago. His is one of the milder cases, but he has a lot of health problems - his tongue and lips are blue most of the time. He is now in his teens and I make a point to talk to him everytime I go there.

For some of our team, it is an eye opener. To see how some people in our community are living - and suffering. It is gratifying to be able to help - even in a very small way. And it helps to make our Christmas more meaningful. Christmas is about love, after all. I can see many of our team are touched, because they keep coming back.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Good morning, Tsim Sha Tsui (5)

In the foreground, the old Yaumatei, with pawn shops, traditional medicine, dried sea food, ... and the wet market. In the distance, the new West Kowloon with sky-high (in height as well as price) apartments, connection, power, and status-hungry inhabitants. I know Yaumatei and West Kowloon are not part of TsimShaTsui, but they are close enough.

The question is: Which is the real Hong Kong? Perhaps I am an old dinosaur, but I know what I prefer.

Good morning, Tsim Sha Tsui (4)

At this Cha Chaan Ting (茶餐廳), you can get an amazing variety of food. Surely you can get the usual tea, coffee, toast, instant noodles with fried eggs and luncheon meat, fried rice, fried noodles, cheap steaks, ... Also Cantonese dim sum, Shanghainese dim sum, Chiu Chow style food, ... And incredibly, steamed garoupas, red crabs, and even foot-long mantis shrimps. It is a real one-stop super smorgesbord. Even by the standards of 茶餐廳s, it is extreme. Perhaps this is a trend setter for 茶餐廳s?

One the other hand, some people are very specific about their food. What to eat, and how to prepare it. This is a butcher who sells halal meat for Muslims. No pork. Just beef, mutton and chickens. No blood. Perhaps it is too early, there are not too many shoppers yet.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Good morning, Tsim Sha Tsui (3)

Few people are around at the piers yet. So it is still peaceful. Early-rising Filipino ladies are taking advantage of the last moments of quietness to practise their singing at a corner. They have really lovely voices.

Some people say early in the morning is the best time to catch a fish. Much of the area near the pier is not really solid land, but a platform standing over the sea water. Making it feasible to fish through the gratings of the storm drains. Surely, however, the fish that one can pull through the grating cannot be very big?

A big crowd of young Indonesian ladies is forming around the MTR exit. They look very colorful and cheerful. Many of them are going to the mosque. Others are setting up to stay at the park for the day. They don't seem to have many options of where to spend their day off in Hong Kong.

Noisy flamingos are raising quite a racket at the Kowloon Park. It is fun, though, watching them from a distance.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Good morning, Tsim Sha Tsui (2)

Most shops in the arcades are still shuttered. But some of them are beginning to open up already. Soon the arcades will be full of people.

The street is still wet from the washing. But adventurous tourists are already out on the street. Nowadays a lot of them are from mainland China. But this family has a Middle-Eastern look about them.

This pearl-necked turtle dove has found a nice perch. From this angle, it appears you don’t need to be filthy rich to be looking down on the fancied International Financial Center 2.

The Star Ferry looks practically incandescent, bathing in the golden glory of the reflected sunlight.

The shadowy sky-scrapers in the backdrop appear to be floating in mid-air. We may not work in them, or be able to afford to live in them. But the view is at least available to all.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Good morning, Tsim Sha Tsui

It is very rare to see the entrance to the Cross-Harbour Tunnel at Hung Hom so deserted. This is Sunday morning at 7 AM, afterall. Even as I take the photograph, however, the traffic is already picking up. The taxis keep coming, the double decker buses start piling up at the bus stop, ... I give up waiting to take another photo like this.

The church on Chatham Road has already opened. Two old ladies arrive quietly while I am taking the photograph. It is so peaceful around here I want to sit for a while. But I also want to see how other parts of Tsim Sha Tsui is doing.

Just around the corner, a young lady walking out of an alley seems lost. She is speaking into the phone, “I don’t know where I am! But I can see this Golden Flower noodle shop. ... You know where I am? Great! Please come to pick me up.” Then she walks back into the alley. I don’t know how she can be here without knowing what place it is. But she does not look scared. So there is probably no foul play and nothing to worry about.

The chance juxtaposition of the young and old makes up a microcosm of life for some of us. We keep looking for excitement but are really lost when we are young. Only after many years of struggles do we finally learn to appreciate peace and quiet. However, by then we do not have many years left to enjoy it.

A sweeper is cleaning up the street. They seem to be almost done. Judging from the amount of garbage in the dumpster, it must have been a big mess last evening. Just like any other evening here, I suppose.

I hear a noise that sounds like glass bottles crashing. I follow the sound. And I find a team trying to dump small mountains of beer bottles into the garbage truck.

A couple of blocks down, another team is hosing down the sidewalk on Nathan Road.

This is the way that Tsim Sha Tsui wakes up. More on it later.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

School in the shadow

How would you like it if the front entrance of your school faces the back side of another school? If the balconies of your school look out at a wall-full of air-conditioners at the back of the other school? If your school is permanently in the shadow of the other school because your school is immediately to the north of the other one? (In the northern hemi-sphere, the sun is always in the south.) That is exactly the situation of this school in Kowloon Tong.

Evidently the school building was built according to the standard design adopted by practically all the recently-constructed school buildings funded by the government. The design works in most other places. Unfortunately in this case it is smack against the backside of another school - an International School in a much more favourable location, which adopted a much more sensible design.

Evidently the government did not bother to change the standard design to adapt to the special situation. I can imagine the rationalization from the government: if the design was changed it would have incurred more expenses, which would not have been fair to other schools; and it would have taken longer, which would not have been desirable for this school, ...

I suppose we should not be surprised by this, knowing that education in Hong Kong is run by bureaucrats, not educators. And our government sees education as no different from customs, crime-fighting, corruption-fighting, running wet-markets, ... Under this philosophy, many absurdities can be justified in the name of equality and fairness. Ironically, it does not insist on equality and fairness in the selection of the Chief Executive, nor the formation of the Legislative Council.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Pearl

of a 3 mm water droplet on a bed of moss.


Some students perform well in classes and homework assignments but have problems with examinations. Several years ago I had a female students who was one of the extreme cases. She was very meticulous in examinations and answered the questions well. But she took so much time on each question that she could only complete half of the questions. As a result she often performed poorly and even failed in the examinations. At the time, I could not quite understand her problem and was not of much help to her.

I undertand the problem better now, partly from Malcolm Gladwell’s article on “The art of failure - why some people choke and others panic”, in his book “What the dog saw”. Learning usually starts from explicit learning, involving a lot of conscious, deliberate, careful analysis and thinking. Then, as the learner gets better and better at it, the learning is happening more and more implicitly, unconsciously, fluidly, outside of awareness. These two learning systems are quite separate, based in different parts of the brain.

Under conditions of stress, however, sometimes the person lose trust in her honed instincts, and the explicit system takes over. That is what it means to choke. Choking is different from panicking, when someone stops thinking under pressure. Panicking is thinking too little, choking is thinking too much.

A panicking student makes wild guesses. A choker is extra careful and second guesses herself. A panicky student should work and prepare harder. Gladwell says, however, choking requires a different solution, perhaps to concern ourselves less with the performer (ourselves) and more with the situation in which the performance occurs. He maybe right, but I am still not quite sure how to do that.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Campus AV

AV, as in Adult Video, not audio-visual.

A student was watching AV in the library. Another photographed him watching, without his knowledge; and then posted the photograph on a popular forum. The “hero” discovered the photograph. He put up a profanity-filled posted on the democracy wall on campus. The poster was removed fairly quicky because of violations. But not before generating a heated discussion.

What does that tell us about (some of) our students?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Good Morning, Hung Hom

Around 6:30 AM, while most people are still in bed and the sky is just starting to lighten, this young lady has already finished doing her laundry and hanging them out to dry.

Garbage is being collected. Traffic is beginning to get heavy. Pushing the garbage carts around on the street is heavy and dangerous work. But someone has to do it.

The night market is closing up. The vendors lay out their wares deep in the night, and clean up at day break. Mostly cheap clothing, shoes, towels, toys, utensils, ... It is somewhat surprising there is still a thriving market for such cheap stuff. But there they are, every evening. The market is almost invisible because the vendors and their wares are gone before most people hit the street in the morning.

Some old folks are lining up outside the clinic already, waiting for the doctor to come in. Mostly older people. Older folks tend to have all kinds of ailments. Public healthcare is relatively cheap, but there tends to be long waits. It can be miserable when you are old, poor, and sick.

Others - mostly older people, and women, again - are lining up, but for what? Not for the minibus, the stop for which is somewhere beyond the line up. They are waiting for the distribution of free newspapers. Some for the news. Many are collecting the free newspapers to be exchanged for small change at the recycling depot just up the street. It is quite orderly nowadays; they line up automatically, waiting patiently for the newspapers to be dropped off.

Sugar cane has just been delivered to the tea and juice shop, which will not open for a few hours yet. I don't know what the young lady is waiting for. Perhaps the minibus service?

An old lady has just picked up a bag of rotten fruits discarded by the fruit store. I wouldn’t have guessed it if I did not see it happening myself. Not everyone is rich in Hong Kong. For many, it is not a very pleasant life.