Sunday, May 30, 2010

Service-Learning - Cambodia

For 10 days from the end of June to early July, we will be going on a trip to Cambodia. There will be 35 students supported by 5 academic and support staff. We will be working with 4 non-governmental organizations. One will be in Siem Reap and 3 will be in Phnom Penh. One is a local Cambodian NGO. The second is supported by the State University of Colorado. The third is run by 2 American missionaries. The forth is a Hong Kong Christian NGO. They operate many community centers, a school for kids making their living on the infamous garbage mountain, an orphanage, and a center for the rehabilitation of former prostitutes.

We will be split into smaller teams to work at 6 sites simultaneously. It will be extremely hot and humid, the sanitary situation will be challenging, ... and we are looking forward to it.

The main theme of this project will be digital story telling. We will be teaching the children there how to tell their stories with the aid of photographs and perhaps videos.

This will be our seventh major service learning trip outside Hong Kong. But the first one outside China. And by far the largest and most complicated. Involving the largest number of our own university students, the largest number of partner organizations, and the largest number of recipients (probably several hundreds of children).

It has already been exhausting just setting things up. Again I have to thank my admirable colleague G who is spearheading this expedition. Many amazing and exciting things have already happened, even before we set off. In fact, much of the hard work is done before the trip, as usual. I shall write about some of them in time.

I would also like to ask my friends to pray for us.

Progress in Reform?

The government has openly committed itself to democratize the election of the Chief Executive and the Legislative Council.

As an intermediate step, the government proposes something that is just window dressing, preserving intact the special privileges of the pro-government political parties, businesses, and individuals.

It then pressures the public to support its proposal. It accuses those who oppose the proposal of stopping the progress of political reform.

If the government’s proposal is then defeated, whose fault is it? I say it is the government’s. Because the government proposed something that makes no real progress, which is obviously unacceptable to the public. Both the government and the public lose.

Even if its proposal is passed, there is no real progress. The government wins, for now. But the public is still the loser. The deeper problems in society is not solved, and everyone loses in the longer run.

Friday, May 28, 2010


Deep sea monsters? No. Just the common Bombay duck (九肚魚) that one can easily find in the wet markets. They are bottom dwelling, but in shallow coastal waters. The flesh is very soft - I don’t particularly like it. It does look fierce though.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What does a (Hong Kong) professor do?

Is a university a place to do research? Or a place to educate? Many people will say both.

What is the reality? At least as far as Hong Kong is concerned? It can be much more obvious how a university can build up a reputation by doing good research - hire good researchers, pay them more money, give them good facilities, admit more research students, generate more research papers, ... If a university has the resources (money and determination), it has been shown to be do-able, even in Hong Kong. Perhaps - particularly in Hong Kong, where money speaks louder than anything else.

On the other hand, it is much more difficult and it takes much longer, for a university to build up a reputation for good teaching. It is not always very obvious whether a university is offering quality education. It can also take much longer, perhaps years after the graduates left the university, for the quality of its students to shine through. What is beyond doubt is that it must involve passion and vision.

At the personal, professorial level, the situation is the same. A top level manager of a local university privately admits it is much harder to evaluate teaching performance than research performance. Hence there are more professors who are promoted based on research performance than teaching performance.

The best professors can do both equally well. In fact, at least theoretically, research and teaching complement each other.

In reality, however, many professors can hardly be blamed for focusing more on research than teaching. They are just human beings that respond to economic incentives. By economic, it does not mean just money. It can also be recognition, promotion, longer term employment. OK, eventually it still come back to money.

In a society where students are brought up on more liberal and independent learning approaches, this bias may not matter as much. Students can learn by themselves despite the poor teachers, or teachers that do not care. Good researchers can inspire self-motivated students by example, without having a clue on how to teach.

But in Hong Kong, where students have been thoroughly trained on lecture and examination driven approaches, this bias can, and is having serious consequences.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

What about those PhDs?

When I was studying for my PhD in the USA, someone told me PhD stood for “Push here, dummy!” This was in reference to those compact, automatic (one-touch) cameras that were getting popular in those days. They were not even digital at that time. You still have to buy rolls of film, and pay to get them developed. So you have to be careful and selective in taking the shots unless you are rich.

Anyway, Hong Kong is producing about 1,000 real PhDs (Doctors of Philosophy) each year these days. 200+ from Chinese University, presumably a similar number from University of Hong Kong, ~150 from the University of Science and Technology, ~100 each from City University and Polytechnic University, a smaller number from Baptist University and Lingnan University, ...

The tax payers (we) invest a lot of our resources into training these highly educated people. They help to generate tons of research publications, and to bring our universities up the rankings. Then what? Where are they now?

It is estimated that about 70% of them are from mainland China, many of whom do not stay in Hong Kong. Even if they want to stay, like many of our own local-born PhDs, it is very difficult to find a position as an assistant professor in a local university. There are probably about 8,000 PhD level academic positions in all of the local universities combined. Even assuming a 5% turn over rate, that is no more than 400 positions each year. And most of time, PhDs with overseas background and experience are preferred in hiring.

Since industrial research and development is practically non-existent in Hong Kong, there are few places for the locally-trained PhDs to go. Many end up teaching evening degree courses, higher diploma, associate degrees, secondary school, ... Not that these are not important contributions to society. But ...

We encourage them, entice them, hook them on research. They contribute to bringing up the research performance of Hong Kong. But many of them do not get an opportunity to practise what they are trained for.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Blood donation, again

It has been 3 months already since I last donated blood, so I went back two days ago. It turned out the timing was just right - I went to the USA for a conference in early April. Because there was some kind of infectious fever in the USA, I have to wait for a month after visiting the USA before I can donate blood.

Despite having donated 40+ times, I am still apprehensive of the needle. But once it went in, with a little pinch, I felt perfectly fine. It was a tiny little bit unsettling to watch my own blood flowing through the little plastic tube. But it is mightily satisfying to think that it would be used to help someone in need.

5 minutes later, it is done. A few hours later, the only physical evidence that remains is a tiny little mark on my right arm. The good feeling, however, lasts much longer.

Some of my students (girls) have started to donate regularly. I remember myself starting to do that when I was their age. I pray that they stay with it through their lives. I think they will. They are kind and compassionate.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Who is a Leftist?

The terms Left and Right were supposedly coined during the French Revolution to describe the seating arrangements in the parliament. Those seated to the left tended to support more radical changes of the revolution. Henceforth, the Left usually refers to the more radical, anti-establishment side, as opposed to the more conservative, pro-establishment side.

For example, in 19th century France, the Left supported the republic, while the Right supported the monarchy.

The Left has since been associated with liberalism, socialism, and communism.

So what happens when the traditional Leftist becomes the establishment? In Hong Kong, the political parties and unions friendly to the Chinese government were called Leftist in the days of the colonial government prior to 1997. And rightly so, because they were opposed to the then establishment in Hong Kong - the British colonial government.

What happens now? These same parties and unions are standing on the same line as the government. They are now the establishment. They are now doing their best to preserve the status quo, to hold on to the power that they have acquired. They are making the best use of the laws, the courts, and the police to preserve their power. They are opposed to more open elections. They want to preserve the special power through the so called functional constituencies. It is clear which side they are on.

They certainly do not represent the progressive forces in society. Shall they still be called the Leftist? Probably not.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Homemade pineapple (土製菠蘿)

On day in the summer of 1967, I was playing with my friends. My father was a low level government employee, and we were living at a compound for government employees in Kennedy Town. We found a package about 6 inches long, wrapped in newspapers, in a flower bed. I picked it up, and started kicking it like a football, with my friends.

When my parents heard about it, they got very upset. I was made to kneel in front of the small family altar at the corner of our apartment for a long time. That was the last time I was punished physically, and I remembered it well.

Why were my parents so upset? Because it happened at the height of the 1967 riots by the leftists in Hong Kong. It was about this time that Lam Bun (林彬), was burned to death.

One of the leftists’ (左派) mode of operations is to place bombs on the streets, in buses, streetcars, etc. Government buildings and quarters were also obvious targets. These bombs were commonly called 土製菠蘿. Many of them were fakes. But there were also many real ones. A lot of people, including children, were injured or killed by these bombs. I was old enough to realize the danger. So it was really stupid of me to pick up the package. I could fully understand why my parents got upset, and I never blamed them for punishing me.

The behaviour of the leftists left a deep impression. I still remember how they gloated over Lam Bun’s death.

Why is there so much hatred in this world? To this day, I have a deep abhorrence of violence, even in the name of justice.

Friday, May 14, 2010

"Street" Sleeper

What lied underneath the umbrellas?

The answer was revealed several days later, when I passed by the same place again. The man seemed relatively comfortable and undisturbed, just a few feet away from heavy pedestrian as well as road traffic.

What is the place? And who is that? Is it fair to say he is trying to make the best out of a bad situation?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Clothing-controlled robot

Here are some of my students testing their Smart clothing-controlled robot. We gave them an iCATch tool kit, the system that we presented at CHI 2010 that garnered a Honorable Mention. The tool kit has enough components to build two things. A robot equipped with an iCATch controller, 2 motors, and a bunch of sensors. Then a piece of smart clothing equipped with another iCATch controller and another bunch of sensors. Using the sensors on the smart clothing, the wearer can send commands to a computer wirelessly through BlueTooth. The computer then relays the commands to the robot wirelessly, also through BlueTooth. The robot can then be remotely driven to navigate through a set of obstacles, detect the colors of designated targets, and report the results back to the computer and the user.

I am sure this set up is unique. Because we designed and manufactured the iCATch and the toolkit. I cannot claim too much credit, however. The iCATch system was mainly designed by my colleague G, and built by our excellent staff and students in the eToy Lab.

Here is another team testing their own version of the system. If the seated student looks familiar, it may be because he is running in the by-election for the Legislative Council on this coming Sunday.

This is how we integrate our research with teaching.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Life Imitating Art

Is life imitating art? Or art imitating life?

Years ago, my wife taught me how to draw bamboo, in the classic Chinese water-ink style. When I saw this young bamboo branch swaying in the wind in Chai Wan Cemetery a month ago, it looked exactly the way I was trying to draw it with ink. But my feeble attempt to imitate life was nothing compared to the simply elegance of real life.

In many ways, our church is also like this little young bamboo branch. It is young and growing quickly; it looks weak but is actually composed of a strong core; it is flexible but there is also a clear direction where it is going to go; it has not achieved much yet, but it has the potential to grow into something much bigger. To achieve that, it has to maintain an outward-looking perspective. Chances are it will.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

A new church 泉福堂

During the past year my wife and I had the privilege of working with a team of dedicated Christians to plant a new church. The planning started in early 2009. We started meeting for worship on Saturday afternoons in October 2009, at our mother church in Hung Hom. In half a year, the original 100 or so people had grown to 200+ by April 2010. Then on 1 May 2010 we moved to our own (rented) place near the corner of Jordan Road and Nathan Road in Yaumatei.

With 100 people to start with, we did not exactly start from scratch. But there were indeed a lot of work to be done, and lots of obstacles to be overcome. We are an amalgam of many strong characters. Yet there have been a wonderful team spirit. We seem to have been attracted, and united, by the clear vision of setting up a church to reach out. Everyone was truly placing the priority on the ministry.

At a prayer meeting one week before the first worship service, S and I sat down to pray. Pastor Y had said we should form groups of 3. So we invited a gentleman, Mr. H, that neither of us knew, to join us. H said he did not know how to pray. So we said he could just listen. But when we were finished, H said he wanted to try to pray too. He started by thanking God for being kind to him and his family 50 years ago. Time had run out by then so he only said a short, but obviously heart-felt, prayer. Afterward, it turned out, both H and his wife had decided to put their faith in Jesus!

When I saw him again a week later, he told me he had only intended to try to pray to be polite. But once he started, the words seemed to just tumble out automatically. Clearly it was God working in his heart. Isn’t it a wonderful miracle? And there are many many others.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

(Almost) Heaven and (almost) Hell - Hong Kong Homes

One day last week, there was an article on the front page of a local newspaper on The Lily, a luxurious apartment building in Repulse Bay. The average sale price of the project is expected to reach HK25,000 per square feet. Or, alternatively, to be rented at $50 per square feet per month.

On an inside page of the same newspaper on the same day, there was an article on cage homes. A 700 sq ft apartment can be cut up into 50 such cage homes, each renting for up to $1,000 per month. The rental rate turns out to be comparable to that of the Lily.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

May 4 (五四運動)

91 years ago today (May 4, 1919), students demonstrated in Beijing, protesting the shameful treatment of China by foreign powers, and the weak response of the Chinese government. Hence was born the May 4 Movement. The immediate cause that brought 3,000 students to Tiananmen was an agreement among the so called Allied Powers (Britain, France, USA, Italy and Japan) to transfer the German rights in Shangdong Province to Japan.

Consider this: a large number of countries owned very large chunks of land and assorted rights in China. And they traded these “rights” among themselves as if these were their properties. That was a good indicator of how weak China was.

Ultimately, we cannot stop other countries from exploiting us if we are so messed up ourselves. The students realized that as well. In a broad sense, the May 4 Movement strove to strengthen China through the paths of science and democracy. In this sense, we are still very far from achieving the twin goals.

Cai Yuanpei’s (蔡元培) tomb at Aberdeen Cemetery is an apt reminder of that.