Friday, December 30, 2011


I learned a new word, “naches”, a few days ago.   It was derived from Yiddish, meaning “Emotional gratification or pride, especially taken vicariously at the achievement of one's children”.  This is a beautiful word, and I just love it. 

My daughter A went with me and my students to Cambodia for a week of service learning in 2010.  She worked with White Lotus, a shelter for trafficked girls (former prostitutes) in Phnom Penh, teaching them crafts and computer skills.  In the summer of 2011, she went with another group of social science students from the University of Hong Kong to Batanbang in Cambodia, to teach English at local schools for two months.  When she came back to Hong Kong, they raised some funds to help one of the local schools pay their rents.  Right now, she is back in Batanbang visiting her students during the Christmas vacation. 

I have a feeling she probably won’t be making much money in her career.  But I would be happy for the naches derived from her sense of justice and kindness. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Subdivided flats (劏房)

A week after the deadly fire in Fa Yuen Street, I happened to pass by the area, and saw the residents going back to retrieve their belongings.  The fire had long been put out, but the aftermath was starkly evident.  This was, of course, a huge tragedy with many causes. 

One thing that stuck in my mind was that these people are not the poorest in Hong Kong.  Those subdivided flats cost $3,000 per month, for a 120 square feet unit.   If you don’t have a decently-paid job, you cannot afford to live there.  Some of them have respectable jobs that paid $10,000 a month.  However, they don’t really have much choice.  They do not qualify for public housing.  For employment and other reasons, they have to live in the inner city.  Yet they cannot afford to rent units of better quality (safety, ...). 

Property development is one of the main drivers of Hong Kong’s prosperity.  One of the consequences, however, is that housing costs in the city are insanely high.  Many of us are forced to live in cramped, low-quality, unsafe flats in order to make enough money to maintain the present “(poor) quality of life”.  The people who really benefit from all this nose-grinding labour?  The mega-rich real estate developers, of course.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Hong Chi Christmas Party

Starting from 2006, our students have been going to Hong Chi PinHill Special School to organize Christmas Parties for the children over there.  There are actually several special schools and homes in that compound.  Their children range from kindergarten to secondary school in age, and their abilities range from severely to mildly handicapped.  We had been doing more than these once-a-year parties.  We have invited their children over to our university to attend workshops on the Internet.  We had also helped them install a wireless local area network.  And we will continue to do more, as part of our expanding Service Learning program.  Some of these projects may even earn the students academic credits.  More on that in subsequent posts.

We are also adding some new elements to these parties. Last year, we invited some refugee children sponsored by Christian Action, with whom we have been working for several years, to come as helpers.    This year, some of their children sang pop songs and performed hip-hop dancing.  They were quite entertaining and we all had a great laugh.  We also invited the youth fellowship of my church to come along and sing Christmas songs with the children. 

It was gut-wrenching to see the state that some of the children were in.  Many of them sat in specially-designed wheelchairs.  Even then, some of them still could not sit up straight.  One kept flinging his head around, banging on the arm-rests and the back.  I showed my student how to pad the kid on his shoulder, and to massage his shoulders, which seemed to calm him down.  There was this girl with a sweet round face who liked to smile.  But she could not talk and her hands were always clenched tight.  I showed a girl from my youth fellowship how to massage her hands, to help her relax her grip.  There was a girl whose head was only 2/3 of the size of a normal child - but she enjoyed clapping in synchrony with one of my students.   There was this boy that I have known for more than 10 years, who had some special problems which made his lips and tongue blue, who is about 17 but only as tall as a 10 year old. ...

They turn out to be really easy to please, and love the human contact.  One cannot help loving them, wanting to do things for them, to make them smile.   I think that is what Christmas is all about - loving, serving each other.   I believe all of us felt that way. 

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Vaclav Havel (1936 - 2011)

Vaclav Havel was primarily an eloquent humanitarian playwright, a passionate advocate and practitioner of non-violent resistance to injustice and oppression.  His famous motto was: “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred”. 

In 1968, he was one of the supporters for the Prague Spring - the reform movement against the Communist dictatorship that was brutally suppressed.  As a result, he was banned from the theatre.  Instead of being cowed into submission, he became more politically active. He continued to write plays exposing the absurdities of life in Czechoslovakia under Communist rule, such as "The Power of the Powerless". His manuscripts could only be published clandestinely in Czechoslovakia. In 1977 he was one of the co-founders of the Charter 77 manifesto, which criticized the Czechoslovakian government of failing to respect human rights.  He was imprisoned many times.  Yet he never gave up peaceful resistance, nor did he turn to violence. 

In 1989, the peaceful Velvet Revolution brought down the Communist government in Czechoslovakia, as the tide turned against decades of Communist rule in Eastern Europe.  In December, Vaclav Havel was elected president of Czechoslovakia.  He resigned from the presidency in 1992 in opposition to the Slovaks’ declaration of independence.  After the peaceful breakup of Czechoslovakia, he was elected the first president of the Czech republic in 1993.  After stepping down in 1993, he continued to speak and work for human rights, and remained one of the most respected and influential figures.  He jointly nominated Liu XiaoBo (劉曉波) for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.

Czech is a beautiful place, steeped in history.  Charles University in Prague, found in 1348, was the first university in central Europe.  John Hus (1369 - 1415) was one of the earliest church reformers, speaking out against indulgences and other corrupt practices, preceding Luther, Calvin and Zwingli.  He refused to recant and was burnt at the stake.   Czech was formerly Bohemia.

Perhaps it was this rich heritage of independent thinking, humanist tradition, and strong backbone that produce people like Vaclav Havel.  He set an example for all of us.  How I wish that we have more people like him here in Hong Kong.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Election - Hong Kong Style

There are 7 million people in HK, but there are only 1,200 members (electors) in the Election Committee that elects the Chief Executive.  Only 250,000 (less than 3.6%) out of the 7,000,000 people have the right to vote, to select the electors. 

The election for the electors is divided into subsectors.  In the education subsector, 86,618 voters are qualified to select 30 electors (2,887 : 1).  But in the hotel subsector, only 101 voters select 17 electors (6 : 1)).  In finance, 125 select 18 (7 : 1).  In insurance, 135 selects 18 (7.5 : 1).  In transport, 201 selects 18 (11 : 1). In Employers’ federation, 122 selects 16 (7.6 : 1).  In Hong Kong Chinese Enterprises Association, 321 select 16 (20 : 1). In agriculture and fisheries, 159 elects 60 (2.7 : 1).  Obviously, in most subsectors, it is the big bosses and business owners who have the vote, not just anyone who works in the subsector. 

In the end, only 60,000 voters (less than 1% of the population) bothered to vote.  How representative is such an election?

On a closer look, more than 70 seats on the Election Committee were won by candidates holding key positions in HK’s dominant business, mainly property. It has been estimated that Tang’s supporters (mostly the rich and the powerful) won 300+ elector places, Leung’s supports won only ~100.  The ratio is practically the reverse of the opinion polls, which consistently put Leung’s popularity at double Tang’s, making a mockery of the election.  

The pan-democrats may have 200, which may allow them to put forward a candidate for the election of the Chief Executive.  This may make the election more interesting, even though they have no real possibility of winning.  Half of the electors are supposedly undeclared.  In reality, many of them are believed to be just waiting for a clear indication from the mainland authorities which pro-establishment candidate to support. 

Such is the state of the elections in Hong Kong , one of the most developed, educated, open, dynamic and civil societies in the world.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Ha Pak Lai (下白泥)

Ha Pak Lai is pretty, both from above and on the ground.  It is on the west coast of the New Territories.  Many people go there for the sunset.  But it was also beautiful under the bright winter sun.  We hiked from Leung King Estate in Tuen Mun, over the Castle Peak Firing Range.   After an hour or so, we saw Ha Pak Lai below us, to the west. 

Just off the shore, floating in shallow water, are numerous oyster fields.  The oysters are attached to strings, hanging under the floating racks.  You cannot see them, but they are there.  I wouldn’t eat these, however, because the water in the Hao Hoi Wan (后海灣, Deep Bay) is quite polluted.

There are many fish ponds, fruit trees, vegetable gardens, and abandoned houses.  On Sunday morning, the place looked clean, healthy and peaceful.  Dogs lounged and scratched themselves lazily.  They did not bother to bark at us. 

The scene was spoiled, however.  On the opposite shore, across Hao Hoi Wan, was Shekou (蛇口).  It used to be a sleepy village, famous only as the jumping-off point for people who wanted to smuggle into Hong Kong from mainland China, in the 1960s and 70s.   It is now a highly-built-up city and a big busy port.  

The worse is actually on this side of the water, just to the left (south west) of Ha Pak Lai.  It turned out to be the largest and active garbage dump in Hong Kong.  I have heard of it but did not realize it was so close to Ha Pak Lai.  You cannot actually see much of the garbage.  Because it is covered by the green tarpaulin as soon as it is dumped by the trucks.  The stench, however, is unmistakable.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Political reporting

The fight between Tang and Leung in the election for the Chief Executive is heating up, generating some genuine interest for the first time.  Even though both candidates are “pre-approved”, the process is tightly controlled, and the general public cannot really participate, there is a sense that the two candidates represent different segments of Hong Kong, and that the central government cannot completely ignore public sentiment if it is too lopsided.  Hence the interest.

A few days days ago Leung complained that the SingTao line of newspapers had been criticizing him maliciously and unfairly.  Two days ago Ho, the owner of the ST group responded with a scathing attack on Leung.  In the mean time, the polls continue to show Leung leading Tang by a large margin. 

The SCMP published yesterday (9 Dec 2011) on the front page an article commenting on the large lead that L is holding over T, even though the central government appears to be favouring Tang, followed by a lengthy analysis of the polls on page 4.  It also reported on the exchanges between Ho and Leung on page 3. It can be said the SCMP provided a fairly balanced report, with analysis. 

Similarly, am730 reported on the exchanges between Leung and Ho on page 1, with more reporting and analysis on the election on page 2, even reporting on candidates other than Leung and Tang.

In contrast, the Headline News, published by the SingTao Group, published several articles on pages 1, 2 and 8, completely in favour of Ho and Tang, and continued to dig up more dirt on Leung.  The same for the Standard.  There does not appear to be any negative news on Tang in either paper. 

A little while ago, it became known that Lai, the owner of Apple Daily, was making contributions to pro-democracy parties and persons.  As a consequence, there was a big uproar, from pro-establishment politicians and media, complaining that the Apple Daily was biased - as if it was some kind of diabolical secret that the Hong Kong public was unaware of. 

This time, when the reporting of pro-establishment media is blatantly obvious, there have not been a beep from anyone.  So the lesson is: it is OK for pro-establishment media to be biased, but it is not OK for media to be liberal and pro-democracy?

People have been asking whether Hong Kong has changed since 1997.  This is one area in which Hong Kong has changed - for the worse. 

Friday, December 09, 2011

Ap Liu Street (鴨寮街)

In the 1970s, Ap Liu Street was already famous for electronics.  We went there to buy vacuum tubes, transistors, resistors, circuit-breakers, etc., to build electronic gadgets.  I once bought a kit of electronics components for a two-stage amplifier (pre-amp, and power-amp), an old turntable, two big loud-speakers, and built wooden boxes for them - my first (and last) home-made sound system. 

Now Ap Liu Street is popular as ever.  Other than the usual electronics, you can also find all kinds of odd, not-so-easy-to-find stuffs there.

Such as old remote controls.  They even fix them for you.

Batteries of all sorts, rechargeable as well.

Light-bulbs and LEDs of all sorts.

Remote-control helicopters.


Clocks of all sorts.

It is an interesting place to spend an afternoon. You are sure to find something that intrigues you there.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Discrimination in Education

Racial discrimination in a well-known fact in the education system in USA.   Asian Americans make up only 6% of the US population; but they are over-achievers in education.  If admission to university is racially-blind, there should be a lot more Asians in US universities.   University of California, Berkeley, which is forbidden by state law to consider race for admission, is 40% Asian, compared to 20% before the law [SCMP, 5 Dec., 2011].  This has been attributed to many factors: emphasis on academic achievement in the Asian culture, family support, tiger moms, etc.  But the over-achievement is an unmistakable fact. 

However, a study by Princeton sociology professor Thomas Espenshade, using admission data to private colleges in 1997, found that African-American applicants with SAT scores of 1150 had the same chances of being accepted as white applicants with 1460s and Asian applicants with perfect 1600s [The Daily Princetonian, 12 Oct., 2009]  Asians have to have much better academic results than whites and blacks in order to get accepted in elite universities in the USA. 

On the other hand, what is the situation in Hong Kong?  You might be excused in thinking that the Chinese should have an advantage in gaining admission to elite schools in Hong Kong.  But you would be wrong.   Many local families would love to send their children to international secondary schools.  But the percentage of local students who could attend international schools (built on government land) is limited at 50%.  And the government is planning to further limit it to 30%. 

One might find this to be understandable, if not acceptable, in colonial days.  But in post-colonial  Hong Kong?  We could be the only place in the world who discriminates against its own people in its own country.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Apartment Selling - Hong Kong Style

We were puzzled by a full page advertisement for an apartment complex in the newspapers.  It was said to be a landmark in the central axis, presumably of Hong Kong.  But tried as we did, we could not find out from the advertisement where the apartments were located. 

It did mention a location in Central, which indeed can be considered a really central location.  But it was merely the place where one could view a model.   It turned out the apartments were actually in Tseung Kwan O.  Tseung Kwan O was where Hong Kong dumped its garbage in landfills.  So it is now in the central axis of Hong Kong?   If it is such as desirable location, why did they try so hard to hide it? 

These were also said to be “luxury” apartments.   A two bedroom “luxury” apartment?  At a closer look, the usable floor area of some of those apartments was only 536 square feet.   It was only 77% of the so called “construction” area, another uniquely Hong Kong concept - which includes the lift lobbies, club houses, roof tops, etc.

Judging from the floor plans, it would be difficult to fit a wardrobe and a large bed into the bedrooms.  How can such a small apartment be considered luxurious?  It is getting ridiculous here.

Perhaps the one thing that could truly be considered luxurious was the price.  It has been rumoured that some of those 2-bedroom apartments were selling at ~HK$ 7,000 per square foot; and one larger apartment has been sold at the absurdly high price of HK$ 21,000 per square foot.  That is double the monthly salary of some of our fresh graduates from local universities. 

This is truly uniquely Hong-Kong-style apartment selling. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The story of M

The life story of my friend G’s praying mantis, M, in a series of pictures.

(1) M trying to steal a watch.

(2) His attempt to steal discovered, M boxing with the owner of the watch.

(3) Defeated, M begging for mercy.

(4) M preparing to jump to his death when his plea was rejected. 

[epilogue: M survived the jump.]

Friday, November 25, 2011

Reading with children

My wife and I read with our children, literally before they could read.  We bought books made with cloth so that we could read with them in the bath.  We started with books with colourful pictures and no words; then books with colourful pictures and few words; then books with fewer and fewer pictures but more and more words, ... 

When they could start to read by themselves, we sat with them, each of us reading our own books.  When we went to restaurants with adult friends, we asked our children to bring along their favourite books.  They could then have something to read before the food came, after they finished with their food, and when they were bored by the adults’ conversation. 

We don’t have a lot of worldly treasures.  The one thing that we have quite a bit of is books.   All our three daughters love to read, although they have very different interests in books.  One loves her books so much she would get upset with me if I wrinkle up her books.  We would like to think that our reading with them when they were young have something to do with it.

I was therefore happy to read that a recent PISA study found that
  • “15-years-old students whose parents often read books with them during their first year of primary school show markedly higher scores in PISA 2009 then students whose parents read with them infrequently or not at all.” 
  • “The performance advantage among students whose parents read to them in their early school years is evident regardless of the family’s socio-economic background.”
  • “Parents’ engagement with their 15-year-olds is strongly associated with better performance in PISA.”
  • Such parent-child engagements with positive associations include: “discussing political or social issues”, “discussing books, films or television programs”, “discussing how well children are doing in school”, eating main meals together around the table”, and “spending time just talking with one’s children”.

[The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a worldwide evaluation in OECD member countries of 15-year-old school pupils' scholastic performance.]

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Literally, it is Gold Coin Chicken.  But there is really no chicken in it.  It is pieces of pork lard (肥豬肉), pork liver (豬肝), Char Siu (barbecued meat, 叉燒) stacked together and roasted like 叉燒.  The lard added flavour and juice to the relatively dry meat.   Quite tasty and worth a try.  Throw away the lard if you are health conscious. 

It was common at 燒臘店.  But it is quite rare these days.  I found these at a 燒臘店 in Hung Hom.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Primary School Examinations

When I finished primary school, decades ago, we had to take the Secondary School Entrance Examination (SSEE), or 中學入學考試, if we wished to go on to attend secondary school.  The SSEE tested Chinese, English and Mathematics.  At that time, secondary school was neither compulsory nor free.  Everyone of us wanted to get into secondary school.  But some could not afford the fees; others did not do well enough in the SSEE.  So there was pressure.   But there was also a clear sense that if you were smart and work hard, you would get into a good school and improve your prospects in society.   It was a kind of meritocracy.  I did well enough in SSEE but had difficulties with the school fees.  Eventually I got a government scholarship to attend Aberdeen Technical School (ATS), a boarding school run by the Salesians for under-privileged students.  I remain grateful to the government, and the Salesians.

People complained that the education system was elitist and too-heavily examination driven.  Many waves of reformation were carried out, year after year. So what do we get now? 

There is no more SSEE.  Supposedly, progression to secondary school is no longer dependent on the student’s performance in a single examination such as the SSEE.   The students have to take the Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA), or 全港性系統評估.  The TSA tests English, Chinese and Mathematics, to give schools feedback on the effectiveness of their teaching.  

They also have to take the Pre-Secondary One Hong Kong Attainment Test (Pre-S1 HKAT), or 中一入學前香港學科測驗 (中一編班試).  The Pre-S1 HKAT is used by Secondary Schools to assess the performance of their Form 1 entrants in Chinese, English and Mathematics.  It is also used to scale the internal assessment results of the Primary 6 students proceeding to Form 1. 

Theoretically, a P6 student’s results in the TSA and the Pre-S1 HKAT do not affect directly the secondary school the student is placed into.  However, the students’ results determines to which class in the secondary is the student placed.  The results also affect the ranking of the primary school.  Just try telling the students that they are not pressured to train for these examinations. 

There are, of course, internal examinations (升中呈分試) at the Primary School, the results of which are used to classify the students into one of three bands, for the lottery which allocates F1 places to the P6 students.

You tell me now, is this an improvement over the SSEE?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Australia Dairy Co. (澳洲牛奶公司)

This place is a true phenomenon.    Its name says diary company, but it is in reality a 茶餐廳., but a very popular one.  It does serve diary products such as 燉奶.  But many people go there for popular items such as scrambled eggs on toast (炒蛋多士), etc.  

At any reasonable hours of the day, there is always a long line in front.  Your orders arrive unbelievably fast.  And you are also expected to eat unbelievably fast.  The waiters are not shy in letting you know their impatience. 

Many customers, most of the time one-timers or tourists, complained about the service.  But there is always a long line in front of the restaurant.  And they have no lack of repeat customers. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Air-dried Meat in Yaumatei

Air-dried whole ducks, duck legs, boneless duck breasts.  Air-dried pork bellies.  Pork sausages, duck liver sausages, goose liver sausages.  Yummy. 

The only thing missing is gold and silver liver 金銀膶 - pork liver stuffed with translucent lard. 

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Old Yaumatei

When I was small, people used to comment on the growing number of banks this way, “There are more banks than rice shops (銀行多過米鋪).”  The assumption being that rice shops were numerous.  Nowadays, however, they are quite hard to find.  Here is one in Yaumatei, between Jordan Road and Austin Road.

It still sells rice by the catty, just like in the old days.  But the rice is now stored in small plastic buckets.  Not huge, three-feet tall wooden tubs.  And there are pitifully little rice to sell.   Partly because we eat much less rice than before.  The 7 million people in Hong Kong eats only 26,000 tonnes of rice a month.  It amounts to about 8 pounds (6 斤) per person each month.  But the bigger reason is that we tend to buy our rice from supermarkets nowadays.  So these rice merchants are doomed, unless we give them more business.

This one, at least, retains an old style balance, which is still in use.  This, in itself, may be reason enough to shop here. 

Here you can get your knives and scissors sharpened.

Or buy traditional herbs stored in big glass jars and small drawers. 

The old Hong Kong is fading away quickly.  It is getting more and more difficult to find.  Soon it will disappear completely.  

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

John Nash in person

Went to listen to John Nash’s seminar at our university on Monday.  He is, of course, the famous mathematician known for his work on game theory, and also because of the movie “A Beautiful Mind”, loosely based on his life. 

This time he discussed some of his recent papers which tried to explain how seemingly cooperative, even altruistic, behaviour can arise out of self-interest in game theory.  During the question and answer period, I asked him, based on his work, whether he believed that there were no truly altruistic behaviour, that all such behaviour can be explained by motivations of self-interest.  He answered at length, at one point mentioning the economic and market situation in Hong Kong.  Unfortunately, I was sitting too far from him to hear his answer very clearly.  But I believe he was rather critical of some of the things that he observed in the market. 

It was quite an experience to hear him speak, even though much of the mathematics was quite difficult to follow.  

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Mantis infestation

My friend G’s mantis population has expanded 300% (from 1 to 3) in 2 weeks.  Before this, I thought mantises were all spindly green.  It turned out many of them mimic flowers by growing spikes and patches, putting on fanciful colours, and swaying their bodies rhythmically.

These mantises, at about 1-2 cm, are only babies (nymphs, to use the proper terminology).  They are probably only a month old.  In a few months, they will grow into adults, after a number of number moltings. They will be several inches long, similar in size to the more common mantises that we see around Hong Kong. 

These tiny monsters are already voracious eaters.   They grab these fruit flies, sometimes one in each claw (foreleg), in lightning-fast strikes.  They start eating the fly from the head, alive.  I don’t like flies, and insects in general.  But I can barely stand watching the process, particularly at close-up.  

Their compound eyes sometimes give the impression that their eyes have small pupils, or perhaps even that they are blind (where are the eyes?).

The green guy was really aggressive.  He would wave his claws menacingly whenever anyone came close.   At one point I pushed my camera to may be within 2 inches of him to get a close-up.  He jumped onto my lens, and I jumped.

It is said that the female would eat the male after mating, and sometimes during.  This behaviour had actually been observed in laboratories.  Subsequently, other researchers claimed that the behaviour could not be observed in natural settings, and speculated that it might have been induced by the stress generated by the laboratory setting.  In any case, the world of mantises is a strange one.  

The world of nature is full of wonders.  It is hard to imagine that it all just happened without a purpose.