Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Dead Sea Scrolls

Around the time of Jesus, a Jewish sectarian group of about 200 lived at Qumran near the north-west shore of Dead Sea.  They started settling there during the reign of John Hyrcanus, about 100 hundred years before Jesus was born.  They might have been the group that was called the Essenes. 

They practiced the Jewish religious rituals, studied the scriptures, copied the scriptures and other religious materials, and wrote their own books.  They stored the books in the form of scrolls in clay jars in the caves.  

The settlement was destroyed around 68 AD, when the Jews revolted against the Romans. Jerusalem and the Temple was destroyed and Jews driven away.  The books laid hidden in the caves until they were discovered in 1947, the year Israel became independent. 

These are the famous Dead Sea Scrolls.  About 40% of them are copies of the Hebrew Bible, the “Old Testament.”  About 30% are Apocryphal books such as Enoch, Jubilees, Tobit, ...  And then another 30% are sectarian books such as Community Rule, ...   The most important were the OT books, of course.   Some of the OT books were written only a few hundred years before they were copied and stored in Qumran.  They were as close to the original as one could realistically get.

They are extremely important for many reasons.  They are the oldest surviving copies of the Bible. Their discovery helps to show that the Bible has been preserved essentially unchanged for thousands of years.  They were hidden when Jerusalem and the Second Temple was destroyed.  They laid forgotten for almost 2,000 years.  They surfaced again when the modern nation of Israel regained independence, which was a miracle by itself.  

I felt privileged to have been able to see the settlement, some of the caves, and some of the scrolls themselves - even though I could not read the writing, which was in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The 818 Incident at HKU

The facts of the incident is now well-known.  The police certainly used excessive force to prevent some slogan-bearing students from getting anywhere close to Vice Premier Li Keqiang.  The students seemed intended to do nothing more than to show off their T-shirts with slogans and to shout loudly.  But they were treated as if they were enemies of society and violent rioters.

HKU was not wrong in inviting the Vice Premier to their celebration - other universities would probably love to do the same.  But there is something unsettling in HKU’s handling of the whole event.   It is unbecoming for a university to bend over backwards to try to please the powerful, the rich and the famous, at the same time slighting its own alumni, staff and students.  The obvious message is: what we care about is power, money and prestige, not knowledge, character and justice.

The saving grace is that some HKU students, staff and alumni have come out strongly against the incident, and that Prof. Tsui has now stood up bravely on the side of the students.  Even people in important positions, such as the head of a university, can make mistakes.  In fact, the higher the position, the bigger may be the mistake and the impact.  He should be criticized for allowing the incident to happen, but equally, he should be applauded for standing up to rectify the mistake.  He, and HKU, should be watched to see if the remorse is genuine.

The police and the government, on the other hand, is truly disappointing and disgusting.  They seemed determined to show Li that they are in control - powerful enough to prevent any criticisms and contrary opinions from troubling their master.  Their motto seems to be: (1) the master should see only positives, at all costs, (2) we don’t care about the citizens, particularly those with contrary views, (3) never admit any mistakes. 

On the other hand, we may simply be naive to expect otherwise.  We are deceiving ourselves when we believe that the police in Hong Kong is here to protect its citizens, to maintain the law and order of society.  We are equally wrong to believe that the government would at least try to represent and serve its citizens.  The reality is: they serve their masters in Beijing, not us. 

In this incident, there are lessons for us, particularly those of us in universities, but also for us citizens of Hong Kong. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Dead Sea

Let me now return to our tour of Israel.  After dipping in the Jordan River, we drove down to the Dead Sea.  Along the way, we could see Mount Nebo in the distance, across the Dead Sea, in the Kingdom of Jordan.  That’s where Moses stopped to look into Canaan more than 3,000 years ago, after he had led the Israelis out of Egypt.  He died without getting into Canaan himself. 

The Dead Sea is drying up because of a lack of water.  The smaller southern section is now cut off from the bigger northern section, and is in danger of getting completely dry.  The northern section is still relatively OK, being continually fed by the River Jordan.  Hence canals are dug to channel water from the northern section into the southern section, so that the tourist resorts in the south do not have to go out of business. 

The Dead Sea is really dead, completely devoid of vegetation or fish.  It is also pristinely clean and calm.  The myriad hues of the blue water, yellow sand, red earth, and white salt combine to create captivating scenes.  I felt I could watch for hours and hours.  Unfortunately, I had to follow the group.  I wonder whether, one day, I could come back with just my camera. 

The water felt strange.  It did not feel like normal water.  It felt “wet” and thick.  It was a bit like molten jelly.   

The water was clear, however, and one could really float comfortably in it.   Unfortunately, the water was also 30% salt.  That meant every little cut or scratch, even those that I did not know exist, would now hurt terribly due to the salt.  I took a little sip without thinking and regretted it.  I shudder to think what would happen if I should put my head in it. 

They said one should not stay in the water more than 10 minutes at a time, otherwise one would get de-hydrated.  I wasn’t sure what that meant.  I really would love to stay longer, to really take in the scenery and the strange but rather comfortable feeling of the water.  Unfortunately, I could not.  All I am left with are photographs now.  It was a stark kind of beauty, but it was really beautiful. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Releasing Life (放生)

On Sunday morning, I was running by the Hung Hom Pier when a small crowd piqued my curiosity.  It appeared to be a nun leading several people in prayer on the water front.   There were also several big buckets around them.  I suspected they were Buddhists doing a “Releasing Life” ceremony.  

A peek at the contents of the buckets confirmed my suspicion.  There were fish, crabs and scallops in those buckets.  It is a compassionate and commendable act to save lives.  But this particular situation did not look very promising.  Some of the fish did not seem to be in good shape - some were doing “back-strokes”, floating upside down, already.  They might not survive even if they were released into the water.   None of the fish, crabs and scallops were from the area, and the quality of the water in the Victoria Harbour is notoriously bad - it is very doubtful that the fish and shellfish would survive in the harbour.  And then, ironically, there were all those people fishing on the water front, only meters away from the release site.  

Surely there are other ways to do a good deed? 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Japanese Temples

The Japanese Buddhist temples are rather distinctive.  The torii (鳥居, literally bird perch) is a gate that is simple, elegant, and ubiquitous.  The giant torii at the entrance to Meiji Shrine (明治神宮) in Tokyo is one of the largest.  The second one on the way to the shrine is said to be even larger, but I could not really tell the difference between them.  They are both huge.

Kencho-ji (建長寺), a Zen temple in Kamakura (鎌倉市), is almost 800 years old.  Chinese Buddhist temples are usually painted bright red and green.  The wood of Japanese temples, on the other hand, are usually stained grey or black but not painted - such that the wood grains are clearly visible.   The sanmon (山門) of Kencho-ji was very well-preserved and impressive.  In Chinese temples, the first main gate is often protected by statues of the 4 heavenly kings (四大天王).   They don’t appear as often in Japanese temples. 

In Japanese temples, there is much less candle and incense burning.   There are usually more trees, flowers, ponds, and beautiful gardens - much more peaceful. 

At the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū (鶴岡八幡宮) in Kamakura, banners remind people to pray for the victims of the earthquake and tsunami.  Everywhere we go, most of the tourists seemed to be Japanese - foreign tourists were still shying away.  

We don’t like the Japanese aggression and cruelty against the other people in war.   We don’t particularly enjoy their popular culture.  But we have great respect for their preservation of culture, courtesy, artistry, and insistence on quality in many aspects of life.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Segregation by Education

The debate about the subsidy for English Foundation Schools has flared up again. Other than the question of subsidy, shall we ponder, for a moment, the question of segregation? 

The ESF is subsidized by the government (tax payers, really) but is not monitored by the government like other local schools.  They do not follow the local curriculum.  Their students do not attend local universities.  In the past, most of their students were British.  They do not return to HK after they finish university.  Nowadays, there are a lot more Chinese in the ESF population.  Most of them still do not attend local universities.   Probably more of them would return to Hong Kong, but it is not clear how many. 

Many of the ESF students learn little Chinese, since Chinese as a subject is much less important in ESF than in other local schools.  Even when Chinese is taught, it is likely to be in Putonghua, not Cantonese.   An ESF student is very different from a student in other local schools.  It is much more than the use of English.  It is in the culture, the outlook, the sense of identity and belonging to Hong Kong, and much more. 

The ESF population, prior to 1997, was British.  Since then, there is a lot more Chinese there.  But they are still effectively segregated from the population that attend other local schools.  It is good to provide a broad range of options in education.  But, should we have school systems that encourage segregation?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Permanent residency for maids

Should foreign domestic workers (mainly Filipino and Indonesian maids) be allowed to apply for permanent residency in Hong Kong after working here for 7 years?  On the principle of equality, they should.  If Americans, Canadians, Australians, etc., who have worked in Hong Kong for 7 years can apply for permanent residency, why shouldn’t Filipinos be allowed to do so? 

Some cite the problems of large numbers of Filipinos who may then want to move to Hong Kong.  The Hong Kong Employers of Domestic Helpers Association claimed that the number can be as many as 400,000 domestic helpers and their family members.  That is quite certainly scaremongering.  The method that was apparently used to come up with those numbers did not look scientific at all.  Why doesn’t someone conduct a scientifically-sound study of this issue, since this estimate seems to be an important factor in the controversy?

If the number of potential immigrants is really large, indeed it may pose serious problems.  But even then there are ways to deal with that problem.   Many countries have established quotas, priority systems, selection criteria based on their own manpower needs, etc., to handle those problems.  Perhaps this is a good occasion for Hong Kong to clearly debate and articulate our own philosophy and policies on immigration. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Puffer fish (河豚, 雞泡魚)

One evening we went into a restaurant in Tokyo that specialized in eels.  One of the kimono-clad lady servers taught us how to eat the rice 2 different ways.  First bowl - mix the eel with rice.  Second bowl - add the soup, wasabi and strips of seaweed to the mix.   That was fun.  The eel was so good that it practically melted in our mouths.

My wife also spotted a dish of deep fried puffer fish on the menu.  Of course we had to try it.   For 1,200 yen we got a puffer fish, probably about 8 inches long, chopped into 3 pieces and then fried golden yellow.  The meat was white and firm, yet tender and tasty.   Perhaps more importantly, none of us got sick from eating it.     

I heard that the poison is mainly in the intestines such as the liver and the ovaries, and sometimes in the skin.   Puffers are not believed to produce their own poison.  The poison comes from the shell fish that puffers eat, which are then stored in the puffers’ intestines. Puffers kept in farms or ponds with controlled diets are not poisonous.  Prepared properly, even wild-catch puffer is OK.  In this regard, we believe we can trust the Japanese in doing a good job. 

A few years ago, I had eaten the skin of a puffer fish in China.  They skinned the fish, without removing the scales from the skin.  The skin was then folded inside out so that the scales were wrapped inside.  And the whole skin was just swallowed.  Looking back, it was probably a little reckless. 

Eating fish in Japan

We in the south of China pride ourselves in eating seafood.  But we can still learn a lot from the Japanese, who have turned fish eating into a fine art.   The Tsukiji fish market is whole sale, where the fish are laid out in big buckets on a grand scale.  It is bloody, messy, and wet. 

On the other hand, the seafood halls in the department stores lay out their fish cleanly and neatly.  There is no blood, unlike wet markets in Hong Kong, where blood is purposely smeared onto the fish to make them look fresh.  Here, they are as pretty as paintings.  To me, it is an art form closer to my heart, and stomach.    

I admire particularly the way they turn small fish into delicacies.  They are very good in cleaning, de-boning, and slicing up small fish just a few inches long, and eating them in myriad different, delicious ways.  

Outside Tsujiki fish market, we wondered about some small fins laid out to dry.  What is the point?  

Minutes later we had the answer.   They are consider good snacks to go with wine.   1,000 yen is roughly 100 HK dollars and about 12 US dollars.  It is quite a bit of money for just a few pieces of fins.  No wonder people are willing to take the time and effort to clean and dry them.

And then, at the other end of the scale, there are these huge fish eyes, each about 3 inches across. They look interesting.  But I have no desire to eat them.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Tsukiji Fish Market

I have to interrupt the postings on Israel to share some photographs on Japan fresh off the camera.  I will return to the theme of Israel (and then Cambodia). Promise!

Tsukiji fish market is my favourite place in Japan.  Nowadays tourists are not allowed into the fish market until 9AM.  By that time the auction on tuna is already over, and most of the tuna are already cut up and shipped off.  But one can still see quite a few of the tuna lying around.  One that we saw, at 85 kg, was a mere baby, or at most a juvenile, because they could grow up to 500 kg and more - as big as a cow. 

There were also big fish heads being cleaned, frosty chunks of meat just cut up with electric saws, and, of course, succulent pieces of deep red tuna.  I heard that hundreds of these big tunas are sold here every day.  Since no one has figured out yet how to farm big tuna in a large scale, this rate of consumption is not sustainable.  It is evidenced by the fact that big tunas at more than 300 kg are getting rarer and rarer.

As much as I like to eat tuna, I like it more to see these majestic giants zipping along in the ocean.  If that means giving up eating tuna, so be it.

They have much more than tuna, of course.  Huge scallops.  Monster octopi - just look at the size of those suckers on the right, and imagine the size of the octopus that those suckers belong to.  You don't want to encounter them in the water.

Lots of lots of funny looking fish too.  I love this place.  I could stay here for a long time, just watching. 

Saturday, August 06, 2011

The River Jordan

Leaving Galilee, we moved towards Jerusalem.  But we stopped at a few places before we actually arrived in Jerusalem.  We were driving through the famous West Bank (of the River Jordan).  The West Bank was under Ottoman rule for 400 years until World War I.   Following World War II, the UN allocated the area to the future Arab state for Palestinians.  In the war between Israel and Arab states following the independence of Israel in 1948, the area was captured by Jordan.  From 1948 to 1967, it was under Jordanian rule.  Then it was captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. 

It is complicated history.  Will it become part of the Palestinian State, if and when it becomes independent?  Who knows? 

We stopped at the place where people believe Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.  The river is quite narrow, no more than 20 meters wide.  Perhaps even less.  It separates present day Israel and Jordan.  The west side of the river belongs to Israel, and the east side, Jordan.   It looked like I could easily wade or swim across to the other side.   But I didn’t try.  I didn’t have the visa for entering Jordan. 

The border is sensitive area.  We had to pass through picket fences and a check point to get to the baptismal site.  The site had actually been closed for a long time, and was re-opened only a week before we got there. 

Much of the land on this side of the river is wilderness and desert.  There is very little water besides the River Jordan, and the land is dry and infertile.  John the Baptist was said to have been living in this area.  It must have been a difficult life. 

When I was about to leave, a soldier (Jordanian, I believe) came to the opposite (Jordanian) bank and seemed to be just looking around. 

Within a minute or two, a soldier (Israeli, I believe) came down our (Israeli) side and began to take pictures.   They were looking at each other, peacefully, more like tourists than soldiers.  Amazing.  When will this become the norm rather than the exception, between Israel and all the Arab countries?  Israelis want this area as historical Samaria and Judea.  Palestinians want this area as their own ancestral homeland.  How can this be resolved? 

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Golan Heights

We drove up the Golan Heights to see the northern edge of the land of Israel.  The plateau is strategically very valuable to Israel.  It overlooks the plans of Galilee, provides a significant amount of water to Israel, and is the source of a large portion of Israel’s agricultural output.  Immediately after the  Second World War, it became a part of Syria.   Israel captured most of it in the 1967 Six-Day War, and has been keeping it since then. 

We started at the southern end of the Sea of Galilee, and had to drive up steep, winding roads to get to the Golan Heights.  For the first part of the drive, we were skirting the border with Jordan. There were fences and guard-posts everywhere.  At some points, we could see Jordanian villages in the distance across the valley.

Once we got on the plateau, the land became relatively flat.  There were cows, fertile green fields, bee-hives, milk trucks, ...  It looked quite peaceful, in fact. 

Along the way, we passed a road sign pointing to a place named Bashan.   This whole region was in fact called Bashan in Old Testament times.  When Joshua led the Israel people into the land Canaan, they passed through here and two tribes started to settle down.  Many battles were also fought here with the Amorites when they settled in the Promised Land.  At one point, the Israelite defeated a king Og of Bashan.

We made a stop at an observation point very close to the border with Syria.  We could actually see some Syrian flags in the distance, across green fields, lines of trees and villages. Can you pick out the Syrian flag (to the left of center of the photo)?

We then drove to the northern border to see the land originally assigned to the tribe of Dan.  Here, we are almost at the extreme north of the current state of Israel.

Among the ruins, archeologists have found city gates, houses, and an altar.  It was believed this could have been one of the altars set up by the northern kingdom of Israel after the death of King Solomon.  A golden cow was installed in the altar for the people to worship, to prevent them from travelling to worship at the Temple at Jerusalem, which belonged to the kingdom of Judah.  It was worship of idols such as these, and other sins, which incurred the wrath of God, and caused the destruction of both kingdoms. 

Just a little beyond the ruins is again Syria.  

No one knows where and who are the descendants of Dan now.  In fact, I was told that no Jew nowadays can trace their roots back to the original 12 tribes.  Thousands of years of wars, exiles, returns, inter-marriages have blurred the lines.  Some are now talking about tracing their lineages through DNA analysis.  Not sure how successful that is.  

Wednesday, August 03, 2011


2,000 years ago, Jesus grew up in Nazareth, a very small town in those days. 

Today, other than a few churches, it is a city of Palestinian Arabs.  

We visited the Church of the Annunciation, said to be the place where the angel Gabriel told Mary that she was going to give birth to Jesus.  

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Great Commission - Mount Arbel?

Some people believe Mount Arbel was where Jesus gave His disciples the Great Commission - “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” 

Mount Arbel is on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, rising gently to the north of Tiberias.  We could see it to our west when we got in a boat and cruised around the Sea of Galilee.  We could also see that it drops off almost vertically on its northern side. 

Later on, when we got to the top of the mountain and walked gingerly (as least I did) towards the edge of the cliffs, the views of the Sea of Galilee and the plains were truly dramatic and impressive.  

What is more important, of course, is the commission itself.  It is from here, or another mountain like this nearby, that Christians spread the good news to all nations.  The process is not yet complete.  But one day it will be.