Friday, July 27, 2012

Trees in the typhoon

Thousands of trees were destroyed by typhoon Vincente, which caused the strongest typhoon signal, no. 10, to be issued for the first time since 1999.   One tree near our place had its main trunk snapped into two, while the base of the tree was still firmly rooted to the soil.  The wind was just too strong, or the tree itself was not strong enough to withstand such great force.  There probably isn’t very much that can be done about that.

Another one nearby, however, was uprooted.  Its roots simply could not hold on to the soil under such great force.  Perhaps its roots were not given enough room to to grow, to secure a grip strong enough to withstand a typhoon at signal 10 strength?

It is well known that a healthy ree needs roots that mimic the shape of the crown.  A tree with a broad high crown has broad, deep roots.  Most of the trees in the urban areas in Hong Kong, unfortunately, do not have that luxury.  Most are forced to grow in shallow and narrow pits, which are only a fraction of the size of their crowns.  Often concrete is poured over their roots, so that it is hard for them to obtain the air, water, and nutrients that they need.   It can be said that we have been abusing our trees all along.  Many of them are tenacious enough to survive such abuse.  But it does not mean that it is right.

When will we stop doing that?

Kampong Kleang Fisherman

This man, not surprisingly, is a fisherman.  His is 40, and his wife is 39.  They have 9 children, and these two are the youngest ones.  I like children.  So I picked up this boy and held him.  He didn’t cry - he was too young to be afraid of strangers.  But then I realized that he had neither pants, nor diapers.

During the dry season, they cannot fish on the lake.  They can only set traps in the muddy river to catch small fish, which is basically all that they eat.  There were many elaborate traps set in the little river, and traps of many different sizes and shapes.

There were about 7 of us for lunch that afternoon.  We shared a small plate of small fried fish.  There were more than 10 of them, most no more than 5 inches long.  Each of us had a dish of rice.  We would tear off a small slice of fish and eat it together with a lump of rice.  The fish, even though they were quite small, were actually quite tasty.  Or perhaps I was just hungry. 

After taking several bites, I noticed that the slice of fish that I tore off was quite a bit bigger than what they were taking.  I was embarrassed, and tried sheepishly to adjust quickly.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Life at Kampong Kleang

In dry season, people here live highly - the houses sit very high above the ground.  For many houses, one has to climb two flights of stairs to reach the house - this girl is on the second flight and almost home.

For people like me who has vertigo, it is quite a challenge.  Climbing up the first time was a bit scary.  Fortunately, I got used to it quickly.

Once you get up there, however, the view is quite nice, particularly if you get to sway in a hammock, with a fan in your hands.  There is no electricity, so there are no electric fans.  Of course, there is no air conditioning.

There is also no running water.  People pump water from the muddy pools for washing.   I forgot to ask where they got the water for cooking and drinking.  I brought my own water that day.

“Floating” School at Kampong Kleang

Last year, we saw a floating school on Tonle Sap Lake, to cater to the children of the fishermen who live in the floating villages on the lake.  It took us a while to track it down.  It turned out there are three of them, operated by the Catholic Church.  This year, we managed to send one team each to Chong Khnies and Kampong Kleang.  During the raining season, starting from June until perhaps October, the water level in Tonle Sap is very high, and the lake is much bigger.  The floating school at Kampong Kleang is indeed afloat, just like the one at Chong Khnies.

When we got there at the end of May this year, however, the rainy season had barely started.  The water level was very low, and the lake had shrunk tremendously.  The boat was stranded and unreachable.  So the church rented the grounds underneath a house in a village for the lessons.

The houses have to be built on stilts, so that when the high water comes, they can hope to remain above water.  My estimate was that the houses were at least 20 feet above the water at the time.  Even then, the houses are often flooded in the rainy season.

There were normally ~20 kids there for the Khmer language classes.  As soon as the kids around heard that there are visitors, however, suddenly we were flooded with 100 screaming kids.  We had 15 university students from Hong Kong, plus 4 Cambodian college students as translators, and we came prepared, so we were OK, even though it was a bit chaotic at times.

To give them more incentives to stay in school, the church fed them lunch.  It was congee with rice, vegetables and pig’s blood.  It was simple, but it did look appetizing, and the kids loved it.  Some of them even took the leftovers home.

These kids have never seen computers before - they don’t even attend the government schools.  But we were able to engage them with stop-motion animation.  The iPADs are really great.  The kids learnt to use them to take photographs and run the animation program much more quickly compared with notebook computers. There were no electricity.  So we had to rely on batteries.  It was also extremely hot.  The grounds were just dirt and uneven.  There were no toilets.  The environment was challenging, to say the least.  But the students were great.  No one complained.  They all worked hard.  Everyone had a good time. 

We could spend only one day there, effectively only about 4 hours for the lessons.  How much could we have achieved?  Probably not much in terms of knowledge transferred.  But we hope we have shown them that computers can be fun, that computers are not necessarily very difficult to learn, that learning can be fun, and it is worth it to stay in school.  We do what we can.

Sunday, July 22, 2012


A tuk-tuk idling under the street light in a summer evening in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Public Examination - Hong Kong style

Many people said the questions in the Chinese subject in the inaugural Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) examination were much too difficult.  A colleague then asked me to read the two articles in the examination paper on reading and comprehension to see if I agree.  One article was written some 2,500 years ago, in the classical style, about the importance of rewards and punishments in the rule of law.  The other was a modern prose written in 2008, about events in Communist mainland China.

Because of personal interest and fairly extensive reading, I believe my ability in reading Chinese is significantly above average among the population of Hong Kong.  I found the classical article clear and concise overall, but quite difficult to understand fully in all details.  The modern one was mediocre in writing quality and almost equally hard to understand, but for different reasons. 

I could understand what the classical article was saying.  But I was not 100% sure about the meaning of certain words and expressions, because they had become uncommon today.  Many of the 18-year old students would find them quite hard, particularly when they were under pressure in the examination. 

The supposedly modern article, on the other hand, was simply not very good.  It covered several events spanning half a century, stretching from the 1950s to the 2000s.  Yet it failed to make very clear when each event took place.  There were also many cliches: poor living conditions in Hong Kong, bias against mainlanders, sufferings of new immigrants, people living on old pig farms, spiritual emptiness of life in Hong Kong, etc.  It turned out it was written by someone who worked for a pro-communist newspaper - sad but no surprises there, this being post-1997 Hong Kong.  I could understand very well what the author was trying to say, because of my age and personal interest in modern China.  But I can imagine an 18-year old having difficulty understanding events such as the return of many overseas Chinese to China after the Second World War, their disillusionment from the Cultural Revolution, reasons for their crossing back and forth on the LoWu Bridge between Hong Kong and China, etc. 

What is the point of making today’s 18-year olds learn to read poorly-written articles full of cliches, and hard-to-understand 2,500 year old articles which bear little resemblance to reading materials relevant to today’s society?

What do they think they are doing at the Examination Authority?  Is this simply another example of “examination for examination’s sake?  Is this why (I heard) that a student can get a pass in certain subjects in the open examinations in Hong Kong with less than 20% of the answers correct - because the questions are set so be unreasonably difficult?

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Alarming abuse of statistics

"A child who gets fewer than 400 dollars a month for pocket money is more likely to become depressed."  This was the headline that was screaming from several local Chinese newspapers yesterday.  That was one of the conclusions of a survey conducted by an organization providing rehabilitation service.  I am sure they do a lot of good work.  But this conclusion is rather dubious. 

My wife and I tried to determine what the survey actually studied and concluded.  There weren’t much details.  But we did find out that they surveyed 1,290 students from 5 secondary schools and 1 primary school; the students ranging from 6 to 29 years old,.  A 29-year-old student?  That’s rather odd to start with, isn’t it?

So what exactly is the deal about the 400 dollar pocket money?  According to their honorary advisor, a pharmacist, those who get fewer than 400 dollars a month has a 5% higher risk of being depressed, compared with those who gets more than 400 dollars?

Wait a minute.  Is a 5% difference statistically significant?  There was no answer to that question.

And, what does it mean to have 400 dollars for pocket money?  Does it cover only snacks?  How about lunch and transportation?  What about stationery and other supplies?  It is quite a bit of money for most primary school children, particularly primary 1 and 2.  But certainly not as much for secondary 5 and 6.  Have these been taken into consideration?  We couldn’t find any hint from the reports. Neither could we find the actual report itself, even from the organization’s web site.  It does not seem to have been considered.  Given all these uncertainties, is the 5% difference still a valid observation?  

A doctor at the press release did say that more studies were needed on the relationship between pocket money and depression and that a smaller amount of pocket money did not necessarily lead to depression, presumably because there had not been sufficient data so far.  But this was exactly what the headlines were screaming.  So who was to blame for such an inflammatory finding?  The researchers for a poorly designed study and a falsely made conclusion?  Reporters and editors for generating unsubstantiated but inflammatory headlines?  

What I know for sure is that parents who are already hard-pressed do not need further pressure to give their children more money, particularly for those parents who cannot afford it.   What they need is better information and support. 

This is just more evidence that probability and statistics should be a compulsory subject, particularly for all “professional” disciplines.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Lies and Liars - Nationalist Education

The Hong Kong government realized that the Hong Kong people do not have a favourable view of the Communist government on the mainland.   It decided to create a new subject to compel students to study nationalist education, to promote a more positive image of the mainland.  It then gave more than 10 million dollars to a number of pro-Communist organizations to produce teaching material blatantly biased in favour of the Communist government. 

When these material were distributed to the schools, it caused an uproar among teachers and citizens.  Even the newly minted minister of education was forced to admit that the material were biased and not suitable.  He was applauded by some, cautiously, for taking a courageous stand for truth.

It turned out, of course, that optimism was misplaced.  The powerful and well-connected pro-Communist machines fought back and criticized the minister.  The minister realized that, even though he was the minister, he was not free to speak the truth.  By standing on the side of truth, he was offending the ones who hold political power.  He retreated hastily, saying that such material is OK.  He is also much cooler towards the students who want to discuss the matter with him openly.

It is extremely repugnant and distressing that my tax money is now being used to indoctrinate my own children, with false views that I do not hold, by a bunch of people who are otherwise unqualified except for where they stand - on the side of the powerful establishment.

But we should not be surprised to see this happening. 

I believe it was Chris, Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong, who said something to this effect: It is not the Communist on the mainland who will destroy freedom in Hong Kong.  It is those people in Hong Kong, who will try to curry favour from the mainland, who will be damaging the freedom in Hong Kong.  This is exactly what has been happening in Hong Kong since 1997.  And it is still playing out in front of our eyes. 

I have not been able to verify this.  Apologies to Chris Patten if I remember wrongly. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Gini Coefficient

The Gini coefficient is a measurement of inequality in income in a country.  It ranges from 0 (best) to 1 (worst).  The chart, published in the SCMP based on HK government data recently, tells us a major part of the reason why so many people in Hong are so unhappy.  Simply put, the gap between the rich and the poor in Hong Kong is getting worst over the years.  And the degree of inequality, at 0.537, is actually among the worst in the world.

The HK government data is very close to the CIA data, which puts HK at 0.533.   According to the CIA, we are comparable to Thailand at 0.536, Paraguay at 0.532, Mexico at 0.517.  But we don’t normally compare ourselves with these countries, do we?

How about countries that we do want to compare ourselves with?   In comparison, Canada is 0.321, Australia is 0.305, UK is 0.340, USA is 0.450, and Singapore is 0.478.   We are very far behind countries that we aspire to compare ourselves with. 

We can surely afford to distribute income and wealth more equally.  Why don’t we do that?  The wealthy and powerful - by being so greedy and selfish in hoarding wealth - are generating and fermenting discontent in society, which will eventually destabilize society.  Don’t they realize that?

Monday, July 02, 2012

July 1 March

How many people actually participated in the march?  Probably nobody knows for sure.  But there were surely a lot of people.  We went to Victoria Park just after 3 PM, and found a way into the middle of the football fields.  We didn’t manage to get out of Victoria Park until 5 PM, after toasting under the sun for 2 hours. All the time, we were hearing that progress of the march was slow, because there were so many people, and that the police refused to open up more of the lanes.

As soon as we got out of the park and spilled onto Causeway Road, I saw what the organizers meant. Row after rows of police were blocking off much of Causeway Road, for no obvious reason.  Traffic has stopped completely on Causeway Road.  Trams, buses, etc., were not moving.  So what was the point of blocking off huge sections of the road? 

Many of the marchers were complaining that the police were trying to make it difficult for the marchers, to frustrate them, to make them suffer under the sun, to discourage people from participating, or to persevere. Many of the police officers were probably just following orders.  The decision to suppress dissent, such as the harassment of students and reporters, comes from the top.  Many of the slogans and signs reflect that sentiment. 

At one point, some marchers broke through the police cordon and marched down the tram lanes in the middle of the road, previously blocked off.  There were no violence.  There were simply too many marchers for the police cordon to try to hold back.  Therein lies the most important lesson in nonviolent civic disobedience.  When enough people decide to disobey the government, even the most oppressive, militarily powerful tyrant will fall.  Some of the slogans attest to that fact - that each of us is not alone, that there are many “Is” before me, and many more “Is” behind. 

Each of us represent ourselves only, ultimately.  But enough of us are feeling strongly about the dishonesty of the politicians, the lack of progress in democracy, the dominance of big real estate developers, the suppression of dissent, the lack of care for the underprivileged, and of course, the death of Li Wang-Yang - that hundreds of thousands of people are coming out on the street to protest.   The government cannot ignore this.  It is a credit to the people of Hong Kong that we are insisting on protesting peacefully. 

We love Hong Kong.  We also love China.  We just do not want to be ruled by the Communist Party.  That’s quite clear. 

“If I do not stand up today, I may not be able to stand tomorrow (even if I want to)”.  How true is that? There is a strong feeling that the room for dissenting voices have shrunk in Hong Kong since 1997.  If we keep quiet, it will just get worst.  Freedom will not be given to us, we have to earn it the hard way.

We didn’t arrive at the brand new government headquarters at Admiralty until 8 PM.  People kept arriving, and there weren’t much space there, so we turned to leave, to make room for the late-comers.  Just when we were leaving, however, we were startled by very loud “bang”s.  Fortunately, it was only the fireworks starting.  So, for the first time in many years, we watched the fireworks on the street.  I found that some of the images resembled images of galaxies of outer space.  They were really good.

Amid all the fireworks, some shouted spontaneously and repeatedly, “down with Leung Chun-Ying”, “Tsang Yum-Kuen should go to jail”, ...  Such is the depth of anger. 

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Running in the rain

Yesterday (Saturday) morning, after the typhoon passed through Hong Kong, I went running along the Tsim Sha Tsui East Promenade as usual.  It was windy and wet, but it wasn’t raining at first.  After about 10 minutes, however, the rain started again.  Hundreds of tourists cowered under shelters along the promenade. 

The wind must have been coming from the north-east.  When I was running back towards Hong Hom, the wind-blown rain drops stung my face so hard I could barely open my eyes, even with my glasses on.  But it was exhilarating to be splashing defiantly in the rain.  I was reminded of my girls splashing in the rain when they were very young.  We were living in Shatin then.  Whenever it rains, they would put on their colourful rain coats and rubber boots, bring out their little umbrellas, and go splashing in puddles under the rain.  It was a lot of fun. 

It is also a kind of training.  It feels good to know that one can face a little adversity: the tiredness and exhaustion; getting wet and in fact, soaked by the rain; being stung a little by the rain drops; risking getting a cold; ...   These physical challenges are nothing compared to the pressure, indeed oppression imposed by tyrannical powers all over the world.  We need the courage to stand up, to be willing to pay the price, to say that they are wrong, that we will not acquiesce to it.