Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque)

Istanbul has a lot of wonderfully unique architecture, such as the “Blue” Mosque, actually Sultan Ahmed Mosque, which is more than 400 years old.  From the outside, under the winter sun, it looks powerful and austere. 

Inside, however, it is surprisingly brightly colored. Practically all the interior surfaces are covered by colourful tiles: blue, green, pink, red, gold, ... The patterns, particularly those under the main and the 8 secondary domes, are very intricate.  

Islam can sometimes give the impression of being very serious and severe. The view looking up inside the Blue Mosque, however, makes one feel life can be bright and lively - something to enjoy.  

At night, when the lights are turned on. The beauty of the mosque is stunning. It looks mysterious, but also warm.  

There are many faces to Islam. 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Unique Map of Istanbul

My wife and I are flying to Istanbul this evening for an eight-day tour.  And this morning, we received a wonderfully special Christmas gift from our daughter A.  It is a hand-drawn map of Istanbul with its major attractions.  We plan to visit, of course, those famous mosques and palaces such as Hagia Sophia, Topkapi, Sultan Ahmed (Blue Mosque), ...  We also hope to see Taksim Square, the site of so many public events in the history of Turkey: parades, celebrations, demonstrations, protests,   

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Wilfred Lai, memorial

One week after Wilfred’s death, the staff association held a memorial service for him on campus, at lunch time on Friday. Hundreds of people came, dressed in black.  Many wept.  More flowers were placed. More posters appeared on the Democracy Wall, demanding explanations and actions to address issues related to his death. There is a palpable disquiet on campus.   

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Wilfred Lai, RIP (2)

It has been 5 days since Wilfred Lai fall to his death on Friday.  Someone placed the first bunch of flowers there sometime on Saturday.  Then a second one. I placed the third. On Monday morning there were 5. By Wednesday morning there were more than 20. 

Obviously his death is affecting us deeply. Many have wept. More are puzzled. Some are scared. Some are even angry.  

Many come to stand for a moment of silence.  Some are afraid to come close.  More seem oblivious.  How is this going to turn out?  Will we learn from it and change the way we work and the way we treat those whom we work with?  Will he be forgotten soon, as if nothing had happened?

Everything happens for a reason.  Something positive can come out of this tragedy if we are determined that it will, but only if we are determined that it will.  

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Wilfred Lai, RIP

I was having lunch, at the end of a busy week working in Hanoi when a colleague texted me to tell me that Wilfred jumped to his death at the M(ain) Building on campus. It was quite a shock. He has been helping us publicize service-learning projects in the past couple of years. And he has always been smiling and friendly.  The fact that he jumped at the workplace, and that he left a note complaining about pressure at work, made it quite clear why he took his life.  Naturally, there has been a lot of talk around campus about this. 

Some of us placed flowers at the site in memory of him.  He has been working here for 20 years.  He has a lot of friends.  His death also caused many of us to think about our own working life here. 

I do not believe that it is ever worth it to kill myself because of work.  On the other hand, I can understand how sometimes pressure can seem unbearable.  I can only hope that he is now at a better place. And I resolve to do my best to not place undue pressure on people that work with me. In fact, I will work to create an environment in which we can all enjoy working together.  

Thursday, December 05, 2013

The Fall of Saigon

On April 30, 1975, the troops of Communist North Vietnam captured Saigon, toppling the South Vietnam government. At the time, South Vietnam was popped up by the United States. Superficially, the war between North and South Vietnam was widely perceived as a fight between Communist dictatorship and Capitalist democracy.  In reality, there were many interlinking, complicating factors.  One important one was that the South Vietnam government was corrupted to the core, partly by the money poured in by its supporters.  On the other hand, the Americans, despite their superior firepower and technology, could not win a guerrilla war against a people determined to defend their homeland.  These lessons have been repeated many times since, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Somehow, however, the lessons do not seem to result in changed behaviour. 

I went to the building which was the presidential palace at the time when Saigon fell. On the roof of the presidential palace, I could see the front gate that the North Vietnam troops blasted through back in 1975.  

A presidential helicopter sat on the roof, so that the president can walk to the helicopter without getting out of the building.  

There were many other relics such as a mahjong table for the first lady. 

After 1975, Vietnam went through a long period of relative isolation.  In the past 10+ years, however, it has been opening up economically, as evidenced by the high rises in the distance, but still visible from the rooftop of the presidential palace.  Much poverty remain, of course. And we are hoping to find some partners to set up appropriate service-learning projects for our students. 

Monday, December 02, 2013


I have heard and read quite a bit about the war in Vietnam. But after I arrived in Hu Chi Min City yesterday, I realized that I know almost nothing about this city that used to be called Saigon, where the name “Saigon” is still everywhere.  Even the hotel that I am staying in is named “Saigon River Boutique Hotel”.  I came here to give a talk on service-learning to a group of university students. Perhaps more importantly, I came to find suitable partners and locations, to prepare for a service-learning project in Vietnam in summer 2014. 

After working through most of the day, my colleague and I went out to take a walk to the quaint and historical post office. Walking out the front door of the post office, we found the Notre Dame Cathedral to the right.  I was not surprised to find it full for late Sunday afternoon mass.  But I was mildly surprised to find it full of young people.

We could see a small crowd gathered outside the cathedral.  What were they doing there?    I noticed that the crowd was quiet and attentive.  And they were all looking through the open front gate of the sanctuary.  It looked like they were following the mass through the open front gate.  And they were standing next to their motorbikes.  Perhaps this was a way to attend mass without having to park their motorbikes?

Across the street in the park, underneath tall, ancient-looking trees, in the shadow of the cathedral, a bunch of young people were jamming.  A lot more people sat around listening, eating mangos and snacks. We also stood and watched for a while, soaking up the atmosphere.  Saigon is an interesting place. 

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Ping Che (坪輋) Hike (2)

There were many more interesting sights along the route.  In Sheung Shui we went to visit Liu Man Shek Tong (ancestral house) - 廖萬石堂.  Along with the usual implements, there were many plaques commemorating various prominent members of the Liu clan throughout the past several hundred years. One of them in particular caught our attention.  It commemorated a Mr. Liu who graduated from the University of Hong Kong with a Bachelor’s Degree with Second Class (Upper) Honors!  Obviously there were much fewer of them in 1961!

Just before we started climbing up Wa Shan, we encountered this truly “exclusive” parking space outside one of the villages. We wondered how the owner was going to get it off the parking space. 

From a great distance, throughout the trail snaking along the hill tops, we could see an ugly landfill between Ta Kwu Ling (打鼓嶺) and Sha Tau Kok (沙頭角).  That’s probably the infamous North East New Territories (NENT) Landfill, or Ta Kwu King Landfill, where waste was reported to be leaking into nearby rivers recently.   

There were many butterflies, and caterpillars along the way.  This train of 7 caterpillars can be beautiful, or revolting - depending on the observer.  I think they were rather beautiful - from a distance.  

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Ping Che (坪輋) Hike

Last Saturday we hiked from Sheung Shui (上水) to Ping Che.  To be more precise, we started from Sheung Shui MTR station and walked due north along Man Kam To Road (文錦渡路) towards the border.  We passed over Ng Tung River (梧桐河), and turned right at Hung Kiu San Tsuen (紅橋新村) to started climbing and hiking along a series of hills running towards Ping Che in the east.  

We hiked towards Wa Shan (華山) and continued past it.  Yes, there is a Wa Shan in Hong Kong.  It is much much smaller and nothing compared to the grandeur of Hua Shan (華山) in Shaanxi (陝西).  Nevertheless it still offers quite a nice view.  On our right, in the south is the plains of Sheung Shui, Fan Ling (粉嶺) and Kwan Tei (軍地).   

We can also see the San Wai / Tai Ling Firing Range (新圍/大嶺靶場).  We often hear of   announcements over the radio about road closings near the place because of shooting practice. From a distance, it resembles somewhat a landing strip for airplanes.  Upon closer inspection, however, it is, of course, quite different.  

In the distance, across the plain to our left in the north, we could see the high rises of Shenzhen.  The plains on either side of our trail reminded me that, as crowded as Hong Kong is, we still have much land that can be developed.  Why aren’t they?  Mostly it is greed - the desire of the land owners to restrict the supply of land, to push up the prices.  Who cares that most Hong Kong’ers have to slave for decades for the privilege to live in cramped quarters.  

There are few highrises on the Hong Kong side near the border.  What we have in abundance, however, are cargo containers. A particular pile reminded me of a container ship in a big green sea.  A pretty picture?  Or an eyesore and a blight on the land.  

Friday, November 22, 2013

Elite DSS Schools

Many elite schools in Hong Kong have turned into Direct Subsidy Schools (DSS). It gives the schools more freedom in admission, setting school fees, etc.  Some of these schools have taken the opportunity and additional resources to improve the campus, hire more and better teachers, provide more opportunities for their students for experiential learning or other innovative teaching methods.  They get even better.  

However, the increase in school fees discourage students from families with modest incomes from applying to these DSS schools.  Even though the schools may provide scholarships for such students, the reality is that fewer poor students enroll in them.  The result is increased inequality in society.  

I had this impression that many Christian (Protestant) schools have turned DSS, while fewer Catholic schools have done so.  So I did a study based on what I can gather on the Internet.  What I found was that 7 out of 11 (64%) of elite Christian schools have turned DSS, while only 3 out of 14 (21%) of elite Catholic schools have done so.  I might have missed a few, but I believe the data is representative. 

I have also heard that some Catholic schools felt that they have “what it takes” to become DSS, but they decided to remain aided schools (no school fees required) so that children with modest means can also attend. I applaud that idea. I had benefited from this noble quest myself when I was young. I would think that we Christians, particularly, should stand with the poor.  And not to contribute to make the world more unequal.  

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Black Kite (麻鷹) disappointed

The curious black kite that spied on our meeting brought back memories of another kite I encountered back in 2009.  

I was at the typhoon shelter in Chai Wan when I spotted several black kites circling overhead.    

Soon one of them swooped down, likely trying to catch a fish right in the shelter.  But it pulled up short at the last moment, when it discovered that it was just a piece of garbage. So its eye sight was not as keen as I thought. 

They are still majestic in flight. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Black Kite (麻鷹)

A black kite (黑鳶, 麻鷹) coming to visit us on the 17th floor when we were having a meeting yesterday.  Actually three of them landed on the windowsill but only one stayed.  I resisted the urge to whip out my smartphone to take a photo during the meeting.  Fortunately, one of them stayed until the end.  The lighting wasn’t quite right so the photos did not come out very well.  

The kite was about one and half feet from head to tail.  Its wing span is roughly three times its height, about four and a half feet. It is a pretty big bird.  It has very sharp eyes, and seemed quite curious, peeking at us through the window for quite some time.  If I were chairing the meeting, I would have called a halt to study the kite.  It was a rare opportunity to study a kite up close.  

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Government for the rich - proof

Two days ago, a pro-Communist legislator, Mr. Chung 鍾樹根, gave an amazing demonstration of how our government serves the rich.  He said, as reported in multiple newspapers: 我依家知道王維基點解會衰咗喇,原來做個新電視台infrastructure(基建)都要60億,王維基嗰幾十億身家,收皮啦肯定!」 His words translate roughly as:  “I know now why Ricky Wong failed.  One needs 6 billion just to construct a building for a TV station.  Ricky Wong only has several billion in total. He should close up shop.” His actual words were much crasser, making use of expressions from illegal gambling dens - but I do not want to translate them exactly that way.

With these words, one needs no further proof that our government is there to serve the rich.  Even if you have several billion, you still do not qualify to be served.  What hope is there for the rest of us?  

Stranger still is that Mr. Chung belongs to a pro-Communist party ostensibly representing the masses. 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Zhang Xin 張欣 - No “correct” answers

“When I first got there (University of Sussex, UK), I though, ‘there has to be a model answer so these essays we write every week,’ because that is how the Chinese write. I would submit the essay and my tutor ... wasn’t interested at all whether this answer was right or wrong. Only later, I understood this was a way of cultivating your intellectual curiosity. That is still largely missing in Chinese education.”

Many people have been expressing similar thoughts.  This time, however, it was Zhang Xin, property developer, chief executive director Soho China, one of the country’s most influential real estate companies.  Her words appeared in an interview in the Post Magazine, published in South China Morning Post.  

Her words reminded me of what is transpiring in our class rooms this semester in the subject “Information and Internet Ethics: Whose Data Is It Anyway?”  Is Snowden’s releasing alleged illegal collection of personal data by the National Security Agency an attack on USA’s national security?  Is China’s recent 500-repost rumour law an unacceptable restriction of freedom of information?  Is the Hong Kong government’s refusal to grant a free TV license to HKTV an attempt to manipulate the free operation of the market?  Political control of the media?  Black-box operation of the government? ...

We also told our students similar things.  That the point is not to find the “correct” answer.  Rather it is to identify the issues, the relevant principles, and learn to apply the principles.  That there will be a lot of interactions and discussions, to sharpen and test our ideas. 

At the beginning of the semester, we had quite a few students from the Chinese mainland in our class.  Soon all of them dropped out.  We are now left with ~40 Hong Kong students, and a few Korean students.  We were wondering whether the lack of a promise of clear-cut answers and the promise of frequent discussions had something to do with it.  

The current classes and discussions turn out to be quite lively. 

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Government For The Rich

Rarely does a government admit that it serves the rich.  Even though most of them actually do (serve the rich), they would still claim that they serve the people instead.  Our Hong Kong government, however, tells the truth in this particular instance (of the bungled free TV licensing) - that it is there to serve the rich.  

It did not use exactly these words.  But it did say that HKTV was not given the license because it is not as rich as the other two applicants.  It does not matter whether HKTV is more creative, whether it has invested more money, whether it has built a stronger team, whether it has demonstrated the ability to produce better programs.  Our government is saying: if you are richer than the other person, then we are at your service; the other issues are not as important.   

Perhaps our government should be commended for being honest, just this once.  

It is equally ironic that the pro-Communists support a government that declares itself in support of the rich.  Isn’t the Communists supposed to lead the poor exploited workers against the rich capitalists that exploit them?  Perhaps the Communists have lost their way?  Or they are really only interested in grabbing power, any way they can, in the first place? 

Monday, November 04, 2013

Information Ethics and TV licenses (2)

We moved our Information Ethics class to the talk by Ricky Wong of HKTV last Friday so that we can study a number of questions up close.  Such as: Is the government justified in restricting the number of TV licenses?  Is the government justified in refusing to disclose the reason for not awarding a license to HKTV?   Is  this a correct application of the confidentiality principle of the Executive Council? ...  

Just a few days prior to the talk, we had just discussed some of the reasons that governments use to justify control of information, such as: national security, foreign relations, public morality, crime-fighting, commercial reasons, ...  Several weeks earlier, we had discussed the public’s right to know.  In between we have also discussed some of the information technologies involved and the related ethical issues.  

And just when we are ready, a perfect case study presents itself.   

Saturday, November 02, 2013

The Ethics of TV Licenses

Three companies applied for new free TV licenses.  Among the 3, Ricky Wong’s Hong Kong Television Network (HKTV) has done the most work in preparation and was widely expected to be granted one of the licenses.  When the government decided to turn them down, while awarding the other 2, it caused a huge uproar. The furor has continued for 2 weeks now, with no sign of subsiding. The government was reeling, with many officials distancing themselves from the decision. It is not a pretty sight. 

It just happened that I am teaching (together with 3 colleagues) a subject on Information Ethics this semester.  Just 5 days ago, on Monday, I used this incident as a case study in my lecture to illustrate a number of issues.  One point of contention is that our chief executive used the so called “principle of confidentiality” for the Executive Council as an excuse to not explain why HKTV was turned down.  We discussed in class whether this was a justifiable reason for withholding information from the public.  

Then we discovered that our student union had invited Ricky Wong to come to speak to the students this evening (Friday), at the exact time when we were supposed to have a tutorial.  This presented a fantastic opportunity for us to listen to one of the major protagonists.  So we cancelled our tutorial class - actually we moved the class to Logo Square, where the talk was to be held.  

The place was packed with people, mostly students.  One of the students in our class, a Korean, actually asked him a question.  I wanted to tell Ricky Wong that between his company and the government, they provided us a great lesson in Information Ethics, and civic engagement.  But I didn’t get a chance. 

My wife found me in a photograph that appeared in the Apply Daily web site.  Such a thing is not always an honour - at least in the opinion of my daughter A.  But this time I do not mind.