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March 2004

Walk the Walk

Good stuff from Fumier on the vexed problem of the way people walk in Hong Kong. We all know that we have some of the crowded places on the planet in this city, and at times it seems like everyone else is conspiring to make life even more uncomfortable by getting in the way wherever you want to walk. My theory is that there are strong similarities with driving - we all know that it only takes one driver going slowly, hesitating too much, or going in the wrong lane to bring traffic to a halt. In some ways it is even worse with walking, because no-one needs to pass a test before walking through a busy shopping centre, and it is much easier (and less dangerous) to get distracted.

One of the keys to being a good driver is anticipation, both of what you need to do and what others are likely to do. Yet when we are walking it is much more difficult to anticipate what other people might do, because there are so many more alternatives. You can stop suddenly - to look in a shop window or to answer your mobile phone - turn either left or right, or speed up or slow down with no warning. There is also no concept of a slow lane or an overtaking lane, so you just have to take your chances. As Fumier says:

People walk around in Hong Kong as if they are walking through an empty field; as if they cannot see or conceive of those large moving objects we call other people, even when they are on a collision course. They will cut through corners, or walk out of a doorway, in a busy area without, it seems, even considering the possibility that there might be another person coming around the corner or along the space they are entering. Why also, when a Hong Kong pedestrian sees his or her target doorway, he makes a beeline for it regardless of anyone between him and it, when he cannot manage to walk in a straight line at any other time to save his life, will always baffle me.

If you drove like that you'd soon have a smashed-up car and probably end up in hospital. Perhaps that's one of the problems - so few people in Hong Kong do drive.

Large groups are a menace because they don't know where they are going and usually some of the people will be talking to each other rather than looking where they are going. People who talking on their mobile phones are unpredictable, apparently suffering from the same problem as President Gerald Ford (who was accused of being unable to walk and chew gum at the same time).

Fumier has one piece of good advice, which is that if you know where you are going and especially if you appear to be large, people will get out of your way. The other recommendation (which comes from my wife) is to to stop getting so worked up about all of this and just accept it as one of the minor frustrations of life in Hong Kong. Or always carry a large umbrella (or other pointed object)...


Surveys

The Reader's Digest survey quoted by Conrad (below) is just another example of one of the most common ways that PR people manage to get stories into newspapers. I guess they're cheap - according to the SCMP, only 200 people in Hong Kong were questioned for this survey, which hardly makes it scientific. The journalist has an easy job re-writing the material provided in the press kit, and in return he simply has to give a few name checks to the magazine or organization that planted the story.

Sex surveys always do well, but the subject doesn't matter too much as long as there is some sort of "angle" for the story. Hong Kong is always a sucker for obscure right-wing organizations that bestow awards for economic freedom, usually to cartel-dominated Hong Kong or the socialist republic of Singapore.

Actually, I'm amazed that the Reader's Digest is still in business. My mother used to subscribe, and of course it used to be a favourite in doctors and dentists waiting room, so I have read it (but not recently), and I suppose it's a handy size to carry around. I would have thought that their biggest problem would be that newspapers (at least in the UK and US) have become so large, especially at weekends, that you scarcely need another general interest magazine. My guess is that most of their readers are fairly elderly.

In the UK, the Reader's Digest organization is famous for its heavy reliance on direct mail, almost invariably accompanied by a lucky draw. Their promotional material is usually quite substantial, and entertaining in a bizarre sort of way, with all manner of different pieces of paper, a selection of different coloured stickers to denote what bonus you may have won, and goodness knows what else. Their objective is to get you to return the form, so that they can send you the book they are promoting, in the hope that you will keep it (and therefore have to pay for it). Needless to say, consumer organizations have done their best to protect consumers from their own stupidity, and I guess that hasn't been good for business.


Too cynical by half

Conrad reacts with disbelief to a survey in the Reader's Digest that says 4 out of 5 Hong Kong people would return a wallet to its owner if they found it, and goes on to say that:

No one in the entire recorded history of Hong Kong has ever returned any found item, as anyone who has left a mobile phone in a local taxi can attest. The local attitude towards found property is that it's "lucky". The idea of voluntarily giving it up would never even occur to most Honkies.

I can assure you that this is not true. I once managed to drop my wallet in a cab when getting out, realized this as the cab pulled away but couldn't catch him. Fortunately, someone found my wallet, called my office and suggested I come and pick it up. The only bad news was that I had already told the bank and they had put a stop on the cards, and it took a few days before I could get replacements. The lady (a property agent, as I recall) only very reluctantly accepted the small reward I offered.

Then I left my mobile phone in a cab, and was most surprised to find that when I called my number, not only did the driver answer but he actually drove back to my apartment to deliver it - and totally refused to accept any reward. On another occasion, I had my phone returned after I lost it whilst in the Harbour Plaza Hung Hom.

To be fair, I did lose another phone in another cab and that one disappeared. Since then I've been trying to avoid losing my phone and wallet, with considerable success.

For my part, only last week I found a wallet on the ground outside the adjoining block and gave it to the security guard. He seemed rather put out by this, and I eventually realized that he wanted me to count the money and the cards in the wallet to prove that nothing had gone missing whilst it was in his possession. Which, I suppose, is fair enough.

So, Conrad, I think that on this occasion your cynicism is misplaced. I always thought that subscribers to the Reader's Digest were trusting souls, but presumably Conrad is the exception.


Blogs by humans, ads by robots

I love these ads that some people have on their blog. Giles at Sweet Chariots has "Exclusive Insider Intelligence Analysis by Israeli Experts" and "Latest Israeli and Jewish News Worldwide", plus searches for "hamas" and "hong kong radio". I assume this "ad by Google" was prompted by his article about the new leader of Hamas.  Targeted advertising - never fails. 

Business Week, meanwhile has a piece about the EU battle with Microsoft, accompanied by an ad for, yes, Microsoft


Tunnel Vision

I jumped in the cab, told the driver (in Cantonese) where I wanted to go, he repeated it and I responded with "Ho Ho" to confirm.  So far, so good. 

Then he asked me a question!  Help!!  I grunted something to indicate I didn't have any idea what he was talking about, he repeated what he had just said, and I figured out that he was checking that I wanted to go through the Shing Mun tunnel.  Funny question really, since the alternative would be a significant diversion, probably taking twice as long and costing twice as much.  However, it seems that some (normally older) taxi drivers feel obliged to check that you are willing to pay the toll to go through the tunnel, even though it's only a few dollars.

It's totally my fault, of course.  If I had made a bit more effort to learn Cantonese then simple exchanges such as this one would be no problem at all (or "mouh mahntaih" as we say).  I had the same problem with French - people seem to have this irritating habit of asking questions or saying other things you don't expect, rather than just understanding what you have asked and giving the scripted response.  That's why I normally stick to the normal British approach of talking in English and expecting people to understand.  Which reminds me of a marvellous letter in last week's Sunday Morning Post from a reader who was frustrated by the limited English of many shop assistants in Hong Kong.  Disgraceful, I call it - as we know, shop assistants in London are fluent in at least three European languages...

Back to the taxi problem, it is something I've come across before in equally puzzling circumstances.  I wanted to go from Kowloon to the New Territories, and jumped in a taxi outside Diamond Hill MTR station, which is almost next to the Tate's Cairn Tunnel, gateway to the New Territories.  So what did the taxi driver ask me?  Yes, indeed, he was keen to know whether I wanted to use the tunnel.  Well, yes, actually, I did.  Anyway, the good news is that I now know the Cantonese for "Tate's Cairn Tunnel" - and it has nothing to do with Tate or Cairn, whoever they may be.

I have to say that one of the best things about Hong Kong is that the taxi drivers are generally very good and fares are not expensive - in fact, I reckon this is the best city in Asia as far as cabs are concerned.  Taxi drivers in Bangkok never seem to have change, and just can't seem to resist the temptation to rip you off - I had a very frustrating time last time I was there on business, turning down "special offers" in favour of using the meter, and refusing to pay a premium for using the highway - and Manila seems to have a similar problem.  Singapore, on the other hand, seems to suffer from an acute shortage of taxis.  As for China, the less said the better, I think.

In London, black cabs are only readily available in the centre of town, and they are much more expensive than Hong Kong.  Fortunately, fares in other major cities, such as Birmingham and Manchester, are more reasonable.          

So I think I'll settle for Hong Kong taxis, even if the drivers do sometimes ask you strange questions!


Showing his true colours

George Adams claims that his stupid website is in favour of press freedom and against censorship. Except, it seems, when China blocks access to some blogs (in case you missed the story, Typepad blogs such as this one are currently blocked in China):

From QQ in Peking

China’s on-line community breathed a sigh of relief today as the communist government announced that it would block access to blogs published using the TypePad and blogs.com systems until further notice.“This is in line with president Hu Jintao’s ‘people first’ policy,” said a Xinhua spokeswoman, noting that the excruciatingly boring output of bloggers was deterring people from using the Internet, and adding that she only ever looked at NTSCMP.

Student Zhou Guo-an expressed her approval of the measure.“I love surfing the net to practice my English,” she said, “but I keep finding these terrible columns by really dull people, going on about their pets and their families, or cutting and pasting things I've already read in the newspapers and making childish comments about them. President Hu is a great man for protecting us from this tedious tide of trash,” adds Ms Zhou, who plans to become an advertising copywriter and has been reading NTSCMP since the 1990s.

A visit to the Great Wall Cyber Café, revealed that some dire blogs are still getting through. Within 10 minutes QQ encountered a bizarre piece by Big White Guy, expressing shock that a spastics association would use the word ‘spastics’. “ When you try to close the window,” said Mr Deng, the dwarfish, chain-smoking proprietor, “you have to expect some flies to still get in."

Is it possible to be more idiotic than this? The other aspect of this is that George's argument is that blogs are silly, pointless, things. True enough, of course, but most bloggers are honest enough to admit this rather than pretending that what they are doing is important and worthy, as George does with NTSCMP. However, there can be no argument that many blogs (particularly about and from China) contain informative and incisive commentary on what is happening in the PRC. Some of it is wrong and misguided, of course, but it is certainly constitiutes freedom of expression. Something that the government of the PRC and Mr George Adams obviously find unsettling.


Use it or lose it

Another slightly puzzling story about Hong Kong business. And guess what - it involves a Li Ka Shing company!

A long time ago, there was a mobile phone operator (whose name escapes me) offering services on the TDMA network. Eventually they sold the business to Hong Kong Telecom CSL, who rebranded it as 1+1 and then seemingly forgot about it. Even if you had been into a CSL shop in the last 2-3 years, you would probably still never have known this network existed.

Around the same time, Hutchison Telecom had a CDMA network (with a funny name that I have also forgotten) that never really took off. Like CSL they acquired a PCS network and started offering dual-band phones (using the Orange brand name), and the CDMA network was left high and dry.

Now the Office of the Telecommunications Authority (Ofta) is planning to revoke both these licences and re-advertise them. Hutchison and CSL (now owned by Telstra) are complaining:

Hutchison Telecom senior legal counsel Oswald Kwok said Ofta needed to consider how its decision would impact on local and overseas investors. Hutchison said yesterday that its legal team was prepared to fight for the licence. Kwok said if Ofta unilaterally revoked an operating licence, the move would only scare off prospective investors, ultimately defeating the government's aim of developing Hong Kong into the region's mobile services hub.

``I don't think Ofta has given any consideration as to whether it has given investors a fair chance to break even on their investment,'' Kwok said. Managing director Agnes Nardi said Hutchison's CDMA network has cost the company about HK$1 billion.

On Tuesday, CSL chief executive Hubert Ng said Ofta did not have the right to stop his company from using the 800 MHz frequency, the band on which both TDMA and CDMA operate.

Hutchison has allowed subscriber numbers on its CDMA network to fall to about 40,000 (compared to 280,000 in 2000), and CSL's TDMA network now has only 30,000 subscribers.

Ofta, reasonably enough, thinks that it would make more sense to use this part of the radio spectrum for newer 3G services. So, rather than extend the licences when they expire next year it has announced that it plans to revoke them. Why are CSL and Hutchison upset? Presumably because this move may allow another operator into the market to compete with them.

What they need to remember is that if they were still actively marketing these services and had more than a handful of subscribers the licences would almost certainly have been renewed (as will happen with the existing GSM & PCS licences). They brought this upon themselves, and no amount of incoherent babbling about this "setting a bad precedent" will make any difference. Typical of so many Hong Kong companies, I'm afraid.


Everyday Stranger

I am amazed that some people manage to read so many blogs. No criticism of anyone else intended here, but I don't spend my time at work reading blogs or updating this one (except for the very rare occasions when I post before I start work, and the odd comment or two here and there). When I get home, I don't want to spend every evening in front of the computer, and obviously it takes time to write this rubbish.

So, as a result, there are several blogs that I look at only very rarely, and one or two that I really should make more effort to read regularly. One is the astonishing Everyday Stranger. When I last read it, Helen was not having a good time, and in truth I found it a little uncomfortable to read about the breakup of her marriage and other problems. Now she is separated and has moved to London, where she has a 'dream job' and a boyfriend, and life is good.

She writes very well, which certainly helps, but you can't help feeling happy for her that things seem to be finally working out well. The only problem I have is that I am amazed that anyone should write so openly about their life, and as a result the cynic in me can't get rid of the nagging doubt that perhaps it isn't all true. Ignore me, though, and read this blog - it's fascinating stuff.


The Gweilo whinge

p6 of Spike - "Expat TV": a list of made-up TV programs, having fun at the expense of local TV and whingeing gweilos.

p8 of Spike - regular column by whingeing gweilo Liam Fitzpatrick.  Past subjects have included pollution, the state of the harbour shoreline, Chinese New Year, rudeness, queues, shotcrete and film censorship.  You get the idea.

This week's is a classic, though, being a wistful piece about the imminent closure of Bottoms Up, a long-established (i.e. rundown) girlie bar in TST that once featured in a Bond film. Fitzpatrick notes that business has not been good for several years, but seems surprised that this should lead to the bar's closure.  Without a hint of irony, he notes that it is a perennial favourite for journalists looking to fill up column inches.  Er, yes.    

The really odd thing is that he seems to be deadly serious.  He apparently believes that it is actually important that a tatty bar in Tsim Sha Tsui should be preserved for the benefit of the few remaining regulars, a scattering of tourists, and feature writers in search of a colour story.

Talking of whingeing gweilos reminds me of someone I used to know who always had something to complain about.  He was (in true Hemlock style) the token gweilo in the Hong Kong office of a British-owned business, and everyday he had his lunch in the coffee shop of a nearby 5 star hotel.  The company provided him with a house in Hong Lok Yuen, a company car, etc, etc.  Not bad, you might think, but he complained that because the company provided the house he had missed the opportunity to buy property and benefit from rising prices!  Go figure.

He also some weird ideas about the reluctance of Park n Shop to stock some products because they were "too popular", and warned me at the start of a typical Cantonese ten-course banquet that we'd probably leave still feeling hungry and need to visit McDonalds afterwards.  I certainly didn't.

I have to admit that I have been in Bottoms Up once, several years ago when a manager came from the UK office and insisted on being taken out on the town, and even then it seemed seedy and rundown.  The next evening we went to another expat favourite that has since closed down, Harry Ramsden's in Wan Chai.  I wonder if Liam Fitzpatrick wrote a eulogy for that? 

Next week's Expat TV:

11.30 pm - midnight  Make Mine A Double

A group of pissed hacks explain the cultural significance of Bottoms Up, the girlie bar in Tsim Sha Tsui that is about to close down, and argue that it is a more important part of Hong Kong's heritage than the Stanley Police Station, Wedding Card Street or any of those boring old temples.  Hic!