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July 2004

Home sweet home

Shaky is in the UK for a few days, and seems to have the same rather ambivalent feelings about being there that I do. There's more to watch on TV, people speak a language you understand, working hours are shorter, the weather is good (er, hang on...). However:

then there’s the news.

It’s full of murder,murder, murder, murder, murder, murder, shootings, theft, animal cruelty and police in the playground. What the fuck is going on?!

My mate told me about the run-ins he’s had over the last few months, just walking home. A bloke having a go at him and his girlfriend for their interracial relationship, and a gang of kids giving him abuse, having a go, and actually coming into his apartment complex.

Hong Kong is still a much safer place than London, though I have to say that when I lived there I had remarkably little trouble. Yesterday's newspapers report that crime here has hit a "nine-year high" at about 1.3 crimes per 100 people. The comparable figure for the UK seems to be over 20 crimes per 100 people. Assuming those figures are correct (and comparable), that's a big difference!

There are certainly a few things I miss about the UK. Just as an example, being able to go into a supermarket and buy decent fruit and vegetables! Oh, and cheese, of course. Not exactly homesick, but sometimes I miss things about life back in the UK, and obviously I miss my family and friends over there. Anyway, I have no plans to go back to the UK, but since I had no plans to come to Hong Kong but ended up here anyway I suppose that doesn't mean anything. Certainly I don't have strong negative feeling about my home country, as seems to be the case with some expats.

Someone who is leaving Hong Kong, and probably heading back to Europe, is Eshin. Seems that things didn't really work out for him here.


Time and time again

I was amused when Liam Fitzpatrick managed to fill a couple of pages of Spike magazine with the gripping story of his long association with 'Bottoms Up' in TST and the terribly sad news that they have closed the place down.

Incredibly, he managed to recycle this material for a special double issue of Time magazine (Asia edition). It's all there - his mother going to pick up his father from the bar after his epic binges, The Man with the Golden Gun, young Liam going for a drink after school, blah, blah, blah.

Incidentally, why does Time magazine publish a double issue at this time of year? Christmas and New Year I can understand, but what's with July?


Flying low

According to Time magazine, the budget airline business in Asia is fairly cut-throat:

Udom Tantiprasongchai, chief executive of Orient Thai Airlines routinely employs a team in his office to go on the Internet and buy up as many of the cheapest tickets on AirAsia flights as they can get, often spending more than $3,500 a day. It's a small price to pay, he argues, to keep the low-price tickets out of the hands of potential AirAsia customers and to foster ill will toward his competitor.

I'm not so sure this is a good strategy. His logic is obviously that if he buys the cheapest tickets real customers will have to pay higher prices, and may not bother if no bargains are available. However, if the demand is there, AirAsia will fill up the plane and make more money. If they were clever they could re-sell the tickets bought by their competitor and make even more money! Also, from a PR point of view it could rebound on Orient Thai if customers know what they are doing to force up prices. Probably not a good idea to tell a journalist, then...

For some reason, The Economist also had a longish piece on budget airlines a couple of weeks ago, focusing more on the European market. The problem is that the UK and Ireland market is saturated, and there are doubts about the size of the opportunities in other countries.

There was also >this strange story, about a travel company that acquired a small airport in the UK, renamed it as West Midlands International Airport and started operating cheap flights. For some reason they seem to be able to do this without needing any planning permission. Local residents are not amused (they never are).

I remain rather unconvinced by Asian budget airlines. Time magazine reckons that the big airlines have lower overheads and so are not so vulnerable to price competition (certainly Cathay and SQ were quick to offer special prices on selected flights), and anyway these prices are not so amazingly low. Who wants to take a ferry to Macau and have all that messing about just to save a few dollars?


Salt of the earth

I found this disclaimer on a packet of sea salt: "This salt does not supply Iodide, a necessary nutrient". Two questions arise from this:

Does salt naturally contain iodide? No
Do most people in Hong Kong need extra iodide? No

Iodide is added to most salt that you buy, and has been for a very long time. The warning on the salt I bought is apparently mandatory in the United States. However, for most people with a reasonable diet, there is no need for extra iodine because it occurs naturally in fish, some vegetables and some meat. The bad news is that insufficient iodide consumption by mothers and children is the leading preventable cause of mental retardation (more here).

For people with very poor diets, the iodide added to salt can make a big difference. I read an article some time ago about one very poor part of the world where non-iodized salt was being sold much more cheaply than iodized salt, and this had led to a marked increase in mental retardation in the local population. Unfortunately I can't find the article or remember any more details about it.

The irony here, of course, that people who buy sea salt in a supermarket in the United States (or Hong Kong, or other rich countries) are the ones who get the warning, and are the least likely to need to worry about it.


Green apple tea

In the UK, if you are celebrating something (a birthday, a wedding, leaving the company, David Beckham scoring a penalty, Tony Blair being found to have done nothing wrong after all), it is traditional to buy cakes.

In Hong Kong, we have snacks. French toast, chicken wings, hot dogs, all sorts of junk. Plus drinks. My preference is for green apple tea, but for some mysterious reason it is often not available. When I request it, people look at me as if I am a bit strange, and kindly suggest that perhaps I would like lemon tea instead. Er, no, not really.

Is this an unreasonable request? I don't think so.

Then I paid one of my rare visits to Delifrance (motto: not really very French at all) , and it turns out they have a new set which includes the option of Green Apple Tea. So the next opportunity I had (it's rare treat for those of who work out in the sticks) I rushed along and ordered this set. Needless to say, Green Apple Tea was "off". How predictable. It's a conspiracy, I tell you.


Boss Swap

ATV World are showing the Channel 4 series "Boss Swap" that was aired in the UK at the start of this year. As with "Wife Swap" (not yet shown in Hong Kong), the concept is to find two quite different people and get them to swap lives for a short time. As the name implies, "Boss Swap" takes two bosses and arranges for them to take over each other's companies for two weeks.

ATV have chosen to show the second programme first, presumably because it is the most dramatic. The two bossses are Mike Porritt, who runs a business selling new cars at low prices, and Bruce Burkitt, who runs a small chain of estate agents (a.k.a. property agents or realtors). Mike is a fairly laid back Northerner who likes a drink and believes that the success of his business is in buying cars at low prices - selling them is easy if you get customers to visit your site. Bruce is a very aggressive salesman who works his people hard and prides himself on getting transactions completed more quickly than average.

Bruce was horrified to find out the type of business he would be running, and very disappointed with the attitude of the staff and the lack of proper systems. He found it very unprofessional that the salesman came in with hangovers and sat in the office eating crisps (potato chips).

He tried to smarten up the office and the site and to get the staff more motivated. Unfortunately his style came across as a bit too much like David Brent, and the staff weren't won over. Had been the real boss in charge permanently, I think he might have made some positive changes, but he would probably have had to replace most of the staff as well.

We saw no evidence of Mike doing anything very much in the estate agents. He was horrified at the long working hours and the pressure that the employees were under, and seemed to be particularly concerned that Debbie (the manager of one of the branches) was working so hard when she should have been a housewife. He arranged psychological profiling for all the managers and this seemed to prove that Debbie wasn't suited to the job. So he made her redundant.

The small complication was that Debbie is married to Bruce. She broke the rules to call her husband and give her the news, and he was horrified. This brought the show to an abrupt end - Mike refused to explain his decision to the other managers and decided to go home. Bruce had a row with the sales manager of the car dealers and ended up being fired by Mike.

It was hard to tell whether anyone was taking it seriously. The bosses did it for the free publicity, and presumably got what they wanted. The staff of the car dealers may well have been deliberately winding Bruce up, but even if they had tried to go along with his ideas it would have been too much of a culture shock for them. However, you have to give him credit for trying hard to improve the car business, whereas Mike obviously had a different agenda.

Entertaining stuff, but ultimately pointless.


No regrets

When Yeoh Eng-kiong resigned from the government, I expressed doubts about the logic of this. I will freely admit that I did this without having reading any of the reports into last years SARS outbreak, basing my argument on the general principle that it is a bad idea for people to resign simply in order to satisfy public opinion.

The following day, the chairman of the Hospital Authority also resigned, but defiantly insisting that he had nothing wrong. Brian Walker, writing in Spike magazine, puts forward a very persuasive argument that he had made serious mistakes:

Dr Leong Che-hung said, “I need to stress that the Hospital Authority has made no mistake,” on the day he resigned as head of the board. The remaining 23 members of the board, true as ever to their nature, decided not to resign should Dr Leong go after promising they would. Why not?

What actually happened that required the HA to be examined so closely? Members have “learned a lot” from “bitter experience” and made a lot of improvements. Bravo! I suppose the situation was unique and therefore it is only to be expected that a balls-up was made. Such is a learning experience. Hang on a bit, though, I thought we were dealing with an outbreak of an infectious illness, which spread like wildfire, killing at random? Something like smallpox, for example? Or influenza A? Or TB? Or HIV?

So what was the new learning experience that flummoxed the HA and caused two blameless men to resign, and 23 equally blameless leaders of the HA to bravely stay on in position? It certainly would not have been the basic lessons of contagion, control and epidemiology, because those lessons are learned in medical school.

When you have a contagious disease on the prowl, you isolate the clinical cases. Then you let epidemiologists loose, whose function is to chase down the clinical cases, identify the organism(s) and the mode of transmission.

Powerful stuff. I am not a doctor, and won't pretend to understand the details, but to a layman it seems fairly clear that some very serious mistakes were made.

When Hong Kong was being overwhelmed by Sars, and when we had need of genuine assistance from people of expertise, what did you endorse? That we all wear facemasks – a notably inefficient viral filter, incapable of preventing the spread of the corona virus.

You might have made that connection earlier when facemask-wearing staff caught the virus. But no, you carried on with that recommendation. Indeed, you are still recommending that action. Why?

Are you not aware that the only function of a surgical facemask is to prevent the operator sneezing nasal material on to a wound, or prevent blood spatter from reaching the face? If even that basic medical fact escapes you, why are you still in positions of authority?

And when the most eminent of the world authorities said that the use of ribavarin in treating Sars was not only useless but might also be responsible for the greatly increased death toll in Hong Kong, did you take action and stop using the drug? No, you did not. Even now you support that policy.

Has no one on the HA ever queried why Hong Kong should have had the highest death rate for Sars in the world? A look across the border would have shown you a death rate much lower, and you might have surmised that perhaps the other countries which avoided ribavirin may have had a point. But you did not.

I wouldn't criticize the HA for trying ribavrin in the first place - at the time that the first SARS patients were admitted to hospital no-one knew what treatments might work - but it seems very odd if nothing is being done to compare the results here with other countries where different treatments were used. If it is effective then other countries should be using it, if it isn't then it shouldn't be used in Hong Kong.

The resignations seem irrelevant to me - what is much more worrying is that no-one seems willing to admit that they made mistakes. Which is one reason why I have concerns about pressure on people to resign. That pressure probably makes people more reluctant to admit their mistakes, and what really matters is that action is taken to avoid these mistakes happening again.

I would much prefer to have these people stay on and put things right than to have the absurd situation where we have a token resignation accompanied by these defiant statements that they had done nothing wrong. If someone makes a serious mistake and then refuses to acknowledge it then that is certainly grounds for them to be dismissed. It's not the mistakes themselves, it's the way you deal with them.