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September 2004

Mid-Autumn festival

Tonight is Mid-Autumn Festival. As an antidote to the curmudgeonly Fumier, I feel I must point out that it is actually a happy time of year, especially for children.

Where we live there is a fair amount of open space, and at Mid-Autumn festival hundreds of children gather here (with their parents and/or helpers) to celebrate. I have to say that the first time I saw this I was amazed by the number of children and the fact that they all have their lanterns and those light stick thingies. The noise is also quite something - not because people are shouting, but just because there are so many of them talking at the same time.

I can't think of any equivalent in the UK. I suppose that Guy Fawkes Day might be a bit similar, but these days people are very concerned about the safety aspects, and either go to large-scale organized demonstrations or don't bother at all.

Enjoy your Mid-Autumn festival, and don't eat too many mooncakes!


Hare-brained

Following on from the debate about the voting system in Hong Kong, David Webb has done some detailed research and come up with an interesting analysis of how different systems might have produced different results. However, as we know, this system was put in place precisely to produce the results that is has done.

He is also sympathetic to the Democrats, and feels that their strategy did make sense:

In HK Island they split their 4 main candidates onto two separate lists, headed by barrister Audrey Eu Yuet Mee and the Democratic Party's Yeung Sum and with a third member on the Democratic Party list. The split lists was a risky gamble which did not pay off, but you can't blame them for trying, because the main strategic goal of the pan-democrats in this election was to give themselves a slight chance of getting 30 or 31 of the 60 votes in LegCo, even if it meant increasing the downside risk. Politically, there isn't much difference between 24 and 26 votes (they won 25) but 30 or 31 would have made a big difference. Other factors, such as the pecking order for 3rd and 4th place on a combined list, also may have kept them apart.

Interesting article, and well worth reading. [Via Simon, again.]


Man from EPL is very grateful for all that lovely money

From today's SCMP (subscription required):

The chief executive of the Premier League has defended Cable TV's coverage of the English game, declaring the switch from satellite broadcaster ESPN/Star a triumph.

"It's a big success story. A dedicated channel is all you can ask for if you're running a sports competition," said Scudamore. "It's great to have Hong Kong Cable as our partner in a fantastic hotbed of interest in the Premier League. The commitment they have shown has been fantastic.

"In terms of hours of programming, the amount of games they've taken live, it has been excellent. We couldn't have asked for more from them."

Can't really argue with that, though I'd still like to have some pre-match and post-match analysis in English.

I have to say that I didn't expect that almost every single EPL game would be shown in full by Cable TV (admittedly sometimes several days after the event). If you are really interested in the Premier League (or support a less fashionable team) this is impressive stuff. In fact, you could argue that Hong Kong Cable TV now has broader coverage than Sky in the UK. What Sky are now doing in the UK on Saturdays is to offer one game in full in the early evening, and extended (50 minute) highlights of each of the other games, starting at 10.15 p.m. However, if you want to watch those games in full, you'll be out of luck.

As far as live coverage is concerned, Cable TV winning the rights has made no real difference. Yes, Cable TV have an early game on Saturday every week, and there is the new late kick-off (5.15 pm in the UK, 12.15/1.15 am HK), but these would also have been shown on ESPN/Star Sports if they had won the rights.

So we have lost the expert analysis that ESPN/Star offered, but gained by having more games shown in full and repeated more often. Is it too much to hope that next time, ESPN/Star might consider a dedicated EPL channel as part of their bid?


TV Donkeys

TVB has been advertising 'Shrek' for some time. Fair enough, it's a good family film and it did very well at the box office.

So, what time did they show it? Early evening so kids could watch it? No, it was in that well-known family viewing timeslot of 9.30 - 11.30 in the evening. What's the matter with these people - couldn't they have shown it at 8 pm (or even a little earlier)? Especially as Friends has now finished.

What I find so bizarre about the way they schedule programmes is that everything seems to be set in stone. The news is at 7.30, with headlines at 9.30. Monday to Sunday, 365 days a year. Nothing changes at weekends or on public holidays, unlike virtually every other broadcaster in the world. It's almost as if no-one really cared.

Well, that's not quite true, I suppose. Sporting events do seem to the exception to this rule (who can forget the marvellous innovation of all four terrestrial channels showing the same World Cup games live simultaneously, two with English commentaries and two with Cantonese), but these days most events have been bought up by subscription channels, so even that is a rarity. Apart from horse racing, of course.

The biggest irony is that most people who wish to watch Shrek will already have it on DVD or VCD, and so aren't subject to the whims of the schedulers working for TVB or ATV.


50 worst decisions ever

The list is stolen from The Sun, itemising the so-called "50 worst decisions ever" dreamed up for a Sky TV show on this subject presented by, er, Angus Deayton. The comments are mine.

As you might expect, it's an odd list with some eccentric choices.

1. Jeweller Gerald Ratner committing commercial suicide by saying a decanter and glasses he sold for £4.99 were “total crap.”
Agreed. Not a clever thing to say.

2. Civil servant Jo Moore sending a cynical e-mail saying the World Trade Center terrorist attacks made September 11 a good day to bury bad news. She later lost her job.
A mistake, but why is this at no. 2?

3. Prince Edward involving his dysfunctional family in It’s A Royal Knockout.
I reckon the rot set in when they did that 'Royal Family' documentary several years earlier.

4. The decision to build the white elephant known as the Millennium Dome.
Agreed. Why do governments do stuff like that?

5. Coca Cola marketing Dasani “as pure as bottled water gets” in the UK. It was simply treated mains water from Sidcup.
Well, marketing people do this all the time. As we know, similar products are very successful in the USA and Hong Kong

6. Anthea Turner and Grant Bovey posing for wedding snaps while eating Cadbury Snowflake chocolate bars.
No idea, sorry.

7. Hoover’s “free flights” promotion which ended up costing them £48million.
Yes. It turned into a PR disaster and Hoover ended up being taken over.

8. The NINE publishing firms who rejected JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter book.
Yes, but how many new writers haven't been rejected several times?

9. Cherie Blair involving conman Peter Foster in buying a flat for her son Euan.
Sounds like a lot of fuss about nothing.

10. David Beckham texting obscene messages to assistant Rebecca Loos.
Well, it doesn't seem to have done him much harm.

Continue reading "50 worst decisions ever " »


Egg, egg, egg and lard

It's the time of year for mooncakes in Hong Kong. Mid-Autumn Festival is next week, and now everyone is exchanging mooncakes.

When I first came to Hong Kong, I was puzzled to see posters advertising what looked like pork pies. They couldn't be, could they? No, they couldn't. As I found out when I was offered one to try, and (as with many delicacies in Hong Kong) I got a bit of a surprise when I tasted it. The outside is pastry (just like a pork pie), but the inside is lotus seed paste, or red bean paste or something else equally delicious (or ho mei dou, as we say), and there's usually egg yolk in the middle (funnily enough, pork pies sometimes have hard-boiled eggs in them as well) . More details here:

One traditional mooncake is filled with lotus seed paste and quite distinctive in appearance (see top photo). Roughly the size of a human palm, these mooncakes are quite filling, meant to be cut diagonally in quarters and passed around. A word of caution: the salty yolk in the middle, representing the full moon, is an acquired taste.

More elaborate versions of mooncakes contain four egg yolks (representing the four phases of the moon). Besides lotus seed paste, other traditional fillings include red bean paste and black bean paste. Unfortunately for dieters, mooncakes are rather high in calories.

Yes, "acquired taste" is one way of putting it, and "rather high in calories" is possibly something of an understatement. They normally make the pastry from lard, which certains helps hurry the coronary along. That first year I duly some back for my family in the UK, and I think they felt rather the same way that I do - too heavy and not especially delicious. It's not a taste I'm in any hurry to acquire.

I'm obviously in a minority, though, and almost everyone else seems to eat them (though usually only a quarter or half at a time). With the tradition of offering mooncakes to friends, relatives and customers, it's a lucrative business. In the weeks before Mid-Autumn festival you will likely be acosted by the staff in your local DimSum restaurant, imploring you to buy their particular brand of mooncake.

There are also all manner of new and innovative versions, some significantly less rich and heavy than the original - though whether they are really mooncakes is another matter. I remember a few years ago being given a sample of (I think) a 'green tea' mooncake that excited much interest in the office where I was working at the time. Apparently the previous day the shop had very long queues of people trying to get the samples, but I had just walked in unknowingly to buy some lunch.

Enjoy your mooncakes!


Now you see it, now you don't

Some time back, Cable TV used to re-broadcast the four local terrestrial TV channels. Then they stopped doing so, presumably because they didn't have any spare capacity.

Now they have converted their network to digital and have vast capacity, and recently they started carrying the channels (TVB Pearl & Jade and ATV World & Home) once more. However, today's SCMP reports that TVB have employed our learned friends to instruct them to stop doing this, presumably for some spurious legal reason. Perhaps it's a standard letter they send to all the cable companies in Guangdong, and they didn't realize that Hong Kong Cable TV broadcast all the original adverts rather than adding their own. They must be surprised that someone took notice of it.

The odd thing about this is that in the UK, the cable companies are legally required to carry the terrestrial channels (yes, even Five). Yet in Hong Kong, it is apparently considered to be a bad thing to make TVB Pearl available to more people. Come to think of it, perhaps I can see the logic in that...


Rubbish

I guess we're all familiar with the way that newspapers in Europe and North America report the success of China in various sectors.

The Guardian has a very strange story about recycling in China. The headline is "The UK's new rubbish dump: China", which gives you a flavour of the piece.

Commercially, the logic seems hard to fault. Containers full of garments, electronic goods and all manner of Chinese exports arrive in the UK. Rather than being returned empty, they are filled with rubbish for processing and recycling. Chinese companies employ people to sort through the rubbish, and then re-process whatever they can.

As you would expect, there is a certain amount of 'spin' on this story:

Western plastic companies are setting up in China, but some of the poorest people are employed to sort and recycle the plastic. "Plastic is now one of the biggest industries in Guangdong province, but much of the work is being done by migrant labour earning a pittance," said Martin Baker, of Greenpeace China.

"I would say that Britain is dumping its rubbish in the name of recycling. It is not responsible recycling that is being done. It is reprocessing, but the methods being used are still mostly rudimentary. There are some good factories, but on the whole it is small scale, done in backstreets with little environmental standards. People are burning plastic, sorting it by hand, the water gets polluted and it goes back into the rivers," he said.

However, read a bit further and you discover that this trade is having a positive impact:

This insatiable demand for the world's rubbish, he said, has actually boosted the British market for plastic recyclers, raising the price and making it far more worthwhile for councils to collect and not dump it in landfill. Partly because of this, more than half of all British local authorities now offer plastic recycling.

[..]

Andrew Simmons of the Peterborough-based waste charity Recoup buys millions of plastic bottles from UK councils, bales them up, and sells them to a reprocessor who then sells them on to Europe or, increasingly, to China. He rejected claims that Britain was dumping its rubbish on China and said that the environmental cost of sending bottles thousands of miles was negligible compared with making "virgin" plastic bottles from oil.

Indeed. Even if some of the Chinese companies are cutting corners, the story seems to be that more recycling is being done at a lower cost.

Of course, some British companies are losing out as a result. However, this could easily have been written in a positive way rather than the usual stuff about cheap labour, poor environmental standards and general scare-mongering.


Crazy Man, Chinese Pig

Phil mentioned this strange story on Friday, and BWG has followed up today. In brief, a Canadian teacher was arrested after being accused of leaving a taxi without paying.  The taxi driver and two KCRC staff pursued him from University station to Fo Tan station, where he was apparently ejected from the train by a group of passengers, arrested and then released.

University is a rather strange station.  There is no shopping centre, and there are no residential tower blocks, and there are two quite separate exits - one for the Chinese University, and the other to a transport interchange which mainly serves people living in Ma On Shan and the adjoining area.  Taxi drivers queue up at the rank outside the station in the expectation of earning a higher than average fare (normally taking KCR passengers up to Ma On Shan). 

The agreed facts in this case are that the teacher got in to the taxi outside the station and asked to be taken to Tai Wai, and then changed his mind.  This made the taxi driver unhappy and an argument ensued.  The teacher says he threw $15 on the seat, the taxi driver denies this.   From the teacher's account in the SCMP:

The argument started when he decided to get out of the cab after travelling less than 100 metres, he said. "I was in a rush. I decided the train was going to be faster. So I told the taxi driver I wanted to get out. He started calling me a crazy man.

"I threw the money onto the front seat because he was yelling at me and got out." The driver hounded him into the railway station yelling at other passengers that he was a fare evader, he said.

"The crowd started pushing and shoving me, some KCRC staff grabbed me, they surrounded me like I was a thug. It was a nightmare.

This is all a bit puzzling.  Who in their right minds take a taxi from outside University KCR station to within a few yards of Tai Wai station?  Trains run between these two stations run every 2-3 minutes, it takes less than 10 minutes and it costs less than HK$5.  A taxi would cost ten times as much and could easily take quite a bit longer.  I totally understand him thinking that the KCR would be quicker, but why did he only realize that after he had jumped in the taxi?

The taxi driver would have been annoyed because he had likely been waiting at the taxi rank for a passenger, expecting to earn HK$50+ for the fare.  Even if he got the minimum HK$15 fare from the teacher, he would then have had to join the back of the queue and wait for another customer.  It's a fact of life that a significant number of Hong Kong taxi drivers do show their displeasure when something like this happens.  However, this does seem to have been a rather extreme example!

Of course, later this year the new Ma On Shan KCR extension is opening.  It runs to Tai Wai where there will be an interchange with the KCR East Rail (to Hung Hom, and soon to East Tsim Sha Tsui).  When that happens, University station will presumably become significant less busy, and far fewer taxi drivers will be queuing for customers.  Also, one Canadian teacher will have a much easier journey to work.


Helper wars

It would appear that the Philippine government is somewhat concerned about the reduction in numbers of Filipina domestic helpers and the simultaneous increase in the number of Indonesians starting contracts in Hong Kong, at least judging by the number of news stories on this subject recently. I commented on a rather muddled report on this subject the week before last, and there was more in the SCMP on Tuesday, and this time it makes a bit more sense:

The Philippines' top labour representative in the city has urged Filipino domestic helpers to learn Cantonese to help reverse the continuing drop in their numbers as locals turn to Indonesian helpers. Labour attaché Bernardino Julve said the fall in the number of Filipino maids coincided with an increase in the number of Indonesian maids learning Cantonese before they come to Hong Kong. But Mr Julve also said Filipino maids' attitude of standing up for their rights could have backfired.

[..]

He said Indonesian maids had three to six months of live-in training in household work and were also trained in Cantonese. But Filipino helpers' training ran for between one and 14 days and included no instruction in Cantonese. "That is why Indonesians are preferred over Filipinos," Mr Julve said. "They speak basic Cantonese. Unfortunately our new arrivals do not know how. Cantonese is not part of the training back home and their training period is so short."

What he doesn't mention is that most Filipinas speak very good English, and that is the language in which they will usually communicate with their employers. For many families, the added advantage is that the helper can assist their children to learn English.

As usual, there is a steady stream of letters in the Post about domestic helpers. Last Monday one correspondent seemed unsympathetic towards the Filipina helper who said she would rather take her chances in Iraq that accept another contract in Hong Kong:

I completed three contracts with three different Filipinas before I turned to my current Indonesian helper three years ago. I offered her another contract when she finished the first last year. The number of Filipino domestic helpers is dropping in Hong Kong; they are being replaced by Indonesians. Perhaps for sound reasons.

As you might expect, there was a letter in Saturday's paper in response to this (titled "Compliant Indonesians", a phrase that didn't appear in the first letter, though it's reasonable to deduce that's what the writer meant). This correspondent says that people in Hong Kong should consider themselves very fortunate to be able to employ domestic helpers, and should treat them better. Equally predictable is that the writer of the original letter had a Chinese name and the second letter appears to be from a Westerner. This is one subject where opinions seem to vary somewhat between the two communities.