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February 2005

Fresh'n'cheap

The food part in this week's Post Magazine was mainly about chicken livers, and the writer (Susan Jung) mentioned that they are only available frozen (from Olivers and some supermarkets).

That does seem to be true, but about two years ago several branches of Park'n'Shop did sell fresh chicken livers (and other similar bits and pieces).  They were very cheap, presumably because they were a largely unwanted by-product of fresh chickens.  Having previously been only able to buy frozen chicken livers at some fantastic price from CitySuper or Olivers, I couldn't believe my luck!

You see, I do like chicken livers.  It only takes a few minutes to make a rough and ready chicken liver paté and slap it on some bread (and for less than HK$5 as well), or you can do it properly and save it for the next day.  Or you can fry the livers and serve them with bacon, or even do something more fancy with them.  Did I mention that they were very cheap?

Unfortunately the 2002 outbreak of bird flu brought a temporary end to the trade in fresh chickens and (as far as I can tell) a permanent end to the availability of fresh chicken livers in Park'n'Shop.

Unless anyone knows better! 


Not my fault, guv

Yesterday's Sunday Morning Post has a largely sympathetic profile of Nick Leeson, the man who bankrupted Barings Bank 10 years ago.  Apparently he has re-married and is now living on the west coast of Ireland, and is trying to make a living writing books and doing public speaking.  Presumably he also has a PR person doing his best to rescue his reputation by getting positive stories about him published in newspapers.

Unfortunately for him, you simply have to read The Collapse of Barings by Stephen Fay to discover that it’s going to take a lot more than a few sympathetic journalists to restore his reputation.  Though I suppose every little helps, and in this case, Eugene Henderson obviously hasn’t read Fay’s book and uncritically repeats Leeson’s justification for what he did.

Mr Leeson, then 25, had played the market secretly, and disastrously, in a three-year attempt to cover up an initial ₤20,000 trading error by one of his recruits.  He made no personal profit and he never intended it to be otherwise.

Did he really embark on his trading adventures in order to protect an employee who had made a mistake (selling Nikkei futures when she was supposed to be buying them)? 

No. Leeson had already started trading (and losing money) using his 88888 account several weeks before this mistake took place.  He had already lost far money than the ₤20,000 that was lost by his employee.  Then, a few months later he had recovered the losses and could easily have stopped, but he chose to carry on. 

Did he benefit from what he did? 

Well, he earned substantial bonuses that were directly attributable to the fictional profits he reported. His bonus for 1993 was ₤130,000, and had he continued to get away with his deception for a little longer he would have received an even more substantial bonus in early 1995.  Yet, after the collapse of Barings it became clear that the bonuses were grossly inflated by Leeson’s imaginary trading profits (when the bonuses for 1994 were recalculated, the bonus pool fell from ₤100m to less than ₤10m).  So Leeson’s deceptions benefited him (and a large number of other Barings employees).

The other part of his defence is equally disingenuous:

“If there had been barriers to my actions, and more control over what I was doing, I would have stopped doing what I was doing before things got to the stage they did.”

This might make the casual reader believe Leeson was simply trading without his bosses knowing what he was doing.  In fact, he went to extraordinary lengths to cover his tracks, deliberately subverting the system and creating hugely complex (and totally false) transactions to disguise what he was really doing.  Worse, he wasn’t satisfied with making his trades disappear – he wanted to make them appear to be hugely profitable, and remarkably he was able to do exactly that. 

Of course Barings should never have allowed Leeson to be both a trader and in charge of settlements, and of course they should never have believed the huge profits he was reporting, and of course they should have looked more closely at the so-called errors account 88888, but none of that excuses Leeson’s behaviour.

Stephen Fay’s book tells the story of Leeson’s actions in great detail, and attempts to explain why Barings failed to realize what was going on.  It’s a thorough but very readable account of a story that really is stranger than fiction.  None of the main players come out of it well, and the only plausible explanations seem to be greed (everyone wanted to believe what Leeson was telling them because it benefited them) and inter-office politics.

Leeson has also written his own book (Rogue Trader) that was turned into a really terrible movie of the same name. I haven’t read the book, but I have watched the film, and its plot is utterly implausible.  It attempts to demonstrate that Leeson hired a bunch of rookie traders and was forced to cover up for one expensive mistake, and it portrays Barings management as a bunch of upper-class twits.  If that wasn’t self-serving enough, we are asked to feel sorry for Leeson as the Nikkei index moves in the wrong direction and frustrates his brilliant trading.  Yeah, right.

As a film it is flat and almost totally lacking in real drama.  The story is effectively reduced to the gross over-simplification that it was all about Leeson’s bet on the Nikkei, and we are led to believe that if it had gone up rather than down then everything would have been OK for Leeson.  Well, not really.  Anyway, this is portrayed in the film is by showing us what is supposed to be the latest Nikkei index as displayed at the Singapore exchange.  Except that what we see is a large and very simplified display on which the index is always up or down a nice round number.  It is totally and utterly unbelievable - just like Leeson’s rationalisations and explanations for his behaviour.

Read the book, skip the film, and treat anything Nick Leeson says with a healthy dose of scepticism.


Upgrade, Downgrade

Oh, I hate computers!

I've been having problems with email. It seems to have started when my ISP "upgraded" their service (upgrade = weasel speak for replacing old familiar problems with new ones). Outlook appeared to connect successfully to my "mailbox", but wouldn't retrieve the email (no error messages, but no mail either).

So I decided to try out the email client in Opera. This did retrieve my email, but that was about the only good thing about it. Their concept is to use "views" rather than folders, which would be OK if it worked properly, but unfortunately it doesn't. The "unread" view sometimes displayed all emails received recently (regardless of whether I had read them or not) and sometimes nothing at all. I simply couldn't get it to do what I wanted (which was to file way most of my emails and let me see the ones that remained). It also has a rather startling omission - no key seems to be available to scan through emails as you read them ("page down" does this in Outlook and Lotus Notes and probably ever other piece of software ever invented).

So I needed another solution. As I have been having other problems with Outlook, I uninstalled it and tried to install the latest version in its place. This was (predictably enough) fraught with difficulties. It seems that although I had apparently uninstalled Office XP, actually it was still there. So, when I installed Office 2003 and tried to start Outlook it gave me error messages and told me that I couldn't have multiple versions of Outlook on one PC. No, well, I don't want multiple versions. That's why I un-installed it. Grrr.

When I finally got that sorted, Outlook worked (and the old problem was gone), but it was still not retrieving my email. Worse, by now the Opera Mail client was hiding all of my emails after it had retrieved them. I could see it was retrieving my emails, and I could even find some of them by using the search, but they weren't visible in any of the views. Time to try something else.

Frustratingly, the solution to the Outlook problem seems to be as simple as deleting the email account and creating it again. I've no idea why it works, but it does. So I am back where I started, but with a shiny new user interface.

Norton is also on its final warning, and I'm really going to have to follow Henry's advice and install something else. It keeps giving me stupid messages telling me to re-install it. The first time I fell for it, but subsquent times I have ignored it and all seems to be well (or at least as well as Norton's stoopid software can manage).

There must be a better way.


Last Chance

Today is your last chance this year to collect red ‘Lai See’ or ‘Lucky Money” packets.  It’s the 15th day of the Lunar New Year, and marks the end of the holiday celebrations.  Traditionally it is also the time for Lantern Parades, and it is sometimes known as ‘Chinese Valentine’s Day’ (a second chance if you forgot on the 14th).

So if (like someone I know) you have been avoiding travelling somewhere because you knew you would meet lots of people who would demand ‘lucky money’, you can stop hiding away and travel freely starting tomorrow.   


Driving a hard bargain

Still on the subject of Hong Kong’s domestic helpers and their employers, Simon has noted a news story about a developing trend and Mr Tall has reminded us of an earlier piece he wrote on the same subject (that also referred to the article from the The Economist Christmas 2001 issue).

First the news story.  Yesterday’s SCMP story (subscription required) is about the the reduction in the number of Filipinas working as domestic helpers in Hong Kong, and the somewhat smaller increase in Indonesian helpers.  I have mentioned this before, but it seems that the trend is continuing.  There are now 35,000 fewer Filipinas and 23,000 more Indonesian helpers than four years ago.  I suppose are two possible explanations for this trend.  The first is that Indonesian helpers are given more training and usually learn Cantonese before coming to Hong Kong, whilst the second is that they are willing to work for less than the minimum wage:

A survey by the Association of Indonesian Migrant Workers showed about 90 per cent of Indonesian helpers were earning between $1,500 and $2,500 a month.   

That compares with a legal minimum wage of HK$3,270 but it seems that Indonesian recruitment agencies do not inform the helpers that there is a minimum wage in Hong Kong.  That may be so, but I doubt that it makes all that much difference – the point is that there is no shortage of people willing to come here and work for that money.

This is nothing new – I remember being somewhat shocked a few years when a colleague proudly told me that he was employing an Indonesian helper for around half the minimum wage in force at the time.  It’s not breaking the law so much as the fact that people can regard HK$2,000 per month as a fair reward for the job that helpers do.  Yes, I’m sorry, but I can’t help being a do-gooding liberal.

If the figures quoted by the SCMP are correct, it should be easy for the Labour department to take action – all they need to do is visit a few homes where Indonesian domestic helpers are employed.  However, what do they do if the helper plays along with the deception and does not wish to make a complaint?  The helper may well feel that their choice is between working for the wage they have been offered or going back to Indonesia (and they’d probably be right).   

Mr Tall puts another side of the story as a counter to the hysterical allegation that many helpers are “living in “virtual slavery”’, noting that many experienced helpers will pick and choose where they want to work, and for whom.  There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – in a healthy employment market both the employer and the employee have their own requirements, and the final arrangement is subject to negotiation.  Unfortunately the contract and visa arrangements for FDHs are rather inflexible.  Whereas it is very common for other employment contracts here to have a 3 month probation period, FDH contracts are for a fixed two-year term, and if the employer terminates the contract (or when it comes to an end) then the helper will only be allowed to stay in Hong Kong for a short time before having to return home.

Logically, experienced helpers should command higher salaries.  That may be how the informal market is developing, but mainly by reducing salaries at the entry level rather than increasing them at the top. However, if a helper is forced to leave Hong Kong shortly after completing a contract, it makes it difficult for them to find a new employer.  Really, that’s not good for anyone.  If the Hong Kong government really wanted to improve the lot of foreign domestic helpers, it should make it easier for them to change jobs and to work here without having to use an agency.  However, I suspect that the main objective of government policy is to reduce the number of FDHs working in Hong Kong, so I don’t suppose they’re about to do anything to improve their lot.


Don't do it!

From today’s Technology Post

Q: I  really want to blog but I have no idea how to get started. I put blog into Google and there were just too many hits for me to follow. I am very much a beginner and I am not all that technical. Is this going to be really difficult for someone like me?  Name and Address supplied

A: This is an enormous subject. There are all sorts of ways to blog and it can be fraught with many difficulties, but the technology aspect to it all should not be one of them.

It reminds me of wanting a pet when I was a child. My mother said: "Are you aware the dog must be fed and taken for a walk every day? Are you prepared to do that? If you are not, there will be no dog."   You may not have to blog every day but people have begun to expect a certain amount of regularity. And, if you cannot deliver, you may discover there are not many interested in your blog.

It is also important to spend some time on the name. A name can really make or break you, assuming you want a lot of people to read your blog. A blog can take up a great deal of time. Not only must you write your entries, you may have to answer others and in general manage the whole thing.

Indeed, indeed.  A blog is not just for Christmas.  Before you know it you’ll be signing up for Simon’s blogging convention and discussing the latest add-ins for Movable Type, and writing posts about trackbacks.  It’s a slippery slope.  Quit now before you’ve even started.   


No help at all

Simon has done a fairly effective job of demolishing Hong Kong Phooey’s latest rant, on the subject of foreign domestic helpers (FDHs).  As Simon says, Mr Phooey makes some good points, but the problem is the way that he presents them in his posts.  If he had written a short ‘rant’ of 2–3 paragraphs about the way that some Hong Kong people treat their helpers (something like this), I would probably have been nodding in agreement, but instead he tries to present it as if it were an academic paper (though a fairly poor one, scattered with gratuitous insults) and left me shaking my head with frustration.

Mr Phooey seems to feel compelled to cite references to support his arguments.  Unfortunately the references he cites are neither relevant nor helpful.

He mentions Hong Kong’s status as the “world’s freest economy” (a dubious accolade awarded by a right-wing think tank), takes this at face value and then complains about Hong Kong people having the “freedom to enslave and exploit domestic helpers”.  I fail to see the connection here, given that the government does set a minimum wage and even prosecutes a few people each year for breaking this law.

He also cites an article from the Christmas 2001 edition of The Economist.  I read this article at the time it was first published and have subsequently recommended it to anyone who wants to gain some insight into the life of a Filipina domestic helper in Hong Kong.  To place it in context you need to understand that in the Christmas double issue, The Economist runs a large number of feature articles that are not about current affairs, economics or politics.  The theme of this piece is the contrast between the “virtual slavery” of the Filipina helpers and the fact that they appear (at least on their day off) to be the happiest people in the city.  However, Mr Phooey is much more interested in writing about the appalling behaviour of Hong Kong people.  The Economist alludes to this and mentions a couple of court cases brought against Hong Kong employers for physical abuse of their helpers (something that Mr Phooey oddly fails to mention) but the article is really about how Filipina helpers can be so happy, not how Hong Kong people can be so beastly.  So the article doesn’t really assist Mr Phooey in his line of argument. 

However, The Economist does highlight the irony of the current situation:

Two generations ago, the Philippines was the second-richest country in East Asia, after Japan, while Hong Kong was teeming with destitute refugees from mainland China. Among upper-class families in the Philippines, it was common in those days to employ maids from Hong Kong. But over the past two decades Hong Kong has grown rich as one of Asia's “tigers”, while the Philippines has stayed poor.    

Mr Phooey is not interested in any of this either, and merely uses The Economist as a reference for some (out-of-date) statistics on the number of Filipino helpers in Hong Kong, though I suppose he regards the “virtual slavery” line as justification for his use of the term “enslavement”.  It’s not clear what The Economist means by “virtual slavery”, but the reality is that Filipinas and other foreign nationals willingly come to Hong Kong knowing what to expect, and are free to leave at any time.  They certainly work long hours for a low wage, but that’s not the same thing as slavery.   

Continue reading "No help at all" »


Hong Kong blogs

[This list is now very out-of-date and most of the links don't work]

Anson Mak

Batgung.com Maybe not strictly a blog, but some interesting musings on life in Hong Kong by two expats married to local ladies.

Big White Guy Is it a blog?  Not sure. A Canadian photographer and writer living in the New Territories offers comments on life in Hong Kong.

Bunny Bytes Quite an amusing personal blog from a German-Filipino lady living in Hong Kong.

Cha Xiu Bao It's a blog. About food. Mainly Chinese, but not exclusively.

Capitalist Solutions in Hong Kong A disciple of Ayn Rand tells us what's wrong with Hong Kong.

Chatter Garden An online community for news and discussion about Hong Kong regional politics and public affairs created by journalism students at the University of Hong Kong.

Cloudless A photoblog about Hong Kong

Combustion Engine

Dave’s Wibblings

Dai Tou Lam An American on Peng Chau.   

Dim Sum Mum Triplets and a toddler and apparently time for blogging. Yikes.

Discombobulated Mia A British lady writing about her life in Hong Kong, her love life (or sometimes the lack thereof) and other personal stuff. 

Dreams can come true

Earth Blue

EastSouthWestNorth  Probably the most serious blog on this list.  Some interesting articles translated from Chinese, and as many estimates of the number of marchers on July 1st as you could possibly want.

Edg176

Evolution in a Revolution

Faintly f'kd    A fan of Hong Kong Cable TV

Flying Chair    Long-time blogger with opinions on current affairs in Hong Kong. 

Friends Disenchanted A Brit newly arrived in Hong Kong, and living on Lamma.

Fumier    Writes about driving (poor standard of) in Hong Kong.  Can be quite amusing in a droll sort of way.

Gai Zao

Glory Glory Tottenham Hotsblog    Not really about football

Gino888

Glutter   Very personal blog about democracy in Hong Kong, music and other stuff.

Hemlock’s Diary   Possibly not a blog, but can be very funny.  Bills himself as Hong Kong’s most obnoxious expat.  A combination of a fictionalised diary and commentary on the shortcomings of Hong Kong’s government.

HKMacs       Lives on Lamma.  Does things with Apple Macs for a living.  Photographs his dinner to fill space on the blog.

Hongkie Town      An American in Hong Kong who obviously enjoys the “nightlife” here. 

Hanzi Smatter

HK 1997

Julie Leung

Juni's Fut Fut Forever

Keaner Dot Net

Kee Yeung

kinglychee

L’il read writerhood

London Calling

Madame Shutterfly       A photographer publishes her photographs, sometimes with a commentary.

Milton J. MadisonMing and Ping

Misohoni Diary of a web designer and football fan

Nevin's Photolog

Nude King

Present Perfect   

Procrastinating Muddle Puddle

Pulled in many directions Thoughts of a kindergarten teacher in Hong Kong

Racing Mix

Ranhasadotcom    Bit weird, but worth a look.

See Lai   Rather odd combination of tales of the author’s experiences doing business in China, his personal life, and girlie pics.  Hugely popular for one of these three.

Shaky Kaiser   Another Brit living the expat life to the full.  Geeky but amusing.

Simon World    Over-keen blogger, nice guy, quite comprehensive updates on business-related and political issues in Hong Kong.  Used to have more about his three kids, but now focused on blogs and politics.

Shit Sandwich

Silent Dreams 2.0

Stone Camel

Siuying

Sky

Spirit Fingers   Amusing commentary on fashion disasters. 

Super K

Sweet Chariots    Another Brit, a colleague of Simon’s, writes about rugby and buying marmalade in Hong Kong supermarkets.

underneath the microbeats

United Bingdom

Waah!   Bits and pieces from another Brit who appears to work in the IT industry. 

Yoga Yuga

ZiYix

Blog Guides

Hong Kong Blogs

Rice Bowl Journals Hong Kong Listings

Blog You.com

Best Blogs in Asia

Hemlock's Guide ("The World's Most Authoritative Guide to Hong Kong Blogs")

Glutter's guide

Asia Blog Awards


This charming man

One of the more puzzling aspects of doing this blog is that I can write a long article and get zero response, whilst sometimes a short piece dashed off in a few minutes can provoke a lively debate.

The short piece I wrote about Hong Kong Phooey's Hong Kong Blog (see below) falls into the latter category. So, much as I try to avoid spending too much time blogging about blogs, I have to follow up on what I wrote a couple of days ago.

The author of this blog is apparently an academic working in one of the universities in Hong Kong. The point of the blog (at least so far) seems to be to complain about the behaviour of Hong Kong Chinese people. The problem here is that whilst there is undoubtedly some truth in what he writes, the author exaggerates to the point of absurdity.

Two examples will suffice.

  • We all know that people here are heavy users of mobile phones, but if every member of an extended family group were really on their phones continuously throughout a dim sum lunch that certainly isn't typical.
  • Yes, people do tend to sit on the "aisle seat" on buses and minibuses, but it is patently absurd to say that they "always - without exception" do this.

The other problem is the implied racism. It stands to reason that in this city, people who behave in an anti-social way will probably be Chinese. However, that doesn't mean that all Chinese people behave boorishly. Or are stupid, or lazy, or whatever insult you care to choose. Yet this blog refers throughout to the behaviour of Hong Kong Chinese people, as if people of every other nationality living here always behaved impecably.

I just wonder what the reaction would be if a Hong Kong Chinese visitor to the UK were to write something similar about life in London? Probably wouldn't go down very well.

That's not to say that there isn't some interesting analysis here, but it comes across in such a negative and arrogant way that many readers will simply switch off. In short, what it lacks is the lightness of touch that allows Hemlock (for example) to make similar comments in a much more entertaining way.


Not nasty enough (apparently)

A few months ago, Fumier and myself were berated by NTSCMP for some fairly harmless comments about the way people walk in Hong Kong.  The headline was something like "Is it time for Fumier and Ordinary Gweilo to leave Hong Kong?".

Now someone has produced a whole blog whining about the horrible behaviour of Chinese people in Hong Kong.  So you'd expect NTSCMP to disapprove.

Er, well, no, not exactly:

At last, a literate blog which promises to be more objectionable, vicious and pointed than NTSCMP - after he gets a few things off his chest about portable phones, lazy locals and ironing board figures.

The author of this blog also seems to share Conrad's view that people who live in the New Territories are uneducated savages. So, in summary, it's OK to be rude about Chinese people and the inhabitants of the New Territories (so unlike those civilized chaps in Stanley, don't you know), but not OK to make general observations about how some Hong Kong people behave. 

No, I don't quite get it.  Can you explain it again, more slowly?

George presumably likes this blog because it recommends his book, which also has things to say about the way people walk in Hong Kong - amongst many other subjects.  Things, one might add, that are not all that different from what NTSCMP criticized Fumier for saying.

It's a strange world.