Previous month:
April 2007
Next month:
June 2007

May 2007

Limited offer

In February, I noted that Now Broadband TV (owned by PCCW) were offering 5 months free on their Mega Sports Pack if you committed to an 18 month contract. 

I hestitated (well, it's what I'm best at), first deciding to wait till the last day and then deciding to wait and see if the offer was extended.  It was. 

Then they reduced it to 3 months free, and I was seriously considering subscribing on the last day of the offer (15 May).  I forgot, and now it's down to 1 month free, and maybe that expires today. 

The reason I keep hesitating is that these "free" months are not all that attractive.  If I'd really wanted Star Sports & ESPN, I'd have subscribed when they only cost HK$68 per month - the only thing I really want is the EPL coverage and that won't start until August, so why bother subcribing before then?

The other unknown is what they are offering for $178 per month.  Their adverts hint at a high definition channel to come, which will cost extra, and I fully expect them to have an on-demand service (as they do for the Champions League), but it's not clear whether it will be included or not.  Will they show all the games in full, as Cable TV currently do on Channel 63?

I used to think that Now Broadband TV were better than Cable TV because at least it was possible to choose which channels you wanted.  Except that it doesn't seem such a good thing any more, because there's nothing to stop PCCW adding more channels with extra bits of EPL coverage and charging more for them. 

It's a common trick of all sorts of companies to offer an assortment of limited-time offers, and I really wonder whether it works.  The problem is that you never know whether a better offer will be available if you wait a few more weeks - and if you do sign up and then find that you could have saved money by waiting then you aren't going to be very happy.

Magazines seem to be the worst offenders here, with hyperactive marketing departments offering this or that free gift if you sign up (my recent favourite is a USB cup warmer), and seducing you with promises of "professional discounts" and "best deals".  How do people resist?

The discounts for magazines such as Fortune are so high that it's obvious that individual copies must be over-priced in order that they can conjure up these ridiculous "discounts" and persuade you to subscribe.  Why would I buy a copy for HK$70 (or whatever they charge) when I know that a subscriber is paying less than HK$20?  It makes no sense.


On the high seas

Sunday's SCMP had a story about CD Wow (subscription required):

A group of British record companies is suing a Hong Kong firm for £41.13 million (HK$638 million) in royalties it was ordered to pay by an English court.

The companies are asking for the enforcement of a settlement agreement with Music Trading Online (HK), which runs an online mail-order music business called CD-Wow. Music Trading lists a Kwun Tong address as its head office. Customers of CD-Wow in the UK would order CDs and DVDs which would be sent to them from Hong Kong.

The 2004 settlement agreement came about as a result of legal action brought against Music Trading by Indepeniente, XL Recordings, Wildstar Records, Mercury Records, EMI Records and Sony Music Entertainment and its United Kingdom subsidiary.

In all, 15 firms took issue with Music Trading's activities, and the seven record companies listed on Friday's writ in the High Court are representing the interests of the others.

The companies alleged Music Trading infringed their UK copyright by providing parallel imports of CDs manufactured outside the European Economic Area without paying the appropriate royalties. Under UK copyright law at the time, it was illegal to import an item without the copyright owner's express permission if its manufacture in Britain would have incurred royalty payments there.

The issue had been set to go to court, but the settlement was arrived at before trial. However, last November, the companies successfully sued Music Trading for breaching certain conditions of the agreement. The English High Court ruled the firms could individually sue the company for damages over those alleged breaches. Those damages would be in addition to the sum claimed in Friday's writ.

The writ seeks payment of the settlement amount, interest and costs.

I also found another (more detailed and freely available) story on the same subject:

The BPI has also come under fire from an unexpected source – the organisation's ex-director of anti-piracy David Martin, who retired last year. He suggests that artists are not losing out on any royalties if the CDs were genuine.

“Whether you sell a CD in Hong Kong or wherever, ultimately the royalties of that sale, if it is a genuine CD, will go to the record company and the creator of the work," Martin said.

“In my point of view the efforts should be expended against the people committing 'real' crimes such as counterfeiting and piracy.”

Well, yes indeed. 

Striking another blow are market analysts, who also reject the BPI's assertions that CDs are not too expensive in the UK. Mark Mulligan of Jupiter Research said: “Sometimes the music industry just doesn't help itself. With music sales plummeting there has never been a better time for the record labels to start garnering a little sympathy. But then they go and do something like this.

“With music sales declining the labels need to be doing everything they can to foment sales. CDs are still too expensive. If the labels insist on trying to maintain CD prices then they'll lose sales and force many consumers into choosing between either not buying or going to a file-sharing network.”

But the BPI insists that pricing schemes have to be different for each market due to several factors, not least of all the average income of locals.

“The British record business accrues British costs employing British workers to develop British artists. Record labels therefore set British prices that allow them to cover those costs to stay in business,” said the BPI spokesman.

“Average incomes are much lower in South-East Asia, and record companies have a choice of surrendering the market entirely to piracy and not sell there at all, or reduce the price to a level that the market can support.”

CD Wow has pledged to continue providing consumers "the cheapest possible music" and intends to continue to "fight the laws that are in place to help record industry bosses rip off music lovers" but whether its prices will stay low remains to be seen.

I had thought that CD Wow were simply avoiding VAT by shipping from Hong Kong, and I hadn't realized that there were other issues with the way they operate.  For me, the biggest advantage is that they don't charge for shipping (worldwide, not just from Kwun Tong to the New Territories).  Every time I order from Amazon I resent the cost of delivery.


Oligopoly

Recently, I have become rather bad at reading Hong Kong blogs.  Mainly it's sheer laziness, but the problem is that there are just too many of them, and having got them all set up in an RSS reader it's all too easy to check half a dozen and overlook the rest.

Which is a pity, because there is some good stuff out there.  And, no, Mr Fumier, I don't mean you.

For example, Learning Cantonese had a rather long post about the problems faced by the pan-democrats.  This is what I meant when I said that the biggest obstacle to democracy in Hong Kong is our political parties - it's so easy to find fault with all of them. 

First of all, the pro-democrats are, and have always been, a bunch of strange bedfellows united by a single issue. There have always been cracks, economic fissures, in Hong Kong's pro-democracy alliance. (Just as there are strange bedfellows, indeed, among the pro-Beijing camp). Strip away the eloquent philosophy, and what does a wealthy guy like London-educated Democratic party barrister Martin Lee have in common with a humble schoolteacher activist like democracy's great uncle Szeto Wah?  Fear of Beijing has been enough to cement the pro-Democrats together for a decade, as solidly as Tito held Yugoslavia.

There's also a reference to a book which I think I need to read.

Ten years after the 1997 handover, Hong Kong's battle lines are changing. The people, and the politicians of Hong Kong have begun to focus less on Beijing, and more on the enemy within--the collusion between home-grown tycoons and a government that exercises almost unlimited control over the city's wealth and development. (The way this system works to choke Hong Kong's economic growth and initiative is very ably explained by Alice Poon in her great book, and by my buddy Hemlock, in his.).

This led me to something else I had overlooked - an article by Alice Poon in Asia Sentinel:

Hong Kong’s proposed new competition law barely scratches the surface and leaves the oligarchs pretty much alone

Hong Kong is about to get a law sometime later this year designed to regulate competition in an economy that has always prided itself on being red in fang and claw. But don’t look for much substance. The oligarchs of Hong Kong have always been largely exempt from the hard scramble of real competition and the powers that be are making sure that the final law is going to be more form than substance ‑  no review mechanisms for the control of mergers and acquisitions, no criminal sanctions and no consumer protection provisions.

Although this is a city famously regarded as a territory of free marketeers, that is largely a false perception perpetrated by right-wing American think-tanks which consistently declare Hong Kong to be a paragon of competitiveness. What the libertarian think tanks measure are free ports with low-tariff regimes and fully convertible currencies. In Hong Kong, taxes are low, government is small, trade is free and business, credit and labor markets are fully deregulated.

But the fact is that Hong Kong’s trading companies, particularly Hutchison Whampoa and Jardine Matheson, operate a duopoly that stifles competition in supermarkets, petrol stations and drug store chains. In the late 1990s, the oligarchs, aided by government policy, famously drove Carrefour, the French retailer, out of town and put an end to any chance of so-called big-box retailers like Wal-Mart or COSTCO that would save consumers money and give them choice.

And, of course, if you search for a review of Alice Poon's book you will find one by Hemlock.  Who has his own book out now - and what's the betting that the "friendly journalist" who interviewed him on his website is the same person who interviewed him for Slate?  Yes, the blogger behind Learning Cantonese, Daisann McLane.

Incidentally, it rather amused me (and maybe nobody else) that Hemlock's book is published by Chameleon Press, who also published several of Nury Vittachi's books.  Or perhaps Hemlock and Peter Gordon (the boss of Chameleon Press) now have something in common.


He is a quitter after all

Donald Trump was not impressed when one contestant on Series 6 announced that he wanted to quit rather than hang around and probably get fired.  Apparently Trump doesn't like quitters.

Except that when NBC's Autumn schedule was announced and The Apprentice was nowhere to be seen, Donald Trump quit the show before he could be fired. 

The move to Los Angeles always looked like a desperate attempt to boost the ratings, but apparently it didn't come off - though NBC say that no final decision had been made, and they might have added the show to the schedule later.

Continue reading "He is a quitter after all" »


Independent but shallow

The Guardian has a story about Jimmy Lai (The voice of Hong Kong - free registration required):

His business products are easy to find on the streets - the Chinese-language Apple Daily newspaper, the weekly Next Magazine, and stablemates Easy Finder and Sudden Weekly.

Jimmy Lai is that rare character in the wealthy Asian business elite - a successful media tycoon with a passion for talking about democracy as "a moral imperative".

His publications are famous for bringing a new low to local reporting style, splashing blood and sex across their pages; his editorials are consistently in favour of universal suffrage for Hong Kong people.

[..]

Born in 1948, in southern China, Lai arrived in Hong Kong aged 12 by the then classic route of a fishing boat. He taught himself English, started doing odd jobs in a glove factory and gradually built up capital to invest.

When Lai launched Apple Daily in 1995, the fervour he generated was immense. He injected frantic competition into an already crowded market of more than 30 daily Chinese-language newspapers. "The newspapers are driven by Jimmy. We're a company that's driven by Jimmy. Jimmy Lai is Next Media. Jimmy is our Richard Branson," says Simon.

He once owned the Giordano clothing chain, a rare example of a home-grown fashion brand, but resigned so as not to impede the company's progress on the mainland. However, when he ventured into an effort to break the stranglehold of two major business groups in Hong Kong, he came a cropper.

That venture, called adMart, aimed to offer an alternative to Hong Kong's Park'n'Shop and Wellcome supermarkets, owned by two of the largest conglomerates: the Hutchison Whampoa group of Asia's richest man Li Ka-shing, and Jardine Matheson respectively. Lai claims the feud between him and Li is all one-way, from Li's side. His papers, meanwhile, gobble up scandal involving the tycoons, and have run investigative pieces that directly hit the interests of Matheson and Li.

"We are very bitter enemies because if you have an independent media, you tend to offend those tycoons and all the tycoons think they can dictate a lot of things because they're so powerful, and sometimes they find they cannot do that and they get really mad," says Lai.

With adMart, vengeance was swift. Suppliers were threatened with loss of business if they supplied Lai's internet delivery scheme, and adMart died. "AdMart was a failure, it was a stupid idea, a failure," admits Lai.

It's misleading to imply that they were out to clobber Jimmy Lai because of his politics - the two main supermarket chains managed to drive Carrefour out of Hong Kong with similar tactics.  Anyway, he was probably doomed to failure regardless - the reality was that it simply wasn't possible to make make money delivering cut-price cases of Coca-Cola to homes and offices around Hong Kong.  Countless other similar schemes around the world (e.g. Webvan) also failed for similar reasons, and these days (in Hong Kong as in the rest of the world), it is the established retailers who offer online ordering and home delivery.

Independent pro-democracy lawmaker Emily Lau, who is a former journalist, has described Apple Daily as independent but shallow. One media analyst, asking not to be named, said that Lai's firm stand for democracy in past years was of course to be admired, but that he was a "slippery fish", his publishing empire was going nowhere, and Lai was wasting his energies without a clear vision for tackling future challenges.

"Oh yeah, and that's why he's taken over Taiwan media? He's taken Taiwan by storm. This is not someone at a dead end," counters Jake van der Kamp, the most widely read business analyst in Hong Kong.

I suppose the question is where he can go after Taiwan, assuming he wants to expand internationally.  But maybe he doesn't.


Not ready

Hong Kong is not ready for democracy, according to the chairman of the DAB (Fury at DAB chief's Tiananmen tirade - subscription required):

Hong Kong will not be ready for universal suffrage until around 2022 because the people lack national identity and many still believe there was a massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the leader of the main pro-Beijing party said yesterday.

In remarks that drew immediate condemnation from the pan-democratic camp, the chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, Ma Lik, said local students had not received proper "national education" since the handover and many still "care nothing" about the mainland.

He said one example to show Hong Kong society was not mature was people's belief that pro-democracy activists were "massacred" in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

"We should not say the Communist Party massacred people on June 4. I never said that nobody was killed, but it was not a massacre," Mr Ma told a media gathering less than three weeks before the 18th anniversary of the bloody crackdown on protesting students. "A massacre would mean the Communist Party intentionally killed people with machine guns indiscriminately."

Interesting to note that the SCMP itself has been criticized in the past for referring to the "Tiananmen incident" as if it were a minor disturbance in which a few people got slightly hurt.

Mr Ma, who is not known as an outspoken hard-core leftist, said universal suffrage could not be introduced before the public adopted "heart-felt" patriotism.

Although his views drew a strong reaction, he said they had actually moderated from those he previously held. "In the past I have said universal suffrage should be introduced in 2047. Now I think it is appropriate to introduce [it] around 2022 because by then, hopefully, half a generation would have gone through the new national awareness education."

Mr Ma said that "consciously or unconsciously" Hong Kong people were resisting the idea that the Communist Party was the ruling party of "our sovereign state" and were trying to draw a line between themselves and the party. "It is difficult to push for [universal suffrage] under these conditions." He said the Hong Kong government should take action to educate teachers about what happened at Tiananmen Square.

The biggest problem with democracy is that you never quite know how people will vote, and it works so much better if people are "educated" to vote correctly.  I believe they do this quite successfully in Singapore (amongst other places).

Or maybe the biggest obstacle to democracy in Hong Kong is that we don't have any political parties worth supporting...

[More here if you can't read the SCMP story]


Time to get the sweaters out

Yes, it's that time of year again when you need to dress up warm - when you're in the office:

Today in Hong Kong, the temperature reached about 30 degrees Celsius. Inside our Central office, I wore a woollen sweater to keep warm. The aircon thermostats were turned down in some places as low as 10 degrees — though that frostiness is over-stated because of the whole faulty system. In balmy, stinking hot, near-on-summer Hong Kong, I still managed to be shivering at my desk.

And snivelling. The sudden and unpredictable temperature changes are fucking up my body. I now have a cold, which is making it hard to sleep and harder to concentrate.

And it’s not that I haven’t tried to bring the office room temperatures up to a sane level. But each time I turn that dial to 25 — the recommended level by the government, and one not prone to release such tremendous volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — someone (usually a jacket-wearing weakling from sales) turns it back down.

I went to see the doctor recently (ka-ching - here are five small bags of pills) and it was freezing cold in the waiting room.  Why do they do that?  Perhaps it's a way of drumming up more business...

My theory on this is that the simplest solution would be to re-design aircons so that they provide better ventilation without needing to set the temperature so low.


The wrong sort of cheese

In week 7 of The Apprentice (the Alan Sugar one), hapless Adam was desperately seeking Nigella seeds. 

I had no idea about Nigella seeds either, but Google does.  Apparently it is against the rules to use the Internet, but surely if you called someone you know who has a computer, they could check and give you the information, couldn't they?   

Unfortunately Adam's first idea was that they were something to do with astroturf, and his next stab in the dark had him in a Chinese medicine shop.  No luck there, and the day was almost over before he found the importer and made the crucial discovery that you might find them sprinkled on Naan bread - rather than on a football pitch. 

The importers were in Stanstead, but evil witch Katie refused to go all that way to buy them, and somehow Adam failed to find an Asian cash and carry any nearer, though Alan Sugar claimed there was one less than 10 minutes away.

He then (rather pointedly, I have to say) enquired why they hadn't asked the importer for a list of local stockists, and Adam claimed that they had asked, but been refused this information.  Sugar found this very hard to believe, and Ghazal (who had made the call) admitted that she hadn't asked the question, so that was the end of that little deception.  So no Nigella seeds, and an £80 fine.  Remarkably, they still only lost by 97p, but Adam was still fired.   

Continue reading "The wrong sort of cheese" »


Hong Kong Diaries

Hello to Hong Kong Diaries, which is in the fine tradition of blogs by foreigners coming over to Hong Kong and being delighted and horrified all at the same time.  We're all so polite, apparently.

I have removed Hotel Splendide as it seems to be closed for renovation.


Deeply, deeply sorry

Go to Pandora, and you will be greeted with this rather depressing message:

Dear Pandora Visitor,

We are deeply, deeply sorry to say that due to licensing constraints, we can no longer allow access to Pandora for most listeners located outside of the U.S. We will continue to work diligently to realize the vision of a truly global Pandora, but for the time being we are required to restrict its use. We are very sad to have to do this, but there is no other alternative.

We believe that you are in Hong Kong

Well, yes, I am.

Pandora say that they will try to offer their service in more countries, but it seems safe to assume that Hong Kong will not be the first one they get to.  Or the second, or the third. Negotiating with record companies in each country is going to be a long, painful, process, and Hong Kong is just too small a market for them to even try.

A few ago I wrote about DVD region codes and this prompted a debate between Spike and myself about whether I should be allowed to buy imported DVDs when there is a local distributor who owns the rights for Hong Kong.  My view is that if I buy a genuine/legal DVD then the producers of the film will get their cut, which they wouldn't do if I download it or buy a pirate disc - and frankly I don't care too much whether the local distributor gets his cut or not. 

Clearly the same principles apply to recorded music, and so when the RIAA argued that Pandora should not be offering their service outside the USA there was no legal defence - and Pandora have been forced to stop them offering this service (BBC news).  I am tempted to point out the irony here, in that the members of the RIAA were getting money from Pandora in respect of listeners outside the United States, but the reality is that the record industry don't approve of Pandora (and similar services) and so they will do anything they can to make it difficult for them to operate.  Apparently they believe that if they stop people listening to music for free, they will pay for it instead.  Yeah, right... 

I have cancelled my subscription for emusic because if I can't listen to music then I am not going to buy.  Yes, I know that I could probably use a proxy service to get access to Pandora, or use another service such as last.fm, but I think I've got the message that the record industry doesn't want my money.