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July 2007

June 2007

Life carries on

Sunday (July 1st) is the 10th anniversary of the "handover".  Much is being made of this even though 10 years is a totally arbitrary period of time.  Well, it fills up newspapers, I suppose.

Back in 1997 it seemed that everyone I met in the UK wanted to know what had changed in Hong Kong on 1 July.  The honest (but dull) answer was that Brits had lost their special privileges and would need a working visa, but pretty much everything else was the same as before.    

I suppose this anniversary will prompt a few people to ask the same question, and the answer is equally dull.  I could probably find dozens of articles that say much the same thing as this one (HK after the handover) in The Times: 

The guns still fire at noon across Causeway Bay, Queen Victoria continues to gaze down sternly from her plinth on Statue Square, the street signs remain in English and Chinese, and you can still order a mean Martini at the Mandarin Oriental bar ...

Tourist officials, tour operators and expats living in Hong Kong say that little has changed in the day-to-day life of residents and those visiting the former British colony since the handover from Britain to China a decade ago.

When pushed on any significant changes, Richard Hume, director of the Hong Kong Tourism Board in the UK, simply said: “Well, the post boxes are now green.” Before, he said, they were red.

For a place in which many predicted huge upheaval after the 1997 handover, the transition to Chinese control seems to have gone remarkably smoothly. “Many people thought that things would change for the worse,” Hume said. “In fact, the changeover has made things better.”

The Economist also has a special report on the 10th anniversary of the handover, which also concludes that not much has changed:

THE torrential rain that fell on Britain's end-of-empire parade on the night of June 30th 1997 conjured up apocalyptic visions of the future of Hong Kong. Prince Charles bequeathed a sodden city to Jiang Zemin, China's president, and left on board his yacht with Chris (now Lord) Patten, the last British governor. That very night the city's new masters swore in a new “provisional” legislature appointed to replace one elected under British rule. Television cameramen flocked to the territory's borders with China to film the arrival of the People's Liberation Army. It proved to be almost the last chance to see those soldiers in Hong Kong: they disappeared into their barracks. There were no round-ups of degenerates, dissidents or democrats, and no newspaper closures.

It is tempting to argue that Hong Kong has changed China more than the other way round, as this newspaper and others forecast in 1997. Certainly China has changed the more, though Hong Kong's role in this—compared with, for example, the dynamic momentum of China's internal reforms, and the country's accession to the World Trade Organisation—is debatable. Yet as Hong Kong and China celebrate the tenth anniversary of their reunion, their self-congratulation seems justified. An experiment without historic precedent, the transfer of Hong Kong's sovereignty while keeping its unique way of life, has come off—so far.

What has not changed in the “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region” SAR of China is more obvious than what has. The city streets still hum to the rhythm of commerce. The skyline remains one of the glories of urban ambition.

Then there was Fortune magazine, which admit that they got it wrong with their predictions in 1995 (The death of Hong Kong), with a mea culpa in the current issue (I can't find it online).

Of course Hong Kong has changed, but not because of the Handover.  The main factor has been the astonishing growth of China, but that started long before the Handover.  Being a British colony didn't seem to be much of a handicap for Hong Kong, and being part of China hasn't brought any significant advantages.  The reality is that it has suited Hong Kong businesses to relocate their factories to China, and it has greatly benefited China to have that expertise available. 

Continue reading "Life carries on" »


Miscellany

Little bits of rubbish I have accumulated...

As I am sure I have remarked before, I could fill this blog with the mad letters they publish in the SCMP.  Yesterday, Spike couldn't resist the temptation to highlight a particular stupid example about domestic helpers' salaries from a retired civil servant living in Mid Levels. 

It appears that increased competition is having the desired effect on fares to London.  Cathay are currently offering business class flights for HK$24k (compared to a normal price of HK$40k+), and even Virgin have joined in with Upper Class for HK$30k (but no limousine - boo!).  Meanwhile, Oasis start their service to Vancouver today.

TVB Pearl seem to have decided that if a new blockbuster "threequel" comes out in the cinema, viewers will want to see the one of the earlier films on TV.  They've done it for Pirates and Ocean's 13 and this weekend it's Shrek.  What I want to know is how can anyone sit through these films when they have commercial breaks every few minutes. 

Last weekend, Disney Channel broadcast what they described as the premiere of Chicken Little.  A little later the very same evening the film was on TVB Jade.  There's choice for you...


Wet Wet Wet

This is the rainy season in Hong Kong.

Umbrellas - I hate 'em. Obviously they are very useful when there is heavy rain, but then you have to carry them around and try to avoid losing them. If you are caught without one, there's always that awful decision whether to buy the world's most over-priced umbrella (and worse, to become a walking advertisement for 7-11).  Then, to get full value out of their rash purchase, people insist on using it when (1) they are under cover and (2) it has actually stopped raining.  Well, you never can be too careful, I suppose. 

Slippery flooring - what's that all about? Whenever they "upgrade" a shopping centre or office building they seem to think that a shiny marble floor is just the job. Then when it rains, people walk in (with their wet shoes, wet clothes and that expensive umbrella they just bought in 7-11), and now we have our very own ice skating rink. With predictably hilarious results.

Thunderstorm warnings. Enough said (but there's more here).

Not that it's all bad.

After a good storm, the skies are clear and we can briefly forget that we are in such a polluted city. It is traditional to celebrate this by taking photographs of the Hong Kong skyline and remarking upon how exciting it is to be able to see the Cultural Centre from the Peak.  Or is it the other way round?

On those rare ocasions when the Observatory have resisted the temptation to issue a Thunderstorm Warning, I rather enjoy swimming in the rain. Especially as the pool is usually empty.

Not only that, but the water is cooler after a storm so you don't feel like you're having a bath when you go swimming.


26:45

It's easy to get confused about events that happen after midnight (insert your own punchline about eight pints of lager here).

Cable TV try to solve this by extending the 24 hour clock past midnight, so that a football match that kicks off at 2.45 a.m. is announced as taking place at 26:45 the previous day.  At first sight it looks wrong, but actually it can only have one meaning, and I think most people would regard that time as an extension of the evening (rather than early morning the following day), so it's not as stupid as it may seem.   

There was a letter in the SCMP yesterday (subscription required) about the problems this can cause with flight arrangements.  The correspondent's elderly Scottish parents had booked a flight on Oasis, and for the return journey they duly arrived at the airport on the date shown on the booking.  Except that the flight had departed about 21 hours earlier - so they had missed it.  Oops.

Understandably they were distraught over the mix-up. I would have hoped that the well-advertised customer service would now have helped with this stressful situation, but I was sadly mistaken.

They were told by the handling agent that, although seats were available, due to company policy they would need to purchase another ticket in order to return home. They asked to speak to an Oasis supervisor and, although several calls were made to Oasis, no representative from the airline came to speak to my parents. The final message that Oasis would not make any exception in their case was delivered by the handling agent.

They were, understandably, devastated by the decision and had no other choice but to purchase two economy tickets and left Hong Kong. What was already a tiring journey had now become much more stressful.

This may seem unfair, but the airline couldn't re-sell the seats for the flight that the couple had missed, and Oasis is meant to be a low-cost airline.

If the ticket was issued by an agent, it is their responsibility to make the arrangements clear on the paperwork.  If it was purchased through the Oasis website, I think that makes it very clear that the flight departs shortly after midnight.  Personally, if I had relatives staying with me I would check their flight arrangements quite carefully.  Especially if they were elderly.

Having said that, I think Oasis could at least have offered them tickets at a special price - after all, if there were seats available at that time then it wouldn't have cost them anything to make that concession.   


Walking and talking

There was a letter in the SCMP a while back from someone complaining about the way people use mobile phones in Hong Kong.  I was expecting it to generate some response, but I haven't seen anything (and the letter is no longer anywhere to be found on the new improved website):

I cannot help but wonder how much more pleasant a place Hong Kong must have been back in the days before mobile phones were invented.

If the use of mobiles can be deemed a hazard while driving, then the same can surely be said for their use while walking the streets of the city.

I have lost count of the number of times I have bumped into someone who is preoccupied on their mobile phone, rather than watching where they were going or paying attention to who was around them.

The city would be a much better place if people were banned from using their mobiles while walking the streets or in shopping centres.

It is not that difficult to stop and step to the side of the pavement while having a conversation, so as to let pedestrians pass, and only continue your journey when the phone conversation is finished.

Graeme Duncan, Island South

Quite right - the world has been going downhill since the invention of the spinning jenny (if not earlier), and we'd be better off without all these modern contraptions.  Life was much more civilised when the only way to make a phone call was to get the operator to connect you - and allowing the working classes to have telephones and to dial their own calls has made life almost intolerable. As for mobile phones, they are clearly the work of the devil.   

Er, maybe...

I don't think there's anything wrong with people using mobile phones - the real problem is that so many people are incapable of using the wretched things, let alone walking at the same time.  What we need is a test that you have to pass before you are allowed to use a mobile phone in public (something like the cycling proficiency test, but for mobile phones). 

The reality is that plenty of people in Hong Kong would pass with flying colours even at the advanced level (which involves getting on and off the MTR, getting on and off a minibus and ordering a coffee in Starbucks, all without interrupting their phone conversation).

Meanwhile, the wretches who can't walk in a straight line whilst operating a mobile phone would have them confiscated if they used them in a public.  Problem solved.


Medium-rare with a side order of fries

Interesting idea of the week (from the In Brief section of today's Sunday Morning Post):

Dog-friendly eateries wanted

Hong Kong cannot claim to be an international city until dogs are allowed to join their owners at the restaurant table, Pets Central Asia said. The organisation began a campaign after being refused a licence for a dog-friendly restaurant. Chairman Peter de Krassel said Hongkongers could take birds, cats and other animals into restaurants but not dogs.

This important story was also covered in the SCMP on Friday (subscription required):

Who says there's no discrimination in Hong Kong? Not Peter de Krassel. The chairman of Pets Central (Asia) thinks the government is treating dogs like second-class animal citizens.

The group runs a clinic in North Point's Provident Centre, the first pet-friendly mall in the city, and since October they have also opened in the adjoining space a Pet Cafe serving light nibbles for people and animals.

The group applied to the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department for a proper cafe licence but their application was formally rejected last month.

The department's objection was that pets at the adjoining clinic might carry infectious diseases, fleas, parasites, etc. However, when de Krassel and managing director Pauline Taylor looked closer at the rules, they discovered the rejection came only as a result of anti-canine bias.

"Under the regulations, the only animal that is not allowed in an area where food is served is dogs," de Krassel said. "In other words, every other animal would be okay. We can have birds there, civet cats and all other animals that can bring Sars, but dogs, the safest animals, are arbitrarily rejected.

"Since we've opened the cafe, we have not had one complaint from the landlord, tenants or anyone."

It is doggie discrimination, doggone it! So the clinic and cafe have started a petition and are planning a press conference tomorrow to inform the media of their plight. Good luck.

Words fail me...


Not so stupid

The third season of the UK version of The Apprentice has come to an end, accompanied by a fair degree of controversy.  Naughty old Sir Alan picked the wrong candidate - allegedly. 

It's clear that Donald Trump regarded the original US version of the show as a way of promoting himself and his companies, whereas Alan Sugar does appear to be more interested in hiring someone who is suitable for his company.  Which is why his decision to hire Simon the upper-class twit rather than 'hard as nails' Kristina is not as stupid as some people seem to think. 

The point is that Simon should have been fired in week 10 after his abject performance in the TV shopping task, and so when he survived it could only be because Sugar wanted to hire him. 

Continue reading "Not so stupid" »


Tuen Ng

One of the more pleasant surprises for a newcomer to Hong Kong is the generous selection of public holidays scattered through the year, on what appear to a Westerner to be somewhat random dates.

Today is Tuen Ng, on which it is traditional to eat glutinous rice and take part in (or more likely watch) Dragon Boat racing.  Like the other traditional Chinese festivals, the date is fixed according to the Chinese calendar (normally it falls some time in June, but last year it was at the end of May).

In the UK, there are just three (count 'em) standalone public holidays - two in May, and one at the end of August.  They are all on Mondays, which creates the phenomenon of the Bank Holiday Weekend (expect heavy rain and/or long traffic jams).  Not something we have in Hong Kong, where public holidays can fall on any day except Sunday (Saturday is still officially a working day, though the government has recently moved to a 5-day working week).  

I say that, but rather splendidly Hong Kong did used to have one 'Bank Holiday Weekend' - with a Saturday and Monday both designated as public holidays.  It was to celebrate the Queen's birthday and it was in the middle of August, as I recall.

Not any more, of course.


Hot and bothered

According to the SCMP on Sunday (subscription required), KMB have delayed the withdrawal of non-aircon buses, originally scheduled for this year. 

On a hot morning at the Tsim Sha Tsui bus terminus this week, the driver and passengers on the No5 bus were sweating profusely as the temperature reached 32 degrees Celsius - three degrees higher than outside.

Other buses in the queue were much cooler, because they had air conditioning, but this No5 bus was one of KMB's 260 non-air-conditioned buses, which were all supposed to be replaced this year.

[..] 

KMB began introducing air-conditioned buses in 1995 and pledged to phase out the old buses from its fleet of 4,021 buses by the end of this year. Yet the company has since postponed the full-replacement for three years, claiming some residents are reluctant to pay the higher fare for the new buses. The 260 old buses have raised concerns about air pollution and fare rises.

Polytechnic University vehicle emission expert Lo Kok-keung said the "hot dog" buses were more polluting than the new buses. Vehicle emission is the main cause of air pollution at street level in Hong Kong.

"All the non-air-conditioned buses are pre-Euro [emission standard] models and manufactured before 1992, [so] the emission is roughly 20 per cent more than the new buses." Mr Lo said. "Besides, they [the `hot dogs'] are less energy efficient because of the old design."

Explaining the delay in the fleet's full replacement, a KMB spokesman said: "We have faced opposition from some district councillors, saying the elderly in some areas find it difficult to accept the fare adjustment. Thus we postponed the progress and expect all buses will be air conditioned in 2010."

Another concern was cost effectiveness.

Frankly, I doubt that the difference in fares really reflects the cost of providing air conditioning, and if you bear in mind that newer buses should be more fuel efficient (and therefore cheaper to run) the fares are probably something of an anomaly.

It's a few years since I travelled on a bus without aircon - but there was a time when I used one service occasionally because it took me from door-to-door without any need to change.  

Even in summer, it was just about OK on the top deck as long as the bus kept moving, but buses do have this unfortunate habit of stopping quite frequently (at bus stops, at traffic lights and pretty much everywhere else).  Then, of course, you have to close the windows when going through a tunnel.  All round, not a particularly pleasant experience in hot weather, and we do have a lot of that in Hong Kong.

Is it true that KMB only started introducing aircon buses in 1995?  Surely that can't be right... 


Room for one more on top

There is a curious story in the SCMP (subscription required) saying that the government will not allow Green Minibuses to add more seats:

The government refused yesterday to consider allowing green-top minibuses to install more seats in an effort to cut peak-hour congestion, despite claims that the idea had wide support in the community.  The Transport Department said it had no plans for a strategic review of public light bus services as it did not foresee growth in demand because of robust railway development.

But Leung Kong-yui, associate head of the Centre for Logistics and Transport at Hong Kong University SPACE, who made the proposal, said the department was not responsive to calls from the community.

The buses now have 16 seats but have space for 24. If a change were made, it would be the first since the number was increased 20 years ago from 14 to 16.

I am fascinated to know where they were planning to put these extra 8 seats.