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October 2004
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December 2004

Let's knock it all down and start again

At the start of the year, I mentioned the curious business of the housing estate in Hung Hom that the government built and then decided it didn't want any more.  At the time, the developers who kindly took this so-called white elephant off the government's hands said that they would probably knock it all down and turn it into a park put up some rather swankier apartments instead. 

Now the developers have confirmed that is exactly what they plan to do.  Cue predictable outrage from environmentalists and people who think that the property companies are profiteering.  In Hong Kong, as well, where that type of stuff almost never happens. 

Simon is upset as well, mainly at the fact that the shareholders of SHKP and NWD are profiting at the expense of everyone else in Hong Kong.  Nothing new there, though.  Property companies have become rich by virtue of being able to acquire sites as cheaply as possible and negotiate the lowest possible land premium, then sell the completed apartments for the highest possible price.

Many years there was a big fuss in the UK because a property company built an office block (Centre Point) and deliberately kept it empty:

Centre Point became notorious because it remained empty for years. The economics of this was that, as rents were rising so sharply, it was better to leave it empty than rent it out and tie its value down to a particular rent review period. This was because the capital appreciation was greater than the lost rental income. It's construction cost in 1964 was £5.5 million whilst its estimated market value in 1973 was £20 million. The icing on the cake was that as it was empty it was not liable for rates [a form of property tax that applies in the UK (and Hong Kong)].

Property companies frequently knock down perfectly good buildings in order to put up something new in their place, and in Hong Kong it is common for buildings that are only 20-30 years old to be demolished.  However, this is a particularly extreme example, and amazingly it even seems to have provoked criticism from the government - the Secretary for the Environment, Transport and Works, Sarah Liao, said today that the developer's decision is not environmentally friendly.  I think I must have been living in Hong Kong for too long, because somehow I can't seem to get upset about this.

Only in Hong Kong.

Expecting some funds

Simon has written about the ESF, something I have previously mentioned a few times myself. I won't repeat what he has written, which is a mostly fair summary of the history and more recent problems.  Something has to change.

However, I think it's important to remember that the ESF was set up and given government money in order to provide education for children who couldn't survive in local schools because their native tongue was English rather than Cantonese.

What has happened since has tended to obscure those fairly laudable aims. Nowadays, the majority of the children attending ESF schools are locally-born native Cantonese speakers. Their parents choose an ESF school because they want their children to be fluent in English and also because the facilities and quality of the education are superior to local schools (or at least the vast majority of them).  The fees are also more affordable than international schools (which don't receive any subsidy from the government).

The ESF have made great play of these points in seeking to defend the subvention (the money paid by the government to the ESF). However, surely what it really demonstrates is that there is strong demand for the education that the ESF offers, and therefore a cut in the subsidy would not do much damage. Presumably the ESF would be forced to increase fees, but most parents would be able to afford this and if a few could not afford to pay more, there would be no shortage of parents willing to take up any spare places. So the ESF would survive.

However, there is a risk that some children whose parents could not afford to pay would find themselves with a problem because their children would be unable to cope in the local system. It's easy to assume that we are talking about a bunch of rich expats who could easily afford to pay increased school fees - whereas we are actually talking about a bunch of rich locals and expats who could easily afford to pay more. No, that's unfair - there are certainly a significant number of less wealthy parents who may be struggling to afford current ESF fees and who probably couldn't pay much more.  And why should they, when they are taxpayers as well?

Continue reading "Expecting some funds" »

Turning the tables (2)

The other Hong Kong invader is PCCW, which is trying to set up a wireless broadband network in the UK.  From The Guardian, once again:

The Hong Kong telecoms company PCCW is to offer some British customers telephony services through its wireless broadband technology next year.  The technology has been tipped as a threat to BT's grip on the fixed-line phone market in Britain. Unlike other broadband services, PCCW's product can be transmitted directly into homes. It does not involve rewiring or piggy-backing on BT's local loop network.

PCCW, trading as UK Broadband, has acquired 15 wireless broadband licences across the country for $14m (£7.5m) and has invested up to $40m in a web of base stations installed on existing mobile phone masts to create a network across an area of the Thames Valley, west of London.  UK Broadband, which only offers an internet data service called Netvigator, has not revealed how many customers it had attracted in and around Slough, Reading, Windsor and Maidenhead, where it has hired Saatchi & Saatchi to conduct a advertising blitz.


PCCW already offers many of its customers in Hong Kong telephony, internet and television over its wireless technology.

I don't think so!  PCCW does have a wireless broadband service in Hong Kong, but its residential broadband service is (unsurprisingly) delivered through the phone lines that it has into virtually every home and business in Hong Kong.  Just like BT has in the UK.

The third company is Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation, which is in talks with Rover about a joint venture. According to some newspaper reports, this could eventually lead to Rover being owned by the Chinese company. Nothing particularly unusual about that - famous British car marques such as Rolls Royce, Bentley, Jaguar and Mini are already in foreign hands.

Continue reading "Turning the tables (2)" »

Turning the tables

Three stories this week about Hong Kong or Chinese companies operating (or hoping to operate) in the UK.  First there's public transport (from The Guardian):

A Chinese state-controlled rail operator has made a surprise entry into Britain's rail industry, with ambitious plans to bid for franchises covering mainline rail services throughout London and the home counties.

Er, Chinese state controlled, you say? This is the MTRC, in case you missed the story.

Hong Kong's Mass Transit Railway Corporation (MTR) has struck a deal with the inter-city firm GNER to table a joint bid for a new franchise covering all of Kent. With a punctuality record of 99%, MTR claims to be the world's most reliable train company. It is listed on the Hong Kong stock market but 77% of its shares are held by Hong Kong's government.

The Hong Kong government is not quite the same thing as the Chinese state - One Country, Two Systems, blah, blah, blah. The Guardian helpfully makes a few comparisons between the Hong Kong MTR and the network of lines in Kent that are covered by this franchise

In Hong Kong, there is little overcrowding because nearly everybody stands - there are 48 seats in carriages for 300 people. While South Eastern Trains spent £500,000 cleaning graffiti off its trains last year, MTR said vandalism in China was virtually unknown. Mr Gaffney said in Asian cultures, "people value property, in particular other people's property, too much to destroy it".

Hong Kong's rail network comprises 80km of track, 49 stations and carries 2.24 million passengers a day. Kent's railways cover 773km of track, 178 stations and carry 400,000 people a day.

Commuter railways around London suffer from chronic problems with vandalism and graffiti. In Hong Kong, graffiti is unknown and the rail operator can only recall three instances of vandalism since its operations began in 1979.

Hong Kong's MTR authority made a profit of HK$4.4bn (£304m) last year and received no subsidy. South Eastern Trains was supported by £49.2m of government cash.

Punctuality on Hong Kong's railways slipped slightly last year to 98.9%. South Eastern Trains' punctuality was 79%, falling to 75% during rush hours.

Hong Kong's MTR network is 77% owned by the city's government and is ultimately answerable to the city's chief executive, Tung Chee Hwa. South Eastern Trains has been under the control of the British government since Veolia Environnement's Connex subsidiary was sacked for poor financial management a year ago.

No public subsidy?  Well, I suppose we better not mention the land rights that the government routinely grants to the MTRC.  They develop a couple of dozen apartments and a small parade of shops on top of each station, and everyone's happy.  Or, as Jake van der Kamp puts it, the MTRC is really a property company than also operates a train service. 

There's another quote in the article from a trainspotter type, pointing out that the MTR is "a brand new system which was built by the Brits. They have brand new trains and a brand new track which has been steadily upgraded and improved."  We'll move swiftly on without discussing whether it was really built by the Brits, but the key point is that as well as being a modern system, the MTR has the great advantage that it consists of a small number of self-contained lines.  The problem with all the London commuter lines are that a multitude of fast and slow services all operate along the same tracks, and a small problem with one service can have a knock-on effect elsewhere. 

If trains are delayed for 10 minutes on the MTR, that'll probably be the top story on the news, and self-important legislators will insist that "something has to be done".  On a London commuter service, being ten minutes late is trivial and almost routine (on some lines, being only ten minutes is actually a cause for celebration).

The Standard also reports this story, and mentions that this is not the first time that the MTRC has bid for a public transport project in the UK.

MTRC suffered a setback in July after the British government denied funding for a GBP50 million tram project in Portsmouth in southern England. MTRC was part of the Smart consortium, one of the two groups that tendered for the development of the 14 kilometre link. The railway operator also failed in its bid for tram schemes in Leeds and Manchester previously.

All I can say is that if the MTRC do win this franchise, their problems will only just have begun!

Weasels with eight tentacles

One piece of free advice I give to visitors to Hong Kong is to buy an Octopus card when they arrive at the airport, and then hand it back just before they fly home. You pay lower fares on the MTR and KCR and can get special discounts (mainly on buses and the Airport Express), and of course it means you don't have to fumble around for unfamiliar coins every times you want to travel somewhere.

However, it seems that rather too many tourists have been doing just that, and it's affecting the profits of the Octopus company. They say that the cost of processing refunds and updating the cards means that they lose money on any cards that are used for a short time. I think they really mean cards that aren't used very much, because they receive a small fee from the transport operator (or other organization) every time you use the card, but I suppose it amounts to much the same thing.

So now if you return an Octopus card within 3 months, they will deduct HK$7 from your deposit to cover their costs.

However, let's be honest - when it comes to parting tourists from their hard-earned cash, HK$7 is not really a significant amount. Never fear, they have thought of another way to get a larger slice of the cake. Yes, they will sell you a special tourist Octopus card for HK$70. It's exactly like a normal Octopus card - well, except that there is no stored value and it "holds no deposit", so you are actually paying HK$70 just for an Octopus card that you is yours to own for ever.

Now, it may well be that for some visitors to Hong Kong, an Octopus card with a full colour photograph of some Hong Kong landmark or other is just exactly what they were looking for, and they will be delighted. It'll look lovely next to your 10" high figure of the Queen of Hearts and all the other crappy souvenirs you have acquired.

I am more concerned about the small minority who want an Octopus card so that they can, er, travel around Hong Kong. These poor souls might believe that paying HK$70 for a tourist Octopus is attractive compared to paying HK$150 for the normal card. Well, it isn't.  I just hope that someone points out to them that because their HK$70 hasn't bought them any stored value, they will have to add value (a minimum of HK$50) before they can use the card on public transport. So, get smart, ask for a normal card and save yourself HK$63.

In true weasel fashion, Octopus point out that you could always use the card on a return visit (because they are valid for 3 years). Well, yes, but if you bought a normal Octopus the same thing would apply, and you wouldn't have to pay the HK$7 penalty if you returned it on your next visit. So get a normal Octopus card.

2 new blogs

Two new blogs. The author of Why is the platypus? seems to be an Australian and Shaky thinks he's in Korea, though he may be about to move to Shanghai (where he might find Wanbro is he takes the job he has been offered at a pathetically low salary).  All the usual stuff, possible a male counterpart to Mia.

Cha Xiu Bao is a bit different, being almost exclusively about food.  The author is based in Hong Kong, but seems to travel fairly widely, eating in good restaurants wherever he goes.  In case you're wondering, the title is a reference to a fluffy white bun that is a dim sum staple.

Book Review - Jonathan Fenby: Dealing with the Dragon

Jonathan Fenby was editor of the South China Morning Post from (I think) 1995 to 1999. His book is ostensibly a diary of one year (1999), though actually it's about Hong Kong over a longer period, obviously including the handover. It starts with an interesting and quite entertaining chapter about Hong Kong. Reading this it becomes obvious that Fenby had spent long enough here to know Hong Kong better than many journalists who write about the city, though crucially he still comes across as an outsider.

The problem with this chapter is that Fenby seems a little too keen to show off how much he knows, and some of it doesn't quite ring true (for example he notes that many buildings don't have a 4th floor or a 14th, 24th or 34th floor, which is correct, but then claims that the apartment block opposite where he lived had Upper 3rd, Upper 13th & Upper 23rd floors, which seems unlikely. He also says that "holding a quota licence to export textile goods to the West remains a ticket to riches, but the sweaters and jeans and T-shirts do not have to been made in Hong Kong." Well, actually they do, otherwise the US authorities get very upset. However, it's true that many garment factories have been sold and the sites re-developed as offices or residential sites, thereby making the owners very rich. He alludes to one such individual, mentioning that "the last time we visited the leader of one major political group, he had a large Mercedes, a Porsche and a Ferrari in the driveway, and a Rolls inside the garage".

Strangely he doesn't say who he is talking about.  Unfortunately, most people reading this book (given that it was published in London) will have no idea, whereas most Hong Kong people will know that he must mean Liberal Party leader Tien Pei-chun.  Later he talks about Nury Vittachi but doesn't mention his name.  What's that all about, then? 

Continue reading "Book Review - Jonathan Fenby: Dealing with the Dragon" »

Turn right around

Loop_da_loopThe Observatory are listing typhoon Muifa on their website.  I had a quick look, and it seems that a Hong Kong minibus driver is in charge of this one.  It's path is erratic (to say the least).  It was heading in the general direction of Hong Kong and then turned right round and is apparently not coming anywhere near here!


Out in the cold

Yes, it's that time of year again.  Gweilos think the weather is great, whilst locals dress up warmly and are deeply puzzled by people like me walking around in shirt sleeves.

What puzzles me is why these same people also insist on having the aircon turned to freezing in the office, and the wear coats or jackets to stay warm.  Hey, here's an idea - adjust the aircon.

A friend of mine is in the UK at the moment, and he is complaining about the weather over there.  With some justification, I think.  Yesterday, it was snowing:

And temperatures are expected to plunge even further.

A Met Office spokesman said: "These downfalls caught us completely by surprise - but we should brace ourselves for more icy blasts over the next few days. Temperatures could fall below zero before the weekend."

Today in Hong Kong temperatures range from 23-27 degrees Celsius, up a little from earlier in the week.  That's not cold, by any definition!

Burn the witch

Sorry, I'm banging on about The Apprentice again.  I'll keep it brief.

Last week, Trump fired Bradford for messing with the stoopid immunity rule.  This week it got worse - he fired Stacie for being way too weird and upsetting her fellow contestants (sorry, team members).  We can't have that, he said in his best kindly old uncle voice.  Never mind that she wasn't the reason the team lost, and there were two or three people who had messed up and deserved to be fired.  No, let's have another dramatic decision from Mr Trump.   

Two thoughts come to mind.  The first is whether he would done the same thing if one of the guys had been acting a bit weird (er, hello, Raj).  The second is that Omarosa was much, much, worse than Stacie, and yet she survived for a scarily long time (before coming back to haunt poor old Kwame).

So what was it that Stacie did?  Not much.  She did some weird stuff with a magic 8-ball, she had the temerity to show some initiative by trying to hire some temps to sell ice cream, and then she may or may not have told her team members that she was in the wrong location (but only "half a block" out, as George noted caustically).  Truth is that she fell out with the rest of her team, and they ganged up on her.  Trump fell for it and she was gone.

Perhaps next week he'll fire Bill.  Anything's possible, frankly.