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December 2004

The news doesn't get any better

It's hard to escape from the aftermath of Sunday's earthquake.  Today's newspaper is full of grisly photographs of dead bodies, and for once it seems appropriate (though I am sure there will still be complaints). 

As feared, the death toll is still rising, though it's a sobering thought that (as Harry reminds us), it will still fall far short of the number who died in Tangshan, China in 1976.  The official estimate was around 250,000, but the figure may well have been substantially higher. 

I can't really add anything useful to what others have said.  Shaky has pointed out that there is already a comprehensive Wikipedia article on the subject:

Based on one seismic model, some of the smaller islands southwest of Sumatra have moved southwest up to 20 m (66 ft). The northern tip of Sumatra, which is on the Burma Plate as opposed to the southern regions on the Sunda Plate, may also have moved southwest up to 36 m (120 ft).

It's really hard to comprehend the enormity of it all.


Mother Nature

I suppose that, if we're honest, many natural disasters are easy to ignore because we have no real way to relate to what happened.  Somewhere a long way away, thousands of people we don't know have been killed and a foreign country has been badly affected.

For me, Sunday's earthquake off the coast of Indonesia and the devastation it caused in a large part of Asia certainly had a much greater impact.

Mainly because I have visited several of the countries that were affected and I know people who live there.  I've been to places such as Penang and Phuket where many people died.  It is entirely possible that I could have been in one of those places on Sunday, rather than safe at home in Hong Kong.

One report yesterday said that the Laguna Phuket resort had been totally destroyed. Having stayed there not that long ago (and having considered going back there this Chritsmas) this certainly made it very real.  Fortunately it seems that this particular resort was not badly affected - only one person is missing and all the hotels are operating normally. 

However, other resorts on Phuket were very badly affected, and it's not hard to imagine the devastating impact any number of seafront hotels might have suffered from the tidal waves.  One tourist is quoted as saying he only survived "because he had left the ground floor dining room of his hotel after breakfast to pack".  I'd be much more likely to be eating breakfast at that time in the morning rather than sitting by the pool or on the beach, but that might not have made any difference.

And yet... we have to remember that this is not just about foreign tourists.  It's about the local people who worked in the hotels, and about people going about their ordinary everday business in Sri Lanka or Indonesia or India.  Entire communities wiped out, and probably considerably more than the current estimate of 20,000 dead.  Scary stuff.  Never underestimate Mother Nature.


It's just not Christmas

Since it started broadcasting in the UK 23 years ago, Channel Four has shown "The Snowman" every Christmas Day.  I remember Jeremy Isaacs saying that as long as he was controller of Channel Four it would be guaranteed a place in the schedule, and in fact it has long outlasted his involvement with the channel.

Obviously I wasn't in Hong Kong in 1982, but I seem to recall that it has been a regular in the Christmas TV schedules (on TVB Pearl, I think) since I've been here.  Not this year, as far as I can see (and I hope they're not showing it after Christmas).  It's not as if the schedules are packed full of other superior seasonal fare (as if anything could be better than "The Snowman"), so I don't think they've got any excuses.

Oh, and Happy Christmas   


The mall the merrier

Shopping Centres have been in the news recently, with the government's attempt to sell off the ones it (somewhat inexplicably) owns and manages. Seems like a good plan to me - most shopping centres on public housing estates are rundown and unattractive, and new management will surely bring about some improvements.

Shopping Centres play a fairly central role in Hong Kong life. Mainly because because a large air-conditioned mall is not an unattractive place to pass the time if you live in a tiny apartment with your mother-in-law, grandmother, or other assorted members of your extended family. Also, there are relatively few standalone shops and in many places walking along the street is often difficult and unpleasant. The connecting walkways above street level are also a good way of getting around, particular in the Central/Admiralty area, and new towns such as Tsuen Wan, Sha Tin and Tuen Mun.

Anyone who has spent any time in Hong Kong will know that there are all manner of different shopping centres dotted around the place, some very successful, others almost deserted. What makes the difference between success and failure?

Continue reading "The mall the merrier" »


Martin Booth: Gweilo

Given the title, this is a book I had to read, though I have to admit I was expecting something a little different - maybe something more like Liam Fitzpatrick's tales of 'Bottoms Up'.

Martin Booth wrote 'Gweilo' because (just over two years ago) he was diagnosed with a brain tumour. His children asked him to write about his childhood, and he completed the book shortly before he died earlier this year.

What surprised me about the book was that it covers only a three year period in the 1950's, from when the author left the UK at the age of 7 to travel with his parents to Hong Kong, to their return exactly three years later (in May 1955). They were back in Hong Kong in 1959 and this time stayed much longer, finally leaving for the UK in 1972, but this book only covers that first stay.

Martin Booth says in the introduction that he felt that it smacked of arrogance to write an autobiography. I'm not sure about that, though it's certainly true that most published autobiographies are by famous people, presumably because the publishers expect them to sell well. Unfortunately most famous people turn out to desperately dull, and their autobiographies disappointingly unrevealing. Not this one, though.

Continue reading "Martin Booth: Gweilo" »


A reit mess

Most idiotic comment on the Link Reit fiasco must be from Secretary for Housing, Planning and Lands Michael Suen Ming-yeung. He is quoted as saying:

"It's like a 9/11-style attack ... No one can be blamed because you can't expect this to happen."

This rather neatly sums up what went wrong. The government employed a large number of "experts" to advise them on the privitisation and share issue, and none of them anticipated a legal challenge? You really don't have to look very far to see the privatisation has always been controversial, and it is not surprising that someone who is against it might want to take legal action.

The solution to this little puzzle was to ensure that the Housing Ordinance was amended, and then to ensure that if there was going to be any legal action it was completed before the public listing took place. The legislation would have passed, and the legal action would have been won, and then the listing would have been straightforward.


How the other 0.05% live

I am not sure whether they are supposed to be funny, but some of the articles in the Sunday Morning Post about other people's homes can be quite entertaining. 

This week we have a small family that have two adjacent properties on Lantau, each one a modest 2,000 square feet.  One for them, the other for visitors, apparently.  Skimming through the article, they would seem to have purchased most of their furniture from street markets in Beijing.  As you do...

The best bit for me was the photograph of the stairs.  Nothing special about them as far as I could see (I'm guessing they connect the upstairs and downstairs), but one can't help noticing the white (phone?) cabling running up the stairs.  It rather spoils the whole carefully cultivated image of understated elegance.  PCCW strikes again!


Slow down

Travelling by minibus is one of the more, er, interesting public transport experiences in Hong Kong. The main advantage is that they (usually) get you to your destination quickly, but unfortunately this is only because the drivers are contractually bound to break at least one traffic regulation for each kilometre they travel. Usually it's speeding, but you'll pleased to hear that the government has a cunning plan to deal with this.

The first part was to install large (and very ugly) digital displays showing the current speed. Well, thanks, but I already knew we were going too fast. The second part is that these wretched machines are designed to emit a loud irritating sound when they go faster than about 75 kph. Well, thanks again, but on the whole I don't think it improves the whole travelling by minibus experience.

Naturally, the driver takes no notice. I'm not sure whether passengers are supposed to hear the sound and gently remind the driver that he is going too fast, but I fear this plan may not work. I can only think of two outcomes, and neither would be favourable. So what we have here is just one more way in which travelling by minibus is made marginally less pleasant. The good news is that apparently minibus drivers are able to use their endless ingenuity to disable the loud and unpleasant noise, though sadly they can’t work the same trick on passengers with mobile phones.

They have had a similar scheme in Singapore for many years. It's part of the welcome you get to their nanny state - travelling along the highway from the airport to the city centre you hear a bell ringing when taxi is travelling "too fast". This being Singapore, it's not loud or particularly annoying, the speed is too low, and (of course) it doesn't make the slightest bit of difference. Except that I feel slightly cheated if the bell isn't ringing, because it means the driver is going too slowly.

If they want the Hong Kong scheme to work, I have a suggestion. Instead of making an irritating sound, they need a stick with a sharp pointed end that would appear in the centre of the steering wheel if the vehicle is breaking the speed limit. Or, I suppose, fit actual speed regulators, as I believe they have in lorries and coaches in the UK. It would take most of the fun out of being a minibus driver, but it would reduce the number of accidents.

On which subject there was a piece recently in The Standard on minibus drivers:

The Environment, Transport and Works Bureau replied that among the 3,146 minibus drivers involved in accidents in the past three years, 2,463 had held a driving licence for more than four years, while only 125 had held one for less than a year.

The causes of more than half the accidents remain unknown. But two of the most common reasons that could be identified were "driving too close to the vehicles in front'' resulting in 266 accidents, and "careless lane changing or overtaking'' leading to 211 accidents.

Any minibus driver who doesn't drive too close to the vehicle in front or change lanes carelessly probably hasn't been a minibus driver for very long. They soon learn the tricks of the trade!


In case you were getting bored waiting

The latest brilliant idea from the advertising industry...

I guess we all spend time every day waiting for a lift to arrive.  Well, now you can spend that time watching advertisements.  There is a company in Hong Kong installing LCD televisions in lift lobbies, and their slogan is

"Reaching business executives in a captive environment".

I guess that sounds better than "watched mainly by couriers and harassed office workers".  Or "nobody really watches at all".      

It's all getting out of hand.  They have TVs on buses on minibuses and in KCR trains, and on the platforms of MTR stations, mostly pumping out adverts, though the Roashow thing on buses does also have some cheap programming (promotional puffs for new films, highlights of obsure English football matches from several seasons ago, idiotic competitions that require you to call a premium rate number, and other general rubbish). 

Periodically people (well, OK, let's be honest, gweilos) write to the SCMP complaining about how disturbing they find the TVs on the buses because it prevents them sleeping or reading or shouting in to their mobile phones or whatever it is that they want to do, and declare that they really cannot travel by bus any more. 

Well, whilst some of it is entertaining in a bizarre kind of way, and watching some of the 'miracle slimming' ads can be kinda distracting, I really don't have any problem reading whilst it's on.  Actually, I'd have thought that anyone who lived in Hong Kong would need to develop this ability or else they'd go mad.  Or perhaps I already am mad.   


Asia Blog Awards (2)

Well, that wasn't quite what I was expecting! I mentioned last week that I felt somewhat indifferent towards the Asia Blog Awards, and one reason was that I felt fairly sure who the top five or so would be, and reasonably confident that I would be somewhere around the bottom of the top ten. Nothing to get excited about, right?

Well, Simon has now announced the ten blogs that have been shortlisted for 'Best Hong Kong blog', and I am mildly perplexed to find that only two (Gweilo Diaries and Shaky Kaiser) of that "top five" are included!

No BWG, no Flying Chair, and no Simon World. Also missing is Chase me ladies, I'm in the cavalry, which is certainly the funniest blog I read regularly (in Hong Kong or anywhere). However, the latter two have been shortlisted in other categories, presumably because of the limitation of ten for each shortlist. Nevertheless, the absence of the first two is surprising, as they have both been around a long time and have each built up a loyal following (not to mention appearing on TV to frighten the children).

I'm pleased (but slightly surprised) to see Discombobulated Mia in the list, and Spirit Fingers is an impressive piece of work that deserves to be there. I can't argue with the inclusion of Hemlock's Diary (if you treat is as a blog), and Ordinary Gweilo seems to have scraped in as well.

It's amusing to see Glutter there next to the Gweilo Diaries. Not company that Yan would wish to keep, I think. I read and enjoy Glutter, but Yan has deliberately estranged herself from the "circle" of Gweilo blogs because she disapproves of Conrad and others, and feels that the rest of us are guilty by association because we link to them. I have to admit that I don't read Yoga Yuga so I can't comment on it. I think it used to be a Taiwan blog but the author has just moved to Hong Kong.

The shortlist is as follows:

and you can vote here

[post updated because Simon has added EastSouthWestNorth]