19 December 2014

15 Minutes with Mr. Lau 與劉師父的對話

I finished dinner in Causeway Bay and hailed a taxi outside the Excelsior Hotel. The driver was a middle-aged man with grizzled hair and a penchant for small talk. Small talk is not my thing, much less with a stranger at the end of a long day. As I was disentangling my earphones to signal my desire for a quiet ride, the driver said something that piqued my interest.

Conversation with Mr. Lau

“Look at this mess,” he complained, pointing at the snarled traffic on Gloucester Road. “We had 79 days of heaven and now we are back in hell.”

I wasn’t sure if I had heard him right. My impression was like everyone else’s – that taxi drivers were upset with the Umbrella Movement because main arteries like Harcourt Road and Nathan Road had been occupied. And for those who are in the business of moving people around, blocked streets mean bad business.

“How do you mean?” I probed, glancing at his ID on the dashboard. His name was Lau.

“I mean business was much better during the protests,” Mr. Lau declared.

“I was told your income fell by 15 to 30% because the streets were blocked.” I remembered reading those figures in the paper.

“That’s a load of crap,” he said. “For 79 days, I worked less and made more. Who doesn’t like that?”

Taxi drivers demanding Harcourt Road to be reopened

“You need to explain to me how that worked, because that’s not what we think happened.”

“It’s simple. Traffic was way better during the protests. There were no double-deckers taking up multiple lanes, and more people took taxis because buses and mini-buses were re-routed.”

“But wasn’t it a big hassle to have to go around the protest sites?”

“It was confusing the first couple of days but people quickly adapted. Say, if I were to go eastbound from Sai Ying Poon to Causeway Bay, I would take Lung Wo Road and bypass the protest zone in Admiralty.” He proceeded to give me a few more examples of how drivers would dodge the occupied areas by taking alternate routes, both on the Hong Kong side and in Kowloon.

“And there’s one more thing,” Mr. Lau continued to enlighten me. “With so much police presence everywhere, we had fewer idiots double-parking or unloading stuff where they weren’t supposed to. Drivers were on their best behavior and many people simply left their cars at home to avoid trouble.”

Taxi drivers parked on tram tracks to protest against protestors

“Exactly how much better was business?” I pressed, wanting details.

“On average, I made about $300 more every day.”

“What percentage is that compared to what you made before or after the protests?”

“Well, I pull in roughly $1,200 on a good day and $800 on a slow one. So my income went up by more than 30% during those 11 or so weeks.”

“You said you had worked less to make more. It doesn’t seem to add up.”

“Why not? With better traffic and a constant flow of customers, my meter jumped faster. I could finish my shift two to three hours early on most nights.”

“Was it just you or was it the case for everyone else?”

“We all drive on the same streets. Why would I be any different from the next cab driver?”

After 79 days, things are now back to "normal"

I shook my head in disbelief, shoving my still tangled earphones back into my bag. I recalled images of irate taxi drivers charging at student protestors and taking down their barricades, all because their livelihood had been ruined by traffic disruptions.

“If what you said is true, then who were those angry cab drivers filing for court injunctions and punching their fists in the air?”

“Even my wife cringed when she saw that on television. Those were hired guns, of course. The whole thing was staged. Those guys were paid $1,500 for a day’s work. I’m too old to do that sort of thing, and so I didn’t take the offer. If I were younger, perhaps I would have considered.”

“How did they ask you, by Whatsapp or SMS?”

“Heck, no! That would be too obvious. One of the large taxi companies made verbal offers to us.” He mentioned a company name I had not heard of. Taxi companies aren’t exactly household names.

“I had no idea. I thought it was just a conspiracy theory,” I confessed.

“That’s what the Communists do best. Lies and more lies.” Mr. Lau made his first political statement in our conversation. It would also be his last.

“I’m not a political person, you see. I just want to make money to pay off my mortgage and send my children overseas for a good education. I want them to be as far away from this rotten place as possible.”

Mr. Lau went on with his doomsday pessimism: “Hong Kong is a place to make money. Once you have made enough, you get out and never come back. That’s what all the politicians do as well. Look at C.Y. Leung – all his children are studying abroad.”

They've been framed

He was starting to veer off topic and I wanted to bring the conversation back to the Umbrella Movement. “If the protests were good for business,” I asked, “then does it mean you support the students?”

“I don’t support anybody. I’m just an ordinary person trying to make a honest living.” He heaved a sigh and continued, “I’m just telling you what I see. Traffic was great for 79 days and now things are back to normal,’ the normal traffic jams that had cost me over an hour tonight to go from Diamond Hill to Causeway Bay before I picked you up at the Excelsior.”

“Then, Mr. Lau, you must tell every passenger what you have just told me! You should phone in to a radio show or talk to a reporter.” I urged. “Everyone believed what they saw on the news and blamed the students for things they didn’t do. That’s not fair to them!”

“Look, I’m not an activist and I need to be careful whom I talk to. You look like a nice enough guy and so I assume you aren’t one of those Blue Ribbons. I don’t want any trouble...”

That’s when I saw my apartment building and interrupted Mr. Lau: “Wait, sorry, turn left at the traffic lights please.” I gave him a better-than-usual tip and thanked him for the conversation. He thanked me in return and waved goodbye before pulling off.

I went home and turned on my computer. I decided to do what Mr. Lau did not want to do – I would tell everyone what he had told me. It was the right thing to do.

01 December 2014

Mobile Occupy 流動佔領

There is no question that Hong Kong people love to shop; that’s why they call the city a shoppers paradise. This past week, citizens took our national sport to a whole new level. Gou wu (購物) – which means shopping in Mandarin – has become the battle cry for pro-democracy protestors to call on one another to visit Mongkok in large numbers. The goal is to overrun the area and wear down the police in response to their heavy-handed clearance of the Mongkok protest site a week ago. These shopaholics were hard at work in Kowloon even during Sundays violent clashes outside the Government Headquarters on the other side of the harbor. They have also found unlikely allies in the United States, where citizens have been organizing “die-ins” at shopping malls by playing dead on the floor in protest of the fatal police shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri.

Let's gou wu!

Mongkok, or MK for short, has always been a colorful and somewhat rough-and-tumble part of the city. It is a cross between Harajuku and the Bronx, where shopping centers tower over decades-old tenement buildings, where young buskers belt out Cantopop oldies next to a 55-year-old hula-hooper, and where triad bosses patrol the neighborhood to check up on seedy bars, nightclubs and massage parlors. Since tough streets beget tough crowds, you don’t expect MK protestors to take kindly to the government’s declaration of war last week. 

And so when CY Leung called on citizens to resume their shopping routine after Nathan Road reopened, protestors self-organized into legions of retail warriors and descended on MK by the hundreds. These “shopping sprees” begin after dinner (to maximize turnout) and continue well past midnight. Shoppers walk in slow motion to clog sidewalks, pretend to drop and pick up loose change to stop traffic, and stand still for hours to watch movie trailers in front of a giant LCD screen. Never mind it’s 2:30 in the morning, shoppers holler “I want to buy a gold watch!” or “Sell me an iPhone 6!” in mocking Mandarin while marching down the busy thoroughfare. It gives new meaning to the expression shop till you drop.

Shoppers in Mongkok

But even retail therapy can get a little tense. Once in a while, shoppers raise their right hands and give the famous three-finger salute from The Hunger Games in defiance. To taunt police, some recite passages from the Bible while others chant unintelligible verses from the Nilakantha Dharani, an ancient Buddhist script. And when their path is blocked by police barricades, they fall into a tactical formation like a Roman battalion and use umbrellas and homemade shields to break through. The gou wu operation was most intense last Friday, when shoppers led police on a wild goose chase through a dizzying web of backstreets between Mongkok and Tsim Sha Tsui in an all-night game of human Pac-Man.

The police finds little amusement in the shoppers’ antics. Whether it is the stress, the guilt, the plunging morale, or a combination of all three, their reactions range from mild annoyance to raging violence. Whereas unreasonable search and seizure is common and probably illegal, it is the indiscriminate assault on both protestors and bystanders that has drawn the most public outrage. Stories of citizens being randomly snatched by police and tackled to the ground are followed by allegations of torture and sexual molestation while in custody. Officers are also increasingly turning on the media, arresting a television cameraman because his step-ladder had “touched a policeman” and making up stories about a newspaper photographer trying to seize an officer’s gun.

Katniss Everdeen would be proud

From rank-and-file officers to the riot police, to the PTU tactical unit and the anti-organized crime bureau, Hong Kong’s Finest are slowly coming undone. In a few isolated cases, those who are supposed to “serve with pride and care” appear to have jumped off the deep end, like the PC who ordered a South Asian pedestrian to “go back to India” and the superintendent caught on camera beating innocent passers-by with his baton. It would be unfair, however, to put all the blame on frontline officers. In the epic power struggle between the government and the governed, it is the people – policemen and protestors – who take the heat and get burned. To use a retail analogy, trying to solve a political problem with law enforcement is like dealing with a customer complaint by calling in store security. It’s a no-win proposition for everyone involved.

Police superintendent gone insane

The Umbrella Movement has proved to be enduring and ever-changing. In the past two months, it has evolved from a class boycott to a mass protest, to a street occupation and now to this: an all-out urban guerrilla warfare playing out in Mongkok every nightBased loosely on Bruce Lee’s combat philosophy to “be formless and shapeless like water,” the new approach is fluid, spontaneous and unpredictable. Above all, it can be easily replicated anywhere in the city  Central, Causeway Bay, Tsim Sha Tsui and Sham Shui Po  with the help of Facebook and Whatsapp. 

This new phase of “mobile occupation” has not only given police the run around, but because the line between pedestrians and protestors is blurred, it has also made it harder for participants to be prosecuted under the city’s public order ordinance banning illegal assemblies. This last point is especially relevant given that the High Court has just issued a new injunction barring protestors from remaining on Harcourt and Connaught Roads, and that the days of the Admiralty protest site are numbered. That means protestors will need to think up inventive ways to keep the movement alive while circumventing the law and court orders. It is said that to rid a garden of dandelions, stepping on them will only send the seeds into the wind and worsen the blight. Our government has done just that.

How-to guide for shoppers

28 November 2014

A Season of Discontent 不滿的季節

On 28 October, the one-month anniversary of the Umbrella Revolution, tens of thousands of citizens assembled at protest sites on both sides of the harbor. At precisely 5:58 pm, they opened their umbrellas in unison and turned the sea of people into a tsunami of colorful blossoms. The congregation then observed 87 seconds of silence, one for each shot of tear gas fired at protestors on that fateful day. It was “the day that changed everything,” the day by which we would forever divide our history: before and after 9/28.

Yellow umbrellas in full bloom

The student-led movement that put Hong Kong on the world map has a modest beginning. A small group of university students had organized a class boycott to voice their anger over Beijing’s decision to renege on a promise – a political compromise made 10 years ago to allow Hong Kong citizens to democratically elect their chief executive in 2017. The promise wasn’t supposed to have any strings attached or funny business with semantics. Earlier this year, however, in an official announcement that many viewed as a change of heart by Beijing and a death knell for democracy in Hong Kong, the Communist Party made clear that only a nomination committee would decide who could run for the top office in the next election and that the committee would comprise of mostly pro-establishment yes-men as a way to block opposition candidates from the ballot. The announcement smacks of the famous line by Henry Ford when he introduced the Model T in 1909: Our customers can have any color they want as long as it is black.

What started as a small-scale student protest quickly spiraled into an all-out revolution, thanks to the use of tear gas and riot gear on 28 September against unarmed protestors who had nothing but raincoats, lab goggles and folding umbrellas to fend for themselves. The heavy-handed police response backfired and drew thousands more to the streets. Suddenly, years of frustration over income inequality, skyrocketing property prices and a Beijing-appointed government that favored vested interests bubbled to the surface and boiled over. By nightfall, highways and city streets were turned into Tahrir Square, and regular citizens became Rosa Parks and Mahatma Gandhi. Hong Kong, the Fragrant Harbor and the Pearl of the Orient, was embroiled in the biggest political event since Britain handed it back to China in 1997.

Tahrir Square in Hong Kong

28 September is as much a dividing line in history as it is in society. The Umbrella Revolution, and the daily inconveniences that have come with it, has polarized the city along political lines. The middle class blames protestors for rocking the economic boat and putting the ideology of a few above the livelihood of everyone. In turn, protestors accuse non-supporters of selling out the city’s future for a paycheck. Weeks of bickering and name-calling have driven a wedge between parents and children, husbands and wives, teachers and students, and the Yellow Ribbons (student supporters) and the Blue Ribbons (police sympathizers).

While citizens squabble over the movement’s merit, they can agree on at least one thing: the students’ tenacity and leadership have caught everyone by surprise. Just a month ago, these Millennials were spoiled brats who relied on their maids to make their beds and do their laundry. They couldn’t tell Martin Luther from Martin Luther King, David Cameron from James Cameron. Today, they are distributing medical supplies and building furniture at the protest sites. They are reading Karl Marx and picking up trash in one moment, and dodging pepper spray and pushing back angry thugs in the next. It was as if Peter Pan had grown up overnight to self-organize, self-sustain and self-govern. Their generosity of spirit has made them not only model protestors but also worthy heirs to our city’s future. It takes a heart of stone not to be won over by them.

Worthy heirs to our city's future

If the pint-sized warriors have come out on top on the public opinion battlefield, then the clear loser has to be C.Y. Leung, Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive. Leung’s unpopularity as a Beijing mouthpiece is matched only by the idiocy of his gaffes. On October 21, he told a New York Times reporter that universal suffrage was undesirable because it would allow social policies to skew toward the poor. The Freudian slip was followed by a snarky remark that athletes and religious groups contributed nothing to the economy. Reeling from foot-in-mouth disease and with his approval ratings approaching an impeachment level, Leung has, whether by choice or by Beijing’s order, placed himself under a self-imposed house arrest and delegated to his deputy Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) many of his duties, including negotiating with student leaders for a way to break the impasse.

Another big loser in the political firestorm is the Hong Kong police force. Once revered in the region for their professionalism and restraint, they now see their hard-earned reputation slip through their batons. They have managed to alienate both the Yellow Ribbons by their inaction during the many thug attacks and the Blue Ribbons by their failure to reopen the streets. They squandered their last ounce of public trust when a pack of uniformed officers were caught on camera beating up a protestor in a back alley. As if that weren’t bad enough, a few days after the incriminating video went viral on social media, they were thrown under the bus by their own boss. In a television interview, C.Y. Leung denied any personal involvement in the decision to use tear gas on protestors and said it was the frontline officers who had made the call.

Hong Kong's finest?

Still, the biggest loser is probably Beijing itself. Its reaction to the movement has exposed the many cracks in the senior leadership. First, it has become clear that the Communist Party knows pitifully little about how Hong Kong people operate. 17 years after the Handover, Beijing continues to underestimate and misread Hong Kong citizens by assuming that they would be docile enough to swallow a broken promise for the sake of stability, or that protestors would be too squeamish to stay on the streets when a crackdown is threatened. Second, we now know that China is shockingly ill-prepared for a modern, bottom-up political movement. As if they had learned nothing from Egypt and Turkey, the Communists are still trying to fight 21st Century warfare with last century weapons: batons, tear gas and hired thugs. Finally and most remarkably, that the protests were allowed to go on for so long and that there have been many conflicting whispers from Beijing over C.Y. Leung’s political fate has revealed the leadership’s indecision and inconsistencies. Many point to the escalating factional infighting within the politburo since Xi Jinping (習近平) took the throne two years ago.

Excellent PR

With winter fast approaching and both protestors and authorities running out of patience and energy, the million-dollar question lingers: what’s next for the Umbrella Revolution? Will student leaders sit down for more talks with government officials in the coming weeks? Will negotiation achieve anything given Beijing’s tough stance? How is this all going to end if neither side is willing to yield an inch? Therein lies the strength of a post-modern political movement: none of that matters. Success is no longer defined by results, but by social awakening and transformation of the collective consciousness. A new way of life has already coagulated in Hong Kong, and a whole generation of young citizens have woken from their existential slumber. Above all, a new Lion Rock Spirit has taken hold, one that is based on social justice and civic participation instead of hunkering down for trickle-down economic benefits. Draped in bright yellow, Hong Kong has finally come of age and is ready to be taken seriously.

The new Lion Rock Spirit

This article previously appeared in the November/December 2014 issue of MANIFESTO magazine under Jason Y. Ng's column The Urban Confessional.

As printed in MANIFESTO

Sexless in the City 無慾都市

The notion that Asian folks take a backseat in the sex department has been debunked time and again. The Japanese, for instance, make no secret of their bent for dominatrices and cosplayers. Korean men, on the other hand, can’t seem to find their way home without a stop at the neighborhood hostess bar. The Thai and the Filipino are equally comfortable with expressing their God-given sexuality. In Anything-goes Bangkok and No-tell Manila, the sex trade has gone mainstream and become a main draw for tourists.

What about Hong Kong, a place where skyscrapers rise like phallic symbols and animal genitals are eaten with gusto? 

It turns out that Asia’s World City is also one of the world’s most sex-deprived. In a recent poll by the city’s Family Planning Association, 20% of the female respondents said they had no sexual desire, while 24% said they did not achieve orgasm during sex. Another local study found that one in five adult males had not gotten off in the last six months. As if that’s not miserable enough, an online survey conducted by condom-maker Durex ranks Hong Kong the third lowest in sexual satisfaction out of 26 territories. Despite our reputation as pleasure seekers – of luxury goods and world class cuisine – the joy of sex continues to elude us like Moby Dick.

So what went wrong? 

Only in movies

The obvious answer is stress. By the time we get home after a 12-hour day in the office and 45 gruelling minutes on a crowded bus, few are in the mood for bedroom romance. Even a quickie doesn’t seem quick enough for time-pressed Hong Kongers. Another major turn-off is the lack of space and privacy. There isn’t much fun in making out on a tiny mattress covered with stuffed animals, while nosy parents may be eavesdropping next door. As a result, the only thing that gets fingered between the sheets is the iPhone screen, and all we get is a lousy peck on the cheek, before we, as Neil Diamond famously put it, “roll over and turn out the light.”

Stress and off-putting living conditions, however, only tell half the story. A closer look at Hong Kong society reveals two cultural forces that conspire to suck the fun out of our bedroom: conservatism and materialism.

Not conducive to romance

We may be a decade and a half into the new millennium, but the city’s attitude towards sex remains largely medieval. Chinese parents avoid the subject at home like a plague, and children growing up in single-gender schools – which account for most primary and secondary schools in Hong Kong – don’t get much exposure besides hearsay and myths. The knowledge gap is filled by social conservatism, a hotchpotch of traditional Confucius beliefs mixed with Christian values from the West, with a bunch of clichés and conventional wisdom tossed in. The resulting Frankenstein of moral ideology is inconsistent at best and traumatizing at worst. For instance, because sex is supposed to be dirty and dangerous, young adults are taught to practice strict abstinence until they graduate from university. But because sex is also special and sacred, grown-ups are advised to defer the pleasure to their wedding night. This arbitrary code of conduct has seeped into our subconscious and turned a basic biological behavior into a thing we don’t speak of – and keep deferring.

Materialism is the other cultural factor that explains our flaccid sex life. Rampant consumerism and in-your-face peer rivalry mean that our happiness is often measured by what we possess that others don’t. As economic creatures, we prefer making money to making love; we calculate, not fornicate. To the hard-driving man, sex is as much a distraction for the weak-minded as it is a social anesthesia for the poor. Whereas men in the West aspire to be fictional womanizers like James Bond and Tony Stark, being a playboy in practical Hong Kong confers very little bragging right. Instead, he is either branded a pervert or written off as a loser who wastes his time chasing girls rather than a job promotion. 

Sex education means avoidance and deferral

The picture of the Hong Kong bedroom is grim. Our low libido is now a forgone conclusion and a cause for concern for both policy-makers and condom-makers. But just as I was finishing up my obituary for the city’s sex life, I spotted a glimmer of hope on Facebook. A few days ago, my friend Elaine shared a picture of her birthday gift from her husband CJ. It was a book titled Position of the Day: Sex Everyday in Every Way. I was impressed by how this thirty-something Chinese couple openly celebrate their sexuality on social media, and it prompted me to sit them down for a chat.

Like me, Elaine is miffed by the demonization of sex in Hong Kong. “I remember asking my mom about a kissing scene on television when I was five,” she recounted. “She told me the actors had to put scotch tapes on their lips for hygiene purposes. It was baloney of course, but she made me believe that sex was dirty, like politics.

“I went to an all-girls secondary school and I wasn’t allowed to date anybody in my entire teens,” Elaine continued. “Other than my cousins, I had zero interaction with boys. The irony is that as soon as I graduated from university and found a job, my parents changed their tune: ‘When are you going to find a husband and have kids?’ It was surreal.”

By our standard, Li Ka Shing is the sexiest man alive

For a guy, CJ is surprisingly comfortable discussing sex in the presence of his wife. He believes open communication is the key to a happy sex life. “Men have to check our egos at the bedroom door, especially if we aren’t satisfied with the amount of sex we get.” He gave an example. “After Elaine had our first child, we pretty much stopped doing it. I decided to tell her how I felt instead of keeping it to myself. It turned out she was worried that I wasn’t attracted to her after she gave birth to a baby. It was a big misunderstanding.”

CJ said many sexually frustrated men in Hong Kong simply turn to the Internet for quick relief. “It’s much more efficient that way,” he admitted. “Hong Kong people value efficiency and ambition. Most of my guy friends are so career-minded that sex gets pushed way down their priority list.”

The couple was quick to point out that the sex-averse culture is slowly changing. “Young people these days are more adventurous and resourceful than we were,” said Elaine. CJ chimed in with a tidbit of his own: “Love hotels like Victoria and Park Excellent are popular venues for a ‘test drive.’ A short trip to Macau or Taipei will do the trick too.” He gave Elaine a wink, recalling their first sexcapade in Bangkok. The two had only just started dating at the time and told family members they were spending the weekend with “a group of friends from work.

“Looking back, it seems really silly that we had to lie about sleeping together,” said CJ. “How else would we know we were right for each other?” He made a good point, but it was Elaine who had the last word: “Sex is just sex and there’s nothing holy or evil about it. It’s just like food: we have to eat when we are hungry and we eat more if the food is good. It’s as simple as that.” 

Finally, there is a couple with a healthy attitude toward sex. So forget about sex books and Viagra. To save Hong Kong’s flagging sex life, we need more people who think like them.

The most popular hourly hotel

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This article previously appeared in the October 2014 issue of MANIFESTO magazine under Jason Y. Ng's column The Urban Confessional.

As printed in MANIFESTO