17 April 2015

Butterfly Effect 蝴蝶效應


I woke up one morning to the buzz of an incoming email on my phone. “Dear Jason,” the message started off disarmingly innocuous, “we are delighted to invite you to our 13th Annual Student Awards ceremony.” The sender was the chairman of a respected NGO that supports underprivileged children in Hong Kong. But the invitation took a sudden, horrifying turn: “It would give us great pleasure if you would be our keynote speaker to address 500 honor students at City Hall. We look forward to your favorable response.” Gulp, gasp, gag. I threw my phone across the bed and leapt to the bathroom. I was ready to hurl.

Worse than death


Surveys have shown that most people, regardless of age, gender or ethnicity, fear public speaking more than they fear death. Jerry Seinfeld famously joked that the average person at a funeral would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy. The phenomenon is called glossophobia, derived from glossa, the Greek word for tongue. The symptoms are those associated with the classic fight-or-flight response: pounding heart, sweaty palms, wobbly knees and a rabble of butterflies in the stomach. For the introverts among us, the mere thought of standing up and talking in front of a crowd is enough to trigger a panic attack. It is the sum of all fears: rejection, public humiliation, and if the speech is taped and uploaded onto YouTube, a searchable embarrassment that will last for eternity.

Nowhere are those fears felt more strongly than in Asia, where children tend to learn by rogue and are taught to be docile. In conformist countries like Japan, Korea and China, speaking up in the classroom or voicing an opinion at the dinner table is often mistaken for rebellion and therefore discouraged, which gives young people little chance to hone their verbal skills. Once they are out in the real world, the virtue of silence quickly turns into a vice, when they are asked to give a presentation or lead a conference call. Fears set in and all the rookie mistakes show up: reading off the slides, dodging eye contact, and looking as cheerful as an inmate strapped to his execution gurney. 


Shut up and learn


Psychologists believe that our speech anxiety has to do with the fear of being ostracized. Humans are social animals and we form social groups to survive the perilous world. Early humans depended on each other to fend off predators and starvation, which makes social acceptance a necessary condition for survival and ostracism a form of social death that preceded the actual, physical one. Glossophobia is our natural response to the risk of being judged publicly and negatively, the same way we are programmed to fear heights and rodents to mitigate the risk of falling and contracting deadly diseases. In other words, those butterflies in our stomachs are the result of millennia of genetic mutations, designed to stop us from sticking our necks out and drawing too much attention to ourselves – a risky proposition for anyone living in a lawless commune of axe-throwing, arrow-shooting Neanderthals.

But loincloths and mammoth furs are so 10,000 B.C. A few things have changed since our hunter-gatherer days, including the wisdom of flying under the radar. Public speaking in the 21st Century is as ubiquitous as it is inescapable. These days, everyone from a 20-year-old web designer pitching for a new gig to a middle-aged soccer mom voicing a grievance at the PTA meeting will find themselves in the hot seat. The ability to address an audience with composure is no longer expected only of presidential candidates and tech company CEOs, but anyone who wants to be heard. In the age of black turtlenecks and TED Talks, glossophobia has devolved from a defense mechanism to a career-limiting defect. The butterflies that were meant to protect us from dangers are now holding us back in life.


Shut up or DIE!


The urgent need to treat glossophobia has spawned a glut of self-help books and magazine articles. A vast majority of them go through the usual dos and don’ts: do practice with friends, do picture the audience in their underwear, don’t use throwaways like “um” and “er”. But if reading a book could cure stage fright, there wouldn’t be so many glossophobes still shaking behind the microphone or dragging themselves to Toastmasters meetings week after week, year after year. To learn how to swim, as it is often said, we just have to jump into the deep end of the pool and start flapping our arms. Anything else, like kicking around all day with a foam board, is likely a waste of time.

That takes me back to the ominous email that rocked me out of bed one fine morning. The next day I accepted the chairman’s invitation and immediately began working on my speech. I practiced in front of the mirror every day for two weeks, each time getting better but discovering something I needed to correct. In the end I did all right. I wasn’t nearly as nervous talking on stage as I was preparing for it. But the whole ordeal frustrated me – because irrationality frustrates me, as does the notion that I have to take orders from, of all things, my adrenal glands. My job at the awards ceremony was to inspire young minds, but every last ounce of enjoyment from that otherwise beautiful experience had been sucked out by my over-preparation, all because I needed to keep my irrational nerves at bay. That night I said to myself: never again.


One of many self-help books on overcoming stage fright


That was five years ago. Since then I have taken the plunge into the deep end of the proverbial pool, taking on as many speaking engagements as time allows. As a lawyer, I jump on every opportunity to give seminars and chair meetings. As an author, I go on the lecture circuit, give radio interviews and speak at literary events big and small. I have learned to not only control my nerves but relish the adrenaline rush. I have discovered that we fear public speaking because we make it all about ourselves – how we sound, how we look and how much we impress. But who gives a hoot? The only thing the audience cares about is what they get out of sitting in the room instead of being somewhere else. Depersonalization – the recognition that the world does not revolve around one person – has made me a better speaker. It has set me free.

Public speaking is not an inborn skill. On the contrary, we are genetically programmed to fear it. Going against our instinct requires patience: we can’t expect to overnight overcome a phobia millions of years in the making. But the human brain is a muscle, and like all muscles it can be trained. If we fail horribly the first 23 times, we are bound to get better on the 24th try. The only way to become an effective speaker is by getting to a point where speaking in public is as uneventful as talking to friends or reading a bedtime story. Every great speaker we admire, from Bill Clinton to Emma Watson (who won kudos for a recent speech on gender equality at the United Nations), can do what they do not because they are missing the glossophobia gene, but because they have done it a thousand times over. As much as we like to associate oratorical skills with knowledge, charisma and superpower, in the end it comes down to one simple, unglamorous word: repetition.


Rely on the power of habit

This article previously appeared in the April 2015 issue of MANIFESTO magazine under Jason Y. Ng's column The Urban Confessional.

As printed in MANIFESTO


05 April 2015

Season Finale 大結局

Hong Kongers are used to duopolies. Every day, citizens choose blissfully between Wellcome and Park’n Shop, Café de Coral and Fairwood, Fortress and Broadway, oblivious and powerless to the glaring absence of choice. This false sense of consumer freedom is legitimized by the government’s corportacratic propaganda telling us that too many options can lead to confusion, cut-throat competition and an economic apocalypse. Nowhere is this phenomenon more pronounced than in the realm of free-to-air television – broadcasting that requires no paid subscription and commands high viewership especially among the low income demographics. Our television dial can only toggle between the complacent TVB and the languishing ATV, two unequal adversaries that nowadays offer numb viewers the Hobson’s choice between bad programming and the unwatchable.

End of an era


For months, ATV – the worlds first Chinese language television station – has been dying a slow and torturous death. Its financial troubles first surfaced last fall when staff complained about unpaid wages. Senior management resorted to stalling tactics and made up stories about new funding and white knights. And when desperate times called for desperate measures, the cash-strapped broadcaster cut its programming to the bone, liquidated assets from copyrights to camera equipment, and even begged key shareholders to offer loans to employees in lieu of pay. All that buffoonery, almost too painful to watch, culminated in a death sentence last Wednesday when the government announced its unprecedented decision not to renew ATV’s license. The announcement came a day after management broke the camel’s back by releasing false information on a prime time news program that Ricky Wong (王維基), owner of HKTV, had agreed to a buyout.

Most people welcome the government’s move to put the struggling broadcaster out of its misery. Even before the recent series of unfortunate events, ATV had long been a glorified placeholder in the public airwaves – an ugly sister that no one bothered to cast an eye over. The butt of jokes we know today is a far cry from the drama powerhouse and trusted news source that it was during its heyday in the 70s and 80s. Frequent ownership transfers in the decades since, however, have weakened management and drained its resources. These days, citizens tune in twice a week only for a few minutes to find out the Mark Six winning numbers. 

Wang Zheng has always been the butt of jokes


Then in 2010, Chinese-born businessman Wang Zheng (王征) acquired a controlling stake in ATV, cementing its unofficial status as a “Mainland channel.” Observers believed that Wangs foray into television had much less to do with a genuine interest in show business than Beijings elaborate scheme to infiltrate Hong Kong’s media, as it has been doing with the citys daily newspapers. Whatever it is, Wang’s arrival as an industry outsider has done irreparable damage to the ATV brand and staff morale. That, combined with ill-conceived decisions to replace drama series with low-budget talk shows, further alienated local viewers and caused advertising revenue to plummet. Less than five years after his controversial acquisition and high-minded promises to turn ATV into “Asia’s CNN” and “Hong Kongs conscience,” this flamboyant last emperor successfully ran the broadcaster into the ground,  squandering hundreds of millions in personal wealth and dragging his fellow shareholders with him.

Perhaps the biggest losers in ATV’s undignified demise are its 700 staff. For decades, employees have kept their heads down working for a perennial underdog, their lives made harder in recent years by an erratic and meddlesome owner. Now that the government has finally pulled the plug on the beleaguered broadcaster, management will likely shut down operations when the company’s liquid assets dry up in the coming months, even though the existing license is valid until April 2016. And when the curtain finally comes down on the 58-year-old institutionhundreds will be out of a job and facing a grim reality: join TVB or leave show business altogether. One ATV actress, a former beauty queen, announced her plans yesterday to try her hand at farming once the company folds.

Explain to us again why his license application was declined?


The ATV implosion has also made the government part of the collateral damage. Just 18 months ago, CY Leung decided to do something about the half-century free-to-air TV duopoly. His cabinet granted new broadcasting licenses to iCable and PCCW, but denied the application by Ricky Wong’s HKTV, the bid most favored by the public. 18 months after that baffling decision, the two new licensees have yet to produce a single hour of television programming, as neither has shown any interest or intention to make use of those coveted licenses. The complete abdication of iCable and PCCW, together with ATV’s impending death, will soon make TVB the one and only free-to-air TV channel in this so-called Asia’s world city – the exact opposite of what the chief executive had set out to achieve a year and a half ago. The utter absurdity of the situation has not only left egg on CY Leung’s face, it is also reopening unanswered questions that his cabinet has been dodging all this time: what funny business was behind the government’s closed-door decision to favor certain TV license applicants and not others?

Still another loser in the ATV saga is its longtime rival. You would be wrong to think that TVB management is jumping for joy to be rid of a competitor. That’s because the so-called “Big Channel” already commands a near-monopoly in both ratings and advertising dollars. Having ATV out of the picture hardly makes any difference to its bottom line. Instead, the ascension from a de facto monopolist to an actual one is calling unwanted attention to the elephant in the room. As the duopoly becomes a monopoly and the illusion of competition is suddenly lifted, even the most blissfully ignorant of consumers are bound to wake up from their comas. After all, the only thing their TV remote controls are now good for is volume adjustment. They will realize that programming thats good only in comparison to ATVs isn’t very good at all, and that the television shows they watch every night by default are years, even decades, behind that of neighboring countries like Japan, Korea and Thailand. Worse, viewers may join Ricky Wong’s supporters in putting pressure on the government to open up the airwaves to serious newcomers. Much to TVB’s chagrin, the age of churning out lobotomized schlock to exact ransom from obliging advertisers may finally come to an end.


The best TVB can do these days? 

If there is ever a silver lining to ATV’s tragic fall, it would be the hope that the city’s free-to-air TV market has become such a cesspool that the day of reckoning is near. They say the night is darkest before dawn, and so perhaps the loss of a broadcaster today will mean the creation of better ones in the future. And if the glaring absence of choice – made more glaring still by the loss of the only other option – can spark an awakening of millions of viewers, then our callous bureaucrats will be forced to deal with the status quo. When that happens, we will have reason to believe that television doesn’t need to be a sunset industry waiting to be replaced by YouTube and social media, that the newsroom can eschew self-censorship and be a beacon of press freedom, that the small screen may once again be a place for future superstars to cut their teeth as it was for the likes of Leslie Cheung and Andy Lau, and that Hong Kong will return to its former status as a net exporter of pop culture to the rest of the world. In the meantime, we will stay tuned for the next season of this long-running real-life drama.


Leslie Cheung back in his television days

16 March 2015

Unrighteous Indignation 暴憤填膺


In the past month, nativist groups like Civic Passion (熱血公民) and Hong Kong Indigenous (本土民主前線) have been staging weekly rallies against parallel traders in Sheung Shui, Yuen Long and Tuen Mun, three of the areas most affected by the growing influx of Chinese shoppers. Because parallel traders don’t bear a mark on their foreheads, protestors wind up targeting anybody seen with a bulky baggage on the street. The lucky ones get heckled and mobbed, while the not-so-fortunate have their possessions searched or thrown about. Still others, like the elderly busker who happened to be passing through with a large amplifier in a cart bag, get mistaken for Mainlanders and roughed up by protestors. Pretty despicable stuff.

Parallel traders can be a nuisance


For years, day trippers from Shenzhen and neighboring Chinese cities have been crossing the border using multiple-entry permits. While here, they load up on daily necessities – diapers, baby formula and skincare products – and resell them at a higher price in the Mainland, where demand for safe, reliable consumer goods is insatiable. These arbitrageurs come in droves and buy in bulk, transforming residential neighborhoods into a ubiquity of pharmacies, jewelers and cosmetic stores. Retail rent soars and so do prices of everyday goods. Sidewalks get so congested that pedestrian traffic often snarls to an aggravating halt. Inaction by the Hong Kong government, either for a lack of political will or for fear of antagonizing local authorities in the Mainland, means that residents in northern districts must accept these impositions as the New Normal.

While their gripes have fallen on the bureaucrats’ deaf ears, nativist groups have seized on the growing frustration and used it to step up their anti-Mainland rhetoric. Vowing to help local residents take back their way of life, angry protestors descend on the neighborhoods with banners and megaphones to drive out the personae non gratae. Parallel traders make for a perfect political target: they offer nativist groups the kind of moral high ground that ordinary Chinese shoppers do not.

Protestors descend on a northern town


In the past, harassment of Mainland visitors – such as the bouts of “anti-locust” rallies on Canton Road – failed to win public support and almost always backfired. Most Hong Kongers take the view that xenophobia has no place in our society, and that the inundation of Chinese shoppers is to be blamed on our government’s policy failures instead of the tourists themselves. To use an analogy, if a flight is overbooked and more people show up than there are seats available, the fault lies with the airlines and not the passengers.

But parallel traders are not your average Mainland visitor. What sets them apart is the notion that they are engaging in an illicit act. The thought of these tax-evading bootleggers plundering our supply of daily products, smuggling them by the suitcase across the border and flipping them for a quick profit hits a nerve with law-abiding citizens in Hong Kong. The element of illegality makes them political red meat. It gives nativist groups the moral authority to go after these perceived criminals, and to right a wrong that our government has failed to act on. All that verbal and physical abuse against them seem like just deserts. 

"Anti-locust" campaigns have failed to gain traction


But the time to debunk this misplaced righteousness is now. For starters, day trippers from China enter Hong Kong legally using multiple-entry permits granted under the individual traveler scheme. Like any other tourists, they are free to shop anywhere in the city and as much as they want – except for baby formula, which is subject to a two-can daily limit. As long as their purchases are for their own use or benefit, they do not run afoul of Hong Kong immigration law which prohibits any form of employment during their stay. No law is broken until they reenter the Mainland without declaring their purchases at the Chinese border. But their failure to pay duty to Mainland authorities has nothing to do with us or with our laws. We don’t give a hoot if an American tourist leaving Hong Kong slips an extra bottle of wine through U.S. customs on his way home, and so why should we care now?

It seems ironic – and entirely hypocritical – for anti-Mainland groups to be up in arms when a bunch of Chinese citizens decide to deny the Communists tax revenues. In fact, the protestors’ indiscriminate harassment of day trippers and anyone mistaken for them is a confirmation that they are more interested in capitalizing on cross-border tensions than “liberating” northern towns that have been overrun by parallel traders. Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise us, because some of the protest organizers are the same agitators behind the “wreak-and-run” incident that happened in the final days of the Umbrella Movement, when masked men smashed the Legco Building’s north entrance, incited others to enter the premises, and then fled the scene when police showed up.

Vigilantes or hypocrites?


As deplorable as the protestors are, their tactic seems to be working for the time being. The number of Chinese visitors, especially day trippers, has plummeted since the protests began. This past weekend, parallel traders have all but disappeared from northern New Territories. Streets in those areas are wide open and shopping malls are quiet. Neighborhoods have suddenly returned to the way they once were. Even though there is no telling how long the truce will last, local residents can, at least for now, enjoy a bit of peace and quiet. It would have been a far better scenario, however, if the same outcome were achieved by concerted government efforts to stem parallel trading – such as by tightening the individual traveler scheme, imposing an arrival tax to eliminate the parallel trade arbitrage, or building dedicated shopping facilities near the border – than through intimidation and third-rate thuggery by a few self-righteous vigilantes. The end, however desirable, does not justify the means.


Parallel traders have all but vanished... for now

13 March 2015

Of a Distant World 遙遠的他


My assistant Alisa came into my office one morning and sat down without being prompted. “I’m going to have to come in late every Monday and Wednesday morning,” she declared, her eyes welling up. She said she needed to take her four-year-old Mark to therapy twice a week or else he would be transferred to a special needs school. Mark was diagnosed with autism 18 months ago.

“Of course,” I said, “I know how it is.” 

Trapped in a faraway world


I know because I too have an autistic member in the family. Seth is my nephew and my parents’ first grandson. The Hebrew name I picked for him means “the appointed one” – and he is, in more ways than one. Seth has always been a special kid on whom everyone dotes. He loves toy trains and knows every detail about buses and sports cars. He enjoys cycling, playing video games and watching 80s movies on YouTube. He delights in all modes of public transport and gets restless when the driver skips a stop or takes a different route.

The first case of autism was diagnosed in 1943 by American doctor Leo Kanner. The term came from the Greek word autos, which means self” and refers to the patient’s retreat to his fantasies. Today, the term autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, is used to describe the broad range of social and cognitive deficits exhibited by autistic individuals. ASD encompasses anything from classic autistic disorder to Asperger Syndrome and Rett Syndrome, to the lesser known PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified). The differences among these labels are not clear-cut and are of little help to parents. By and large, classic autistic individuals face significant delays in language development, and the majority of them have an IQ below 70. Those with Asperger or PDD-NOS, on the other hand, demonstrate fewer learning and verbal difficulties. What all ASD patients have in common is the tendency to withdraw from social interactions and engage in repetitive behaviors. 


Autism spectrum disorder


My nephew falls squarely into the classic autism category. When you first meet Seth, you will find him no different from other young men his age, except that he is skinnier than average and tends to giggle to himself. Once he starts to speak, you will notice his repetitive speech pattern and prodigious use of rhetorical questions. His conversations with you will comprise mainly repeated queries over car and movie trivia. He often parrots back other people’s phrases that he has memorized, a condition known as echolalia. Most of all, you will find Seth operating in his own world – an impenetrable universe of routines, rituals and stereotypy. Predictability gives him a sense of security and he values it more than any form of human interaction. And when this Linus van Pelt loses his blue blanket – such as when his daily programme is disrupted or personal objects are misplaced – he gets anxious, agitated, sometimes even aggressive.

But Seth is hardly alone. After I shared my nephew’s story with Alisa, she began telling me the many ASD cases she knew. In our office alone, she counted, there are a half-dozen parents, uncles and aunts with an autistic child. Our anecdotal sharing corroborates with the worldwide figures suggesting that autism has exploded from an obscure neuro-developmental disorder in the 1940s to one of the fastest-growing global epidemics today. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the number of diagnosed cases in America has skyrocketed from one in every 5,000 children in 1975 to one in 68 in 2014. 

Exponential growth since the 1970s


The 74-fold increase in just four decades begs the question of what causes autism in the first place. Research findings are at best inconclusive, and the plethora of theories run the gamut of genetics, air pollution and nutritional deficiencies of the birth mother as a result of today’s diet of bleached flour and refined sugar and the widespread use of chemical addictives in processed food. Adding to the debate are folk beliefs such as pregnancy mishaps and the so-called “refrigerator mother theory” that pins the blame on an emotionally distant mother.

More credibly, hair mineral analyses have revealed that all ASD children, without exception, have excessive amounts of toxic metals in the brain. Researchers believe that toxins like mercury and cadmium cause disruptions in the brain and the nervous system, and that autistic individuals respond by withdrawing socially to reduce external stimulation and manage their internal chaos. This “toxic metals theory” points the finger directly at the use of modern vaccines – most notably the MMR combination shot – which contain a mercury-based preservative called thimerosal. The global roll-out of these vaccines in the 1970s coincided with the autism outbreak in the decades since. The fact that the medical community, which is influenced by powerful pharmaceutical companies, has repeatedly disputed any link between ASD and vaccinations has done little to quell the controversy, and both sides of the debate have taken on a religious fervor. In California, as many as 40% of parents now seek a personal beliefs exemption to the state’s vaccination requirements, a trend that is believed to be responsible for the recent measles outbreak in 17 states.  

The biggest medical debate of our time


Equally confounding for families is the efficacy of treatment. Pediatricians recommend early intervention by behavioral therapy, like the type Alisa’s son is getting twice a week. Studies have shown that treatment is most effective if administrated before the age of six. This race against time, combined with the deluge of unsolicited advice from relatives and friends to do this and try that, puts tremendous pressure on already distraught parents. I, too, am guilty of that, holding on to the faint hope that Seth could be a math genius or piano savant waiting to be discovered. I have to stop myself from questioning my brother why he hasn’t taken his son to piano lessons.

Seth turned 21 last week. He grew out of the local education system two years ago and is now an apprentice at a local workshop learning basic job skills alongside dozens other young men and women with special needs. Relative to his colleagues with Down Syndrome or other mental disabilities, Seth is more able, or “high-functioning” in medical parlance. But the chronic shortage of ASD resources in Hong Kong means that people of widely disparate verbal and physical skills are often lumped into a single facility. That puts our city years, even decades, behind other developed countries like Canada, the U.S. and even Taiwan and Singapore when to comes to supporting the autistic community. 

Limited opportunities for autistic people in Hong Kong


That’s why Seth’s parents have set up a trust fund for their son, enough to hire a full-time live-in caretaker to look after him after they pass. It is a common practice among parents with autistic children, because public resources are scarce and independent living remains an elusive dream. We have come to terms that Seth’s body will continue to grow but his mind won’t. Neither will people’s patience for a man who behaves like Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man, minus the card counting ability. It still breaks my heart when I see my grown-up nephew get shooed away by store owners or teased by neighborhood children who are much younger than him. 

Each time I take Seth for a ride in my car, he will put on his seat belt and rock his body back and forth in unrestrained excitement. I will feel a pang of guilt for not spending nearly enough time with him. I will wonder what it’s like to see our world in those big deep eyes, and what it’s like to live in his faraway world where words aren’t so important, thinking is visual, and the mundane offers unspeakable joy. It is a world we can't enter and won't understand, a world where Calvin lives happily thereafter with Hobbes and Nobita with Doraemon. I will also wonder whether he and the rest of us are so different after all, for who among us isn't struggling daily with our real and imagined problems in real and imagined ways, all the while hoping for a little understanding from the outside world?

My nephew Seth (taken at age 12)
*                             *                           *

This article previously appeared in the March 2015 issue of MANIFESTO magazine under Jason Y. Ng's column The Urban Confessional.

As printed in MANIFESTO

23 February 2015

The Unexpected Virtue of the Oscars 奧斯卡的意外美德


Back when I was living in New York, the Oscars were a big annual event that brought together friends and coworkers. Year after year, I was the designated organizer for the office Oscar pool, and I would spent that one Sunday night at home watching the ceremony while scoring the ballot sheets. I would announce the results in the pantry the following morning, and the lucky winner would use part of his or her winnings to buy coffee for everybody.

A big social event every February


Luck plays a big role in Oscar pools because few people have the time or care to watch all the nominated films. Besides, doing so doesn’t necessarily increase – and can sometimes even lower – one’s chance of winning. As former Pool Master and now a movie reviewer, however, I feel duty-bound to do my due diligence and watch at least every Best Picture nominee before Oscar night. But it is no easy feat, as the number of nominees has nearly doubled from five in the pre-2009 era to nearly 10 ever since. What’s more, Hollywood studios are known to withhold critically acclaimed films until just a few weeks before the awards night to keep them fresh on the judges’ minds, resulting in a last minute rush of new releases in late January and early February.

Doing Oscar due diligence is even more challenging after I left New York. Here in Hong Kong, cinemas are dominated by the likes of Spider-man 2 and Hangover 3 during the Oscar season (which coincides with Chinese New Year), and artsy films invariably get pushed back to March and April. Many low-budget independent films do not get screened at all. I did manage to watch all eight Best Picture nominees this year, but not without a struggle. For instance, The Imitation Game opens in Hong Kong only this coming Thursday and Selma isn’t released until mid-March. I had to catch both of them in Europe during my Chinese New Year break.

Ready-to-use Oscar Pool sheet


And I’m glad I did, as this year’s line-up is one of the strongest in recent years. The eight contenders in the Best Picture category are as well-made as they are diverse. They run the gamut of war drama (American Sniper), biopics (The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything), bildungsroman (Boyhood) and comedy-thriller (The Grand Budapest Hotel). My top pick was Boyhood, a critical look at the American life mired in existential crises. The camera followed the cast for 12 years, telling the coming-of-age story of a boy as he quite literally ages in front of the audience. The film deserves a win for both its depth and innovative storytelling. In the end, the Best Picture went to Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), a meta-narrative about the entertainment industry written and directed by Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu.

That means I probably would have lost this year’s Oscar pool if I had organized one. Indeed, the Academy Awards are known for their unpredictability. Over the years, the red carpet has been littered with terrible wins and surprising snubs. Shakespeare in Love and Crash are two of the weakest Best Picture winners in history, as are Russell Crowe’s back-to-back duds: The Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind. Then there were egregious misses like Citizen Kane, The Graduate and Pulp Fiction. Much of it has to do with the non-transparent and decidedly undemocratic voting process. Winners are handpicked by a 5,800-member committee in a “small circle election” not unlike the one that elects our chief executives. No one outside the Academy knows who these members are or how they are selected. What we do know is that they are industry insiders who tend to be swayed more by Hollywood politics than the merit of individual films or performances, and that they have a soft spot for historical melodramas and actors portraying serial killers, deranged psychos and the terminally ill. 

Patricia Arquette accepting an Oscar for Boyhood


I also have a bone to pick with some of the award categories. For starters, I never understand the distinction between Best Picture and Best Director – I would think one should always go with the other. But because they are two separate awards, the latter has become a silver medal of sorts. For instance, when Brokeback Mountain lost to Crash in 2005, Ang Lee was given a golden statuette for his directing as a consolation prize. Perhaps even more arbitrary is the distinction between men and women for the lead and supporting roles. Why draw a line between genders but not across races or religions? Separating actors from actresses is to suggest that the two groups cannot or should not compete together, like male and female athletes who must play in their own leagues.

One of the worst Best Pictures

They say the Oscars are a load of self-congratulatory kitsch, a night in which overpaid celebrities in tuxedos and designer gowns give each other high-fives for being famous and fabulous. The ceremony can run well over four hours, strung together by lame jokes, tedious monologues and acceptance speeches that are far too long and peppered with names known only to the people uttering them. Perhaps that’s why viewership has been on the decline, until the likeable Ellen DeGeneres brought it back to life last year.

At a time when award shows are falling out of favor, the Oscars are coming under increasing pressure to reinvent itself or risk losing its relevance and going the way of beauty pageants and variety shows. But every once in a while, when we least suspect it, someone will walk up the stage and take our breath away – such as when rapper Common and singer/songwriter John Legend gave a shout out to Hong Kong in their acceptance speech at this year’s Oscars. The winners of Best Original Song declared that the spirit of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama – the site for one of the defining chapters in the Civil Rights Movement – now connects inner-city children in America to the Charlie Hebdo victims, and to the student protestors in our very own Umbrella Movement. Those simple yet powerful words touched millions of viewers in this part of the world, and in so doing, made the Academy Awards just a little more relevant.

Common and John Legend won our hearts