27 March 2015

Someone Else’s Party 別人的派對

Late March in Hong Kong brings clammy air, frequent drizzles and the gradual return of the subtropical heat. It is also marked by a spike in beer consumption and hotel room rates, caused not by the arrival of spring but a spectacle known as the Hong Kong Sevens. The three day rugby tournament is much more than just an international sporting event. To expatriates living in Hong Kong, it is a celebration bigger than Christmas and New Year. It is a cross between the Super Bowl, Halloween and Oktoberfest. It is Mardi Gras without the parade and Spring Break with bam bam sticks. The annual carnival fills the Hong Kong Stadium with cheers, beer breath and spontaneous eruptions of song and dance.

That's why they call it a contact sport


Rugby sevens, as the name would suggest, involves fewer players than regular rugby. Each game consists merely of two seven-minute halves. Think of it as beach volleyball or five-a-side soccer. To prove that size doesn’t matter, rugby sevens is set to make its Olympic debut at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.

The first Hong Kong Sevens tournament was held in 1976. The sport was introduced to the British colony by a handful of rugby-loving English businessmen. Securing Cathay Pacific as a corporate sponsor ensured the event’s survival in an otherwise unathletic city. Indeed, the lack of local participation has always been a public relations issue for the Sevens. There wasn’t a single ethnic Chinese on the local team until Fuk-Ping Chan became the first Hong Kong born player to represent the city in 1997. Even today, the “Hong Kong Dragons” look more like the starting lineup of Manchester United than their parochial team name would suggest.

Fuk-Ping Chan, with former governor Chris Patten

Rugby is a decidedly English pastime. The sport is dominated by Commonwealth nations around the world. England and ex-British colonies like Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Samoa are favorites at the Hong Kong Sevens, which is why thousands of Brits, Aussies and Kiwis living in Hong Kong flock to the games every year. It didn’t take long before Americans and expats from other non-rugby-playing countries took notice. Rugby fans or not, they jumped on the bandwagon and turned the event into a pan-Caucasian extravaganza. During the Sevens weekend, expats and tourists swamp Hong Kong Stadium and overrun restaurants and bars. The normally quiet Caroline Hill Road in Causeway Bay – the only entry point to the stadium – is packed to the hilt. Streets are cordoned off for crowd control and scalpers are everywhere. Unhired taxis become the hottest commodity in town. The south stand of the stadium is where the rowdiest crowds congregate and minors are denied entry for safety reasons, which also makes it the most exciting place to be in Hong Kong.

Despite all the hullabaloo, the Hong Kong Sevens is a non-event among the locals. Unlike the Standard Chartered Marathon or the Stanley Dragon Boat Championships – both of which draw large local crowds – the Sevens is irrelevant to 95% of the city’s population and receives little to no coverage from the Chinese press. If it weren’t for the backed up traffic in Causeway Bay during that weekend, most locals wouldn’t even know that there was a tournament happening. For three days in March, Hong Kong Stadium is a sea of gweilo holding a beer in one hand and a hot dog in the other. It is as odd as going to the French Open and finding the Roland Garros Stadium full of, say, Japanese faces. If you look hard enough, you may spot the occasional local Hong Konger trying to blend in. To the average rugby-indifferent local, the Sevens is nothing but a tourist trap designed by businesses to promote air travel and boost hotel occupancy. With all the money visitors splurge on tickets, food, accommodation and official merchandise, the Hong Kong Sevens is easily the city’s biggest weekend in terms of tourism dollars.

Not many Chinese people around

The Sevens’ failure to catch on with the local population has as much to do with the sport’s limited popularity as it does with access. The increasing commercialization of the event is shutting out people outside the rugby-playing or finance community. Out of the 40,000 tickets to the tournament, less than 10% are available to the general public through an online ballot. The rest of them are either reserved for rugby clubs or sold in large blocks to corporations.

Inside the stadium, much of the east and west stands are converted into “by invitation only” corporate boxes. The arrangement allows bankers and lawyers to entertain valued clients in what has become the most important marketing event on the calendar. How many tickets a given client receives and whether he ends up on the main stand or in an upper level executive suite depends on the amount of business he has given the host in the past year. It is nothing personal. If you don’t work in finance or know someone who does, on the other hand, good luck with the ballot. The chance of winning it is less than one in ten.

Money-making machine

As a child growing up in Hong Kong, I never heard of the Sevens. But since I moved back to the city a few years ago, I have gone to the event every year. Although I enjoy neither rugby nor beer, and much less dressing up in a superhero costume, I make a point of going even if only for a few hours. Like the rest of the people in the stadium, I gorge on bad ballpark food, dodge spilled beer and queue up outside overcrowded toilets. I pay little attention to the games and know close to nothing about the rules. Instead, I say hello to my friends, exchange a few business cards and pick up the latest gossip in the banking circles. It is a check-the-box exercise I don’t mind doing. The glaring absence of locals, whether by choice or by circumstance, still bothers me. Nevertheless, each time I see what a genuinely good time everyone is having, I say to myself: Why not? They only get to do this once a year.

Originally posted on 26 March 2013.


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If you like this article, read 35 others like it in No City for Slow Men, published by Blacksmith Books, available at major bookstores in in Hong Kong and at Blacksmith Books.



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)
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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