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Showing posts from 2008

Kowloon Complex - Part 1 九龍的心結-上卷

Kowloon is to Hong Kong as Brooklyn is to Manhattan.
The analogy is uncanny. Brooklyn is a reluctant sidekick to the much more glamorous Manhattan Island on the other side of the East River. Although Brooklyn is just one subway stop away from lower Manhattan, that two-minute train ride is what separates the men from the boys. Snooty Manhattanites, convinced that there is nothing in Brooklyn that you can’t find back on the island, would never voluntarily cross the river unless some extraordinary reason warrants the inconvenience, such as to visit a friend who has thoughtlessly moved to the “boroughs.” Brooklyn neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Brooklyn Heights are often touted by real estate agents using self-defeating sales pitches like “the city view on this side of the East River is so much better. Look how gorgeous Manhattan is!”


The sister rivalry between Brooklyn and Manhattan is a staple for New York-centric TV series like Friends, Will & Grace and Sex and the City. The s…

A Little Bay No More 灣仔的成長

I visit my brother Kelvin and his family in Wanchai every once in a while. They live on the east end of Kennedy Road, an area that real estate brokers call “Midlevels East.” Their apartment complex has an exit on Queen’s Road East adjacent to the 63-story Hopewell Centre, once the tallest building in Hong Kong until the Bank of China Building snatched the title in 1989.

I follow each fraternal visit with a leisurely walk down Queen’s Road East. The street is lined with a stretch of mom-and-pop stores selling picture frames and traditional rosewood furniture, and a couple of hole-in-the-wall juice vendors each with a half dozen electric blenders going at it at the same time. As I guzzle my cantaloupe juice out on the sidewalk, I can’t help but marvel at the little known fact that Queen’s Road once marked the shoreline of Hong Kong Island… _______________________ Read the rest of this essay in HONG KONG State of Mind, available at major bookstores in Hong Kong and at Blacksmith Books.

Christmas in Hong Kong - Part 2 香港過聖誕-下卷

Nowadays, Christmas is more commonly referred to as the “holiday season” to make non-Christians feel less excluded from the festivities, part of the political correctness movement that began in America in the 1990s and forever altered the way Americans conduct themselves and interact with each other. The name change is a harmless adjustment that has done little to dampen the holiday spirit. After all, it will not stop little children from taking pictures with Santa Claus at the mall or party-goers from quaffing champagne.

The absence of snow in Hong Kong, on the other hand, does put a damper on things. To make up for it, Hong Kongers have developed their own peculiar way of celebrating the occasion... _______________________ Read the rest of this essay in HONG KONG State of Mind, available at major bookstores in Hong Kong and at Blacksmith Books.

My Pet Peeves 無名火起

We all have our pet peeves. They are the minor annoyances that make your skin crawl and your blood boil but you don’t know why. The Cantonese expression mo ming for hey (無名火起), which literally means an “inexplicable fury,” is a close cultural equivalent.

Pet peeves are by definition personal. What bothers you often doesn’t get to the people around you, which makes it all the more frustrating. You are twice victimized when friends and family accuse you of being petty, uptight and unreasonable. The inexplicable fury can quickly turn into an uncontrollable wrath. 
Do you cringe when someone doesn’t use a coaster, starts every sentence with the word “actually,” presses his finger on your laptop screen, checks his Blackberry while talking to you or pushes the elevator’s “close door” button in quick succession when he sees you coming? How about a slow driver in a single-lane road, a chewing gum smacker on the train, a line cutter at the check-out counter or an open-mouth sneezer on a crowd…

Hong Kong State of Mind - Part 2 香港情懷-下卷

It’s that day of the month and once again I took the subway to Wanchai for a quiet, solitary evening. After I finished my haircut and dinner, I walked through the wet markets near Johnston Road to the nearby bus stop to catch a ride home. It was 10 pm and there were still people everywhere. Some were closing up for the night while others were devouring a late supper. A young couple flagged down a taxi, rushing to get home to catch the last bit of the nightly soap opera on television.

The No. 15 bus arrived in a few minutes. I took my usual seat in the last row of the double-decker’s upper level, braving the air-conditioning at full blast. The bus was all but empty and I had the entire row to myself. As the roaring behemoth meandered up the hilly Stubbs Road, I took off my shoes, stretched my legs across three seats and drank in the spectacular city by night. The postcard-perfect view of Hong Kong always puts me in a reflective mood.
Hong Kong is a peculiar place. Seven million penny…

The Case for a New Holiday 不俗的新節日

If we have days dedicated to observing the shadow of a rodent (Groundhog Day) and dumping sticky rice into the river to keep fish from nipping away the body of a beloved poet (Tuen Ng Festival 端午節), then surely we can afford to have another one dedicated to hurling objects at unpopular politicians or their effigies.
On 14 December 2008, while he was still frolicking in his presidential la-la-land, George W. Bush thought he would give Iraq a surprise valedictory visit and draw the world’s attention to the progress his military top brass had made in Iraq. Then “BAM!” and “BAM!” again, flew the shoes across the press room. The startled Bush ducked and ducked again, while his entourage froze as if the show were too good to interrupt.

We all watched the clip on television and YouTube over and over again. It didn’t seem to get old. This was no laughing matter of course. The shoe hurler, 28-year-old Iraqi journalist Muntader al-Zaidi, risked serious jail time to make a point: get the hell ou…

An Epiphany In the Most Unlikely Place 出乎意料的啟發

One of the greatest inventions of our time is the video Podcast. It allows news junkies like myself to catch up on world events anytime and anywhere. Among my favorite Podcast programs are CBS’s 60 Minutes, NBC’s Meet the Press and CBC’s World at Six. All the information at my fingertips, and it doesn’t cost a thing.
Last week at the gym, I worked out to the latest edition of World at Six, a half-hour daily news program produced by Canada’s national public broadcaster. I was gripped by a news story about the “Highway of Heroes,” the stretch of Highway 401 between Trenton and Toronto dedicated to Canadian military personnel killed in Afghanistan. The CBC reporter interviewed the mother of a fallen soldier, who tearfully thanked the public for their support.

The news story got me all choked up in the middle of my ab exercises. I tried to imagine the paralyzing pain the mother must feel. Friends and family would offer condolences, but it was the mother herself who must face the finality …

Book Review: Ghosts of Memory by Vincent Mak 書評:麥華嵩«回憶幽靈»

It’s not easy to find novels that are set in Hong Kong. Among the handful of English language novels that feature the city, most use it as a mere exotic detour and read like another The World of Susie Wong. What’s surprising, however, is that there is an equal dearth of Chinese language novels that use Hong Kong as their backdrop. Only Love in a Fallen City «傾城之戀» and Lust, Caution «色,戒» by Shanghai-born writer Eileen Chang (張愛玲) come to mind. But both of them were written over three decades ago and set in the 1940s when the former British colony was under Japanese occupation. With so few fiction titles getting published in Hong Kong these days, the city’s quirky culture remains largely untapped by the local literati.

That’s why Ghosts of Memory «回憶幽靈» by Vincent Mak (麥華嵩) is a welcome addition to the genre. Ghosts is Vincent’s fourth publication and his first full-length novel. The book comprises eight chapters of crisscrossing story lines set in eight familiar locales, including a …

A Matter of Taste 觀點與角度

Warning: Generalizations ahead.
Chinese people are aesthetically challenged. So there I said it. There are exceptions of course. I.M. Pei gave the world the Louvre pyramid and recently the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar. David Tang created the fashion label Shanghai Tang and in the process popularized the concept of Chinese chic. Zhang Yimou (張藝謀), ever the worshipper of beauty, wowed us with the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. For every Pei, Tang and Zhang, there are thousands of other talented Chinese artists, architects and designers. But those outliers aside, the average Chinese person gets a failing grade in the subject of taste.

To commemorate Hong Kong's handover in 1997, the Chinese government bestowed upon its long-lost child the Golden Bauhinia sculpture, a massive gold-plated flower that sits on a granite pedestal shaped like the Great Wall. The road to hell is often paved with good intentions... _______________________ Read the rest of this essay in HONG KONG State …

The Vindication of Eric Shinseki 艾力新關的平反

It was a hot summer day in 2003. General Eric Shinseki, then U.S. Army Chief of Staff, was summoned to Washington D.C. to answer questions about the rapidly deteriorating situation in Iraq. Among other pointed questions, Shinseki was asked to estimate the number of troops necessary to end the war there, to which the general guilelessly replied “something in the order of several hundred thousand.” What the general didn’t know was that his honest reply would ultimately cost him his career.
Two days after the Senate hearing, then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy called Shinseki’s estimate “far off the mark” and “outlandish” because “it [was] hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself.”
Rumsfeld had a track record of crushing dissenters, and it was no secret in the Pentagon that he and Shinseki didn’t get along. To let everyone know who was in charge, Rumsfeld named Shinseki’s su…

Island Escapade 小島偷閒

I grabbed my carry-on luggage and headed out of the office at lunch time. An in-flight movie and two rounds of drinks later, I found myself at the island airport greeted by a smiley hotel chauffeur reminiscent of Tattoo from Fantasy Island — minus the white suit.
I had booked myself a private villa on a remote Thai island overlooking the South Pacific horizon. The spacious one-bedroom suite, complete with its own infinity edge pool, a teakwood patio deck and a verdant landscaped lawn, was to be the perfect setting for a weekend getaway.
At least that’s what I thought when I planned the trip several weeks ahead of departure...
_______________________ Read the rest of this essay in HONG KONG State of Mind, available at major bookstores in Hong Kong and at Blacksmith Books.

Christmas in Hong Kong - Part 1 香港過聖誕-上卷

My seven-and-a-half foot tall Oregon Douglas fir arrived on my doorstep.

I only just picked it out from the florist’s yesterday, but with typical Hong Kong efficiency, the perfectly wrapped tree, complete with a tree stand and accessories, was delivered to my apartment in less than 24 hours. Unwrapping the tree was every bit as exciting as opening presents on Christmas Day. As soon as the bunched-up branches were released, they let out an aroma of fresh pine that permeated the entire living room, instantly triggering wonderful olfactory memories of past Christmases.

I had a real tree for Christmas in all my years in New York and have had one ever since I returned to Hong Kong. In Manhattan, tree vendors pop up on every street corner as soon as Thanksgiving is over. Most of them are Canadians who drive their pick-up trucks from up north in hope of making a holiday buck over the December weeks... _______________________ Read the rest of this essay in HONG KONG State of Mind, available a…

Seeing an Old Friend 老友相聚

I had lunch with an old friend today.
Vincent and I go way back. We went to the same school eons ago. My friend was something of a legend for being at the top of the class year after year. A Renaissance Man in the truest sense, Vincent’s interests range from philosophy and quantum physics to classical music and literature. Because of his many esoteric pursuits, the precocious teenager was neither the most approached nor the most approachable at school. He was relegated to a very small circle of friends, and I was one of them. His reclusive dispositions were a personal choice to him but highbrow snobbery to others. To me, however, Vincent was simply ahead of his time.

Happily married to a lovely wife with a baby boy, Vincent now teaches full-time at a leading university in Hong Kong and pursues his writing career part-time. Every time Vincent publishes a new book, he invites me for lunch and gives me an autographed copy fresh off the press. I was thrilled to receive an honorary mention…

Stop the Madness! 我受夠了!

If you haven’t noticed it, then either you are hard of hearing or you are one of them. I am referring to those in Hong Kong who say “may I help’choo?”

Earlier tonight I called a restaurant in Central to make a dinner reservation. The operator answered in English, “thank you for calling XXX Restaurant, how may I help’choo?” I almost dropped my phone, not because it was my first time hearing the mispronunciation, but because I was fed up with the fact that such a glaring mistake can go uncorrected for so long.
Over the centuries, many have attempted to butcher the English language but no attempt is as offensive or nearly as successful as this one. Uptight Englishmen are known to cringe whenever they hear Singaporeans speak Singlish, injecting their local flavors into the language of Chaucer and Shakespeare. Bizarre as the hybrid language may sound, Singlish is by and large just an accent, and so long as everyone still respects the basic rules of grammar and phonics, accents are simply …

Flip-flops Culture 人字拖文化

A good friend of mine once observed, there are only three kinds of men who wear flip-flops in Hong Kong: street bums, foreigners and homosexuals.
I suspect the marginalization of this simple, versatile and very comfortable footwear has much to do with language. In Cantonese, as it is the case for Thai, Vietnamese and several other Asian languages I have surveyed, there is no specific word for flip-flops. All open-toe footwear held with a thong between the big toe and the second toe is generically referred to as “slippers” (拖鞋), a word that strongly suggests its rightful place in the privacy of one’s own home. Likewise, the Cantonese word for “vest” (背心) can mean anything from the sleeveless member of a three-piece suit to a tank-top or a cardigan, a term that often causes confusion at clothing stores in the city.

I love flip-flops and I wear them everywhere I go. Over the years, my trust flip-flops have taken me to the backstreets of Harlem, Mount Fuji in Japan, and recently the Grea…

Thanksgiving in Hong Kong 感恩節在香港

I invited a few friends over to my apartment for Thanksgiving dinner yesterday. The secular holiday is all about the food: pumpkin soup, home-roasted turkey, sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts. The dinner conversation, fueled by no shortage of wine and cheese, carried the party well into the night.


Thanksgiving has always been a somewhat ambiguous holiday tradition. Most believe that it began when early European settlers in New England offered thanks to native Americans who gave them corn and potatoes to get through winter. Others argue that it was more of a harvest celebration. The Americans celebrate it on the fourth Thursday of November, whereas the Canadians have it a month earlier. Outside North America, however, the day is a complete non-event.

In the U.S. and Canada, Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the holiday season. As soon as the Turkey Day is over, retailers change their window displays from the more subtle fall motifs of orange and brown to Santa Clause and elves. H…

On China: from Securities Regulation to National Identity 談中國:由證券規條說到國民身份

Earlier this week I attended a two-day lawyers’ conference at a hotel in Admiralty. The annual event brought together in-house counsel and private practitioners across Asia to discuss the latest regulatory issues and capital markets developments. Most non-lawyers would rather get a rectal exam than go to one of these things.

This was my third year at this particular conference. While a majority of the attendees were expat lawyers based in Hong Kong, there was no shortage of legal professionals flying in from Singapore, Shanghai, Seoul and Mumbai. The fact that the event takes place in Hong Kong year after year is evidence that our city is still the leading financial hub in the region.
One of the interesting topics discussed at the conference is “Doing Business in China.” During the segment, panel speakers swapped war stories from recent transactions in the Mainland, notably those that took place during the IPO boom spurred by a relaxation of securities regulation. In the Wild Wild We…

The Dark History of Sedan Chairs 轎子的野史

The annual Sedan Chair Race to raise money for charities and to promote Matilda Hospital (明德醫院) was held last week. Every November, teams representing their corporate sponsors, clad in over-the-top costumes and carrying equally over-the-top sedan chairs, loop around the three-quarter mile route along Mt. Kellett Road on the Peak.

I used to live on the intersection where Mt. Kellett Road meets Homestead Road. As early as September each year, from my living room window I would see young men and women training for the event, a scene that became synonymous with the arrival of autumn. I watched the race last year with great interest and took a copious amount of pictures, though I was miffed that few local Chinese turned up for the event. This year I was all gung-ho about entering the race with people from work, only to find out that we missed the registration deadline by two weeks.
In the end, I slept in that morning and wound up not watching the event altogether. To make up for missing t…

An Aw-some Day 哦和她的一個早上

Back in my college days I went through an Amy Tan phase. I read everything the Chinese American writer had written, which was only three novels at the time but I enjoyed them all the same. So when a student approached me last week to help her with an assignment on The Kitchen God’s Wife, Tan’s most popular novel after The Joy Luck Club, I gladly took her on.

When I first met Lisa, she was everything I expected from an 11th grader. She hated literature and hated talking about it even more... _______________________ Read the rest of this essay in HONG KONG State of Mind, available at major bookstores in Hong Kong and at Blacksmith Books.

Krall Enthralls 克瑞兒迷住我

Earlier tonight I went to a Diana Krall concert at the Hong Kong Exhibition Centre. The venue was a terrible choice and didn’t do justice to the Canadian talent. The concert hall, converted half-heartedly from a convention center, featured rows of cheap electric blue plastic chairs strung together on a flat concrete floor, which means half of my view was blocked by the balding head in front of me. 
To make things worse, less than a quarter of the space was used for the concert itself, making the troupe look like some garage band playing in an empty warehouse. No wonder international stars often snub Hong Kong and head straight to Tokyo and Singapore where they are treated with more respect. But enough griping about Hong Kong.

A true Canadian, Krall possesses an unassuming and understated stage persona. More remarkably, she seems truly happy with her life, which is more than what we can say about most celebrities these days. The chanteuse is happily married to fellow singer Elvis Coste…

The Piano Man 鋼琴手

I went to a Billy Joel concert at the Asia World Arena with a few friends last night. Shawn, a good friend of mine, got a bunch of free tickets from his firm and I was first to jump on the opportunity to watch one of my favorite singers/songwriters make his debut in Hong Kong. Over a career that spans four decades, Billy Joel has put out enough hits to make a Broadway jukebox musical Moving Out out of them.

It was my first time watching the piano man live in concert. Billy in person was light-hearted and unpretentious. His humor was self-deprecating without being cynical. He introduced himself to the audience as “Billy Joel’s dad” – an allusion to his baldness and the few extra pounds – and poked fun at his very public failed marriages. Song after song, he regaled the audience with classic hits like Just the Way You Are, Honesty and, my personal favorite, Always a Woman to Me, which pushed the evening to its climax. The thrice divorcée crooned:
She can lead you to love      She can take…

A Flightless Vacation 不用飛的假期

Desperate to use up my remaining vacation days for the year, these past several weeks I have been taking a day off here and there. I would check the 10-day weather forecast, pick a sunny day and tell my secretary I wouldn’t come in to the office on so-and-so-day. And when the day finally arrives, I would head to the beach for a hassle-free "staycation." There would be no flight delays, no hefty hotel bills and no need to flash that Cheshire Cat smile in front of the camera. All there is to it is a simple, stress-free day all to myself.
Blue skies don’t come by very often in Hong Kong. You can count the number of clear days in a month with one hand. But today was one of those days. I threw a beach towel into my convertible and drove to Repulse Bay. Driving top down on a balmy November morning instantly put me in a good mood, making the 20-minute ride a treat in itself. The beach was almost empty, save for the clusters of Mainland Chinese tourists taking pictures on the far s…

Hong Kong State of Mind - Part 1 香港情懷-上卷

Once a month I spend a quiet evening in Wanchai. I will get a haircut, visit the big Chinese bookstore near Southorn Playground (修頓球場) and grab dinner from a neighborhood noodle house before heading home on a double-decker. The solitude is self-imposed and the private reverie cherished.

I had one of those evenings yesterday. I began the night at the hair salon, where a young apprentice named Durex gave me a wash followed by a pampering scalp massage befitting a world-class spa. I can never quite wrap my mind around why people here give themselves such bizarre names as “Concrete,” “Jackal” and “Lazy,” even though Lazy is a perfectly hardworking young lady who takes my orders at Starbucks. With names like that, how can they ever expect to be taken seriously in life?
While my hairdresser snipped merrily away, I picked up the latest issue of GQ (British Edition) – one of my guilty pleasures – and started reading an article on Macau. I buried my head in the glossy pages while the young st…

Music that Makes You Weep 教人哭泣的音樂

People who know me know I love opera. I enjoy listening to it, watching it, singing it, writing about it and defending it. To the skeptics who question opera as a relevant art form, who write it off as pretentious and elitist, who balk at the idea of blasting an opera recording on the car stereo instead of Coldplay or Beyoncé, I urge them to spend a quiet evening at home and listen to a few arias by Montserrat Caballé, one of the most enduring and admired bel canto sopranos in the 20th Century. The Spanish native has earned a place in my heart as my favorite soprano of all time.

A good place to start is her Decca recording of “Signore, mi ascolta!” from Puccini’s Turandot and her EMI recording of “Era Piu Calmo?” – better known as the Willow Song – from Verdi’s Otello. Caballé’s voice is a gift from God. Her superb breathing technique and abdominal control allow her to melt hearts with her signature pianissimo and glissando, and to sustain some of the longest notes ever held in record…

Heaney Anyone? 希尼你懂嗎?

I teach high school English in my spare time. One of my students recently asked me for help with Shakespeare’s Othello and poetry by Seamus Heaney.

Othello has always been one of my favorite Shakespearean tragedies and it doesn’t hurt that I know Verdi’s Otello, an opera based on the play, backward and forward. Teaching Shakespeare is both fun and immensely rewarding. Just pop Placido Domingo’s 1978 legendary recording of the opera into the CD player and I am ready to rumble.
Heaney, on the other hand, is a different matter. All I know about the Irish poet is that he translated Beowulf from Old English and won a Nobel Prize in literature in the 1990s. A few days ago I flipped through a dusty copy of his Death of a Naturalist on my bookshelf but not much registered. Determined to find out why he was coined the “most important Irish poet since Yeats,” I decided to stay home tonight to read up on good ol’ Seamus, starting with his famous poems on potato digging and blackberry picking.