30 November 2008

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

My seven-and-a-half foot tall Oregon Douglas fir arrived today. 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. And 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...


Read the rest of this article in HONG KONG State of Mind, published by Blacksmith Books, available at major bookstores in in Hong Kong, on Amazon and at Blacksmith Books.

27 November 2008

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 in the foreword to one of his early works.

This afternoon we decided to have lunch in SoHo. As soon as we sat down at the table, Vincent, true to form, whipped out a pen and signed a copy of his fourth book before sliding it across the table toward me. A fifth title is already in the works, he said. I congratulated him and, desperately trying to keep up, told him about some of the projects I was working on at the moment.

As the lunch went on, we exchanged our thoughts on García Márquez and Borges and argued about recordings of Brahms and Shostakovich. That’s what Vincent and I do whenever we are in the same room, just the way we used to back in our school days. Truth be told, Vincent and my two brothers, Kelvin and Dan, are probably the only people in the world with whom I can stay up all night talking politics, history, literature and music. They are the muses in my life, an inexhaustible source of inspiration. And if a person is lucky enough to find his muses, he knows all too well not to let them get away. Even though Vincent and I fell out of touch for almost two decades while I drifted from one city to another in North America, we managed to rekindle our friendship soon after I repatriated to Hong Kong, as if we had never been apart.

These days with family, work and our many side pursuits and pet projects, Vincent and I don’t get to see each other very often. But every once a while, we set a time and place and indulge in the simple pleasure of each other’s company. Today we did just that.

26 November 2008

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 a matter of taste. Who is to say, for instance, that the Australian accent is any less pleasant than the Jamaican? The problem with saying “may I help’choo, on the other hand, goes far beyond taste. It is just plain wrong.

Another reason I take such offense with the mispronounced phrase is that those who say it are often people who think they speak very good English. From the concierge at the Four Seasons to the senior bank manager at HSBC, these presumably Western-educated, self-assured professionals repeat the phrase day-in and day-out with complete nonchalance, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. It makes me wonder: is that what they teach our kids at school these days? How did this grotesque phenomenon get started and why hasn’t anyone done something about it? No wonder so many parents here send their kids to international schools these days.

Worse still, there are disturbing signs that the disease has gone from a domestic outbreak to an all-out pandemic across Asia. In my recent trips to Bangkok, Taipei, Shanghai and even Singapore, I noticed that some of the men and women in the service industry were starting to make the same mistake. Many countries in the region look to wealthier and worldlier Hong Kong for best practices in business management. What these countries need to realize is that Hong Kong may be a lot of things, but English teacher it is not.

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, I will go over a basic rule of pronunciation for those who dont already know it. The only time a “y” sound becomes a “ch” sound is when the word preceding it ends with a “t” or its phonetic equivalent, such as the past tense of a verb ending with a “k” (like “kicked”) or a “p” (like “helped”). In other words, while it is correct to say “nice to meet’choo” and “I helped’choo yesterday,” it is completely, utterly and hopelessly wrong to say “may I help’choo.”

So there you have it. I hope you will join me on my one-man crusade to stop the madness.

25 November 2008

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” (), a word that strongly suggests its rightful place in the privacy of one’s own home. Likewise, the Cantonese word for “vest” () 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...


Read the rest of this article in HONG KONG State of Mind, published by Blacksmith Books, available at major bookstores in in Hong Kong, on Amazon and at Blacksmith Books.

23 November 2008

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. Hong Kong, on the other hand, follows the English customs of putting up Christmas decorations as early as mid-November, which is something of a cultural faux pas in North America.

This was my first time roasting a turkey at home. I pre-ordered the 12-pound Butterball two weeks ago, defrosted it in the fridge for three whole days and followed my family recipe to a tee. My sister Ada has always been the turkey master in the family and every year she goes all out to host an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner at her house. It is one of the things I miss the most about living in Toronto.

The turkey is the largest single piece of food an average family ever puts on the dinner table, making it a culinary showpiece that wows dinner guests and instantly lights up the party. It also provides the head of household an annual opportunity to assert his or her position in the family by carving the bird with a sharp butcher’s knife and sending food around the table. This year, I acceded to that title with anticipation and trepidation. But it didn’t take me long to realize that high positions came with a price. By the time I finished with the carving, I had turkey juice splashed all over my shirt. Well, at least that means I didnt overcook the bird.

20 November 2008

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 West of high finance in China, convoluted regulation, overlapping layers of government authorities and an unpredictable judicial system conspire to create a rough and tumble business environment that can faze even the most seasoned of bankers and lawyers.

The collective sense of frustration toward doing business in China at the conference resonated with my recent retrospection after watching a documentary series on television. The series examined the progress of reform three decades after Deng Xiaoping’s Reforms and Openness (改革開放) initiatives that opened up the country to the rest of the world. Legal scholars interviewed by the reporter lamented that, despite all the promises of political reform, little has materialized. Just a few months ago, President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) made a disconcerting statement at a state event declaring the interests of the people, represented by the Communist Party, supreme in Chinese courts. The statement left little doubt that the rule of law still takes a backseat to the rule of the autocrats no matter which way you look at it.

As we well know and mourn, China’s national agenda is heavy on the economy but light on political reform. The direction in which the country is heading is creating much confusion in the Mainland and Hong Kong, as citizens’ sentiment vacillates between pride and embarrassment depending on which news report they read. On the one hand, Beijing is quick to celebrate the country’s accession to the world stage, putting up skyscrapers in elite cities, sending a man to the moon and rubbing shoulders with dignitaries at G-20 meetings. On the other hand, China still exhibits many traits of a third world country: a totalitarian government that controls everything from overseas travels to Internet contents, a politically neutered population that views self-censorship as a virtue and a morally-bankrupt business community that poisons consumers with contaminated foods and goes unpunished because of widespread corruption.

The mounting tension between self-awareness and state control is fueling a national identity crisis in China. The crisis manifests itself through sporadic social unrests and civil movements in various parts of the country, which will increase in both scale and frequency unless the fundamental issue of political reform is addressed. I don’t know when that day will come, but the optimist in me looks forward to the day when “doing business in China” is no longer a topic of discussion at the lawyer’s conference.

17 November 2008

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 yesterday morning. 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 right 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 the hoopla, I decided to read up on how the whole idea of a sedan race came about in the first place...


Read the rest of this article in HONG KONG State of Mind, published by Blacksmith Books, available at major bookstores in in Hong Kong, on Amazon and at Blacksmith Books.

16 November 2008

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 just 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 eleventh grader. She hated literature and hated talking about it even more...


Read the rest of this article in HONG KONG State of Mind, published by Blacksmith Books, available at major bookstores in in Hong Kong, on Amazon and at Blacksmith Books.

14 November 2008

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 didnt 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 Costello and is a proud mother of two, a fact that she readily shared with the audience in her monologue after the opening act.

Krall’s post-bop, free jazz improvisation was exhilarating without being over-done. She also enjoyed great on-stage chemistry with her band, punctuating her singing with an occasional musical joke played on them and throwing them a wink or a smirk from time to time. With that silky-sooth, lazy-Sunday-morning contralto voice, it is easy to forget how good a pianist she really is. In fact, Krall started out as a jazz pianist before she left Vancouver for L.A. to take up singing.

Much to my delight, most of the numbers she chose for the evening were not taken from her studio-recorded albums, but rather from a separate songbook she performs only in live concerts, such as Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You and Gershwin’s S’Wonderful. In tonight’s performance, however, Krall left out several classic crowd-pleasers like Fly Me to the Moon and Billy Joel’s Just the Way You Are, songs that roused the audience to a frenzy in her 2001 concert in Paris. Her omission had no doubt disappointed many this evening.

If you dont already own a Diana Krall album, you should pick up a copy of her Christmas album (released in 2005) from the record store before the holiday season begins. Lush, light-hearted and delightfully festive, it will be the only Christmas album you ever want to play at your holiday dinner parties.

13 November 2008

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 you or leave you
She can ask for the truth
But she'll never believe
And she'll take what you give her
As long as it's free
Yeah, she steals like a thief
But she's always a woman to me

Just as Shawn and I had predicted, Billy Joel ended the evening with The Piano Man, a chart-topper that propelled the songwriter to huge commercial success in 1973 and gave him his nickname. The song describes his early career playing at a piano bar in L.A. and holds a special place in the 60-year-old’s heart, a sentiment that came through in his raspy voice as he alternated between the harmonica and piano with equal ease and grit.

I have always been a fan of Billy Joel. His working class upbringing he was a high-school dropout and a boxer at one time and bumpy road to stardom gave his music authenticity and a certain existentialist charm. The songwriter achieved great popularity not only on the East Coast (the subject of much of his music), but also in the industrial heartland of the Midwest. Hits like Allentown and Pressure became anthems for blue-collar America throughout the 80s and 90s. Whenever I listen to Billy Joel’s music, I have this image of a GM plant full of auto workers bobbing their heads to the radio and turning a hard day’s work into moments of musical bliss.

During my college years in Philadelphia, I would play his Greatest Hits box set over and over again as I studied into the night. I was particularly fond of his bluesy number New York State of Mind, released during his best and most productive years in the late 70s. Hearing that song again at the concert last night reminded me how much and how little I have changed over the years.

I will never forget Billy Joels performance of New York State of Mind at the “Tribute to Heroes” benefit concert after the September 11 terrorist attacks. It was a perfect song choice for one of the most harrowing moments in American history. Sitting by his piano on a candle-lit stage, the piano man sang from his heart to a nation in mourning. Hearing the opening piano solo alone was enough to send goose-bumps all over my body and tears streaming down my cheeks.

11 November 2008

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 side. It looked like the recent cold front had driven everyone away and turned my favorite beach in the city into something of a private resort.

I lay under the azure sky looking out to the shimmering waters. The sun was strong but not harsh. I turned on my iPod and switched off my cell phone and Blackberry, shutting out the world for several hours with deliberate defiance. The mere thought that the rest of the city was toiling in the office while I was soaking up the sun was enough to put a smile on my face. Mom is right: the best things in life are free.

10 November 2008

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 order 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 the new Macau. I buried my head in the glossy pages while the young stylist dispensed unsolicited advice on male grooming and recommended drastic hair treatments. Sensing my mild annoyance, he changed the subject and asked if I was shopping for a new car, tipped off by the print ad for a new BMW model in the magazine I was reading. I forced a smile and said no…


Read the rest of this article in HONG KONG State of Mind, published by Blacksmith Books, available at major bookstores in in Hong Kong, on Amazon and at Blacksmith Books.