30 December 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. And the same rivalry exists between Kowloon and Hong Kong. If you still don’t see the parallel, read the preceding paragraph again and replace “East River” with “Victoria Harbour,” “Williamsburg” with “Whampoa” and “Brooklyn Heights” with “Olympic City” and you’ll get my point..


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.

29 December 2008

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 down 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 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.

25 December 2008

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

This is my fourth Christmas in Hong Kong since I left New York. These days 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 guzzling champagne.

The absence of snow in Hong Kong, on the other hand, does put a damper on things. That perhaps explains why Hong Kongers felt the need to develop our own peculiar way of celebrating the occasion...


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.

22 December 2008

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 them 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 rapid 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 crowded bus? The list goes on and on.

Below is the “top ten” list of my personal pet peeves, obsessive-compulsively arranged in order of increasing annoyance...


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.

21 December 2008

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 o’clock at night 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-smart, rough-around-the-edges denizens rub elbows with each other on a piece of land half the size of London...


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.

17 December 2008

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 out of my country. After the incident, Bush told an NBC reporter that he found the whole hoopla rather “amusing.” Al-Zaidi said he did it for the widows, orphans and those who were killed in his country. Most people don’t find that sort of things very amusing.

The media was quick to praise Bush’s reaction and called him “calm” and “composed.” Americans are just thankful that their president didn’t blurt out some callous repartee that would further enrage the Arab world and send oil prices through the roof. The shoe-throwing incident was a fitting finale to Bush’s presidency. The story was easy to understand and hard to forget. From now on, no discussion over Bush’s legacy would be complete without mentioning September 11, the two failed wars, Katrina, the financial meltdown, and now, the shoe toss. History books would not be kind to America’s 43rd President.

Al-Zaidi’s act has soon inspired copycats across the globe. Three months after the original shoe toss, while Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (家寶) was addressing a presumably friendly audience at Cambridge University, a German student threw a shoe at the Premier and called him a dictator in front of a stunned crowd. Here in Hong Kong, lawmakers from the firebrand League of Social Democrats (社民連) are known for their penchant for throwing objects at unpopular politicians. Their weapon of choice is more palatable: fresh bananas. These days there is so much social injustice and frustration to go around and people everywhere are looking for ways to let off steam. If there is a U.N. petition to make 14 December an international holiday, then tell me where to sign. I can name a few politicians I wouldn’t mind tossing a shoe at.


15 December 2008

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 of her child’s death. The Canadian woman knew she had to make a choice: get on with her life or become a permanent victim.

The recent financial market meltdown and the global recession that ensued have caught everyone off guard and plunged us into a state of collective depression. Everywhere you goin the elevator, at a restaurant or on the bus people swap horror stories about job cuts and stock market losses. Television, radio and newspapers bombard us with never-ending bad news and a dismal outlook on what is still to come. Like many others, I saw my investments shrivel in front of my eyes like the Incredible Shrinking Woman. The worst part is that I now have to defer or give up some of the projects that I have planned to do, things that mean the world to me, such as publishing a book, recording a music album and pursuing photography professionally. I often work myself into a tizzy just thinking about how dreams delayed are dreams denied, and what my life would have been had I not lost so much in such a short period of time. Like the Canadian woman in the news report, I have to make a choice.

And so in the middle of the sweaty gym, amidst the noises of clanging dumbbells and humming treadmills, I made a promise to myself: I will not wallow in negativity and let this turn of events take over my life. Instead, I will take it all in stride and hope that, one day, some good will come out of it.

13 December 2008

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 «傾城之戀» (Love in a Fallen City) and «,» (Lust, Caution) 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 «回憶幽靈» (translates loosely as Ghosts of Memory) 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 public housing project, a reservoir park and our famous waterfront, places where the city’s the most authentic stories are often found.

Ghosts opens with a teenage couple frantically copying homework from each other at a park bench in the middle of the night. The youths are being watched from afar by the narrator and a friend. We don’t know who the two men are or why they follow people around. What we do know is that the narrator has an almost paternal interest in his subjects, and his companion’s knowledge of them is encyclopedic. As the duo travel through time and space on their voyeuristic tour de ville, disconnected plots develop, thicken, resolve and connect, just like the way they do in our most elaborate dreams.

The dreamlike quality of Ghosts, together with such supernatural elements as teleporting characters and anthropomorphic animals, makes a comparison with Haruki Murakami’s works irresistible. Both writers share a near-fetish for the limbo state between reality and the fantastic universe – Mak himself would admit that he is influenced by surrealist masters like Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino. Many of Murakami’s works explore the alienation, isolation and spiritual emptiness of his generation, the same demons that haunt the unhappy characters in Ghosts. Like Murakami, Mak tells his stories using elements of idiosyncratic humor, nostalgia, sexuality and physical violence. In Ghosts, the imagery is at times gruesome and graphic, such as the dismembering of a triad henchman in a gang fight and the fellatio scene between a prostitute and her callous lover.

Isolation is a central motif in Ghosts. It is a Camusian plague in modern day Hong Kong that Mak regards with equal sympathy and condemnation. And the author’s cynicism is unmistakable. Every character is decidedly pragmatic, self-serving and egocentric. Through their streams of consciousness, we learn that even a prima facie altruistic act is either driven by the lack of a better alternative or the product of careful calculation. In this regard, Ghosts represents the author’s indictment of the seven million lonely and spiritually bankrupt souls that make up our tattered social fabric. Mak borrows the desolate brush that Mark Rothko used to paint his Underground Fantasy, a poignant reflection on the collective alienation in a big metropolis.

Ghosts is also a socially conscious novel. It deals with a host of social issues in the 70s and 80s: uneven distribution of wealth, organized crimes and racial discrimination. Many of these issues remain unaddressed today. Nevertheless, as the plot gets tangled by these larger subject matters, the novel as a whole begins to lose steam. The readers patience is most seriously tested by the drawn out subplot in the final chapters about a high-stake corporate hostile takeover that smacks of a Cantonese soap opera.

In the finale of Mak’s Drama in Eight Acts, all of the characters converge on the Victoria Harbor waterfront for a curtain call. The story ends with the narrator’s final existential realization that every character he has encountered is in fact a figment of his own imagination – they exist only in his head. The narrator’s epiphany sets his characters free and in doing so, he feels at long last comforted and liberated.

Ghosts is at once entertaining, jarring, sentimental and detached. It is a successful first novel by a budding writer who must cope with a social system he loathes and adores in equal measure. Incidentally, Ghosts of Memory is also the title of a song by Tiger Army, an obscure psychobilly band in the United States. The song makes a fitting soundtrack to this delightful and uniquely Hong Kong novel.
A place of rest I've tried to find
Aching in my heart, chaos in my mind
This place is poison to my soul
Can't take much more, I'm losing control

And I'm haunted by ghosts of memory
Taunted by promises
What could have been?
Haunted, by ghosts of memory
Taunted by promises
Please set me free

12 December 2008

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 fashion label Shanghai Tang and in the process popularized the concept of Chinese chic. Zhang Yimou (張藝), ever the worshipper of beauty, wowed us with the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. And 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...


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.

10 December 2008

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 didnt get along. To let everyone know who was in charge, Rumsfeld named Shinseki’s successor more than a year before his scheduled retirement. But it was Shinseki’s “follies” before Congress during that hot summer day that broke the camel’s back. In a final act of impudence toward the general, civilian leadership from the Office of the Secretary of Defense was collectively absent from his retirement ceremony, a grandstanding stunt that was unprecedented in U.S. military history. General Eric Shinseki ended his military career of 43 years on an ugly, bitter note.

I have followed Shinseki’s career on and off for a number of years now. His 1999 appointment as the U.S. Army Chief of Staff caught my attention because until then I had never seen an Asian-American at the top of the U.S. military food chain. Born in Hawaii of Japanese descent, Shinseki graduated from West Point and rose to military stardom by earning two Purple Hearts for his valor in the Vietnam War. His appointment as army chief was a first for Asian-Americans, one that would eventually put him on front of Congress four years later to answer questions about the escalating insurgencies in Iraq. When I learned from the news the way he was thrown under the bus by Rumsfeld, it made my blood boil. I was reminded once again of the arrogance and injustice of the Bush administration.

Fast forward to 2008. America had a new president and a new administration. Shortly after he took office, Barrack Obama went on a recruiting spree to build a cabinet, tapping political celebrities and former rivals alike, including Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State and Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense. Then, on NBC’s Meet the Press hosted by Tom Brokaw, the president announced his choice of candidate to head up the Department of Veteran Affairs, the government’s second largest agency.

[OBAMA]: You know, tomorrow, is when we commemorate Pearl Harbor, and so I’m going to be making an announcement tomorrow about the head of our Veterans Administration, General Eric Shinseki...

[BROKAW]: He’s the man who lost his job in the Bush administration because he said that we would need more troops in Iraq than Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld thought that we would need at that time.

[OBAMA]: He was right.

[BROKAW]: And General Shinseki was right.

In the end, the vindication of Eric Shinseki took all of three words from the President: he was right. Shinsekis estimate of the number of soldiers needed to end the war in Iraq was borne out by hard facts. In early 2007, General Petraeus implemented the “surge” by sending in additional troops to stabilize Iraq, a move that was proven so successful that it became a centerpiece in John McCain’s presidential campaign. Five years ago, Shinseki left the Pentagon in disgrace, belittled by his political foes and wronged by his country. Five years later, he rose from the ashes and reemerged in Washington, stronger and more respected then ever.

They say revenge is a dish best served cold. So is poetic justice.