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Showing posts from 2009

A Decade in Review - Special New Year's Eve Double Issue 十年大事回顧-新年雙刊

Today marks the end of the first decade in the new millennium. 
The past ten years have been a tale of two countries: America, the yester-century superpower on the precipice of decline, whose trade deficit has fueled the rapid ascent of a steadfast challenger, China. Together the odd couple grabbed headlines and dominated global issues, leaving Europe, Russia and Japan scrambling to stay relevant. 
As we stand on the cusp of a new beginning and, to borrow a line from American poet Emily Dickinson, “look back on time with kindly eyes,” I offer a short poem of my own to recapitulate the top ten events in this deciding decade. I am sure Ms. Dickinson would excuse my occasional iambic tetrameters.

The twin towers had just fallen      and the twin wars soon begotten The wounded eagle lost its crown      before a ray of hope was found.
Afar the waking dragon streamed      past woes and injured pride redeemed With birds, swine, quakes and tsunamis      how the Plagues of Egypt stymied.
Then foes of …

I Heart NY - Part 2 我愛紐約-下卷

New York is not America. It is what America wants to be, minus the 45.5% income tax rate and the 20% gratuity at restaurants.

In much the same way, Hong Kong is not China but what China should be, minus the air pollution and corporatocracy. 
But Hong Kong and New York have a few more things in common. For starters, worker bees in both cities pay exorbitant rent to live in a tiny apartment with barred windows looking right into someone else’s home. Everyone takes public transport and many never bother to get a driver’s license. Single women lament the scarcity of eligible men and rush to tie the knot before they hit their sell-by date, while men cling to their bachelorhood like koalas to a eucalyptus tree. Above all, both cities take great pride in their gutsy, razor-sharp and sleep-deprived citizens who, in trying to improve their own lives every day, create a better tomorrow for everyone else... _______________________ Read the rest of this essay in HONG KONG State of Mind, available…

I Heart NY - Part 1 我愛紐約-上卷

The regional jet made a hairpin turn over Manhattan before touching down at La Guardia Airport. It was a visual feast to end an otherwise uninteresting flight from Toronto to New York. At 5,000 feet, office towers in every shape looked like young sprouts shooting from the ground, competing for light. The silver spire of the iconic Chrysler Building shimmered gloriously, its beauty matched only by the mélange of red, orange and yellow that was the changing foliage in Central Park. My heart felt an immediate magnetic pull – I was home.

I left New York in 2005 to take up a job in Hong Kong, ending my six-year stint in a city that has comfortably held the title of Capital of the World for over a century. To defend my own title as a “Noo-Yawker,” I make every effort to go back at least once a year, invariably around Thanksgiving or Christmas when the city is most irresistible. The Big Apple holds a special place in my heart... _______________________ Read the rest of this essay in HONG KON…

A Climate of Coercion 壓迫的氣候

Imagine there has been a spate of thefts in your office. Every day, news of stolen wallets, cell phones and other valuables terrifies the staff and dominates water-cooler conversations. Scrambling to come up with a solution, management decides to ask each employee to volunteer to have their bags searched by building security every time they leave the office. 
This “Turn-Yourself-In” program, so called because of its voluntary nature, has left people scratching their heads: who, you wonder, would choose to have a stranger look through their belongings when they can simply walk straight through the door?

But that is exactly what our government is doing to tackle the growing drug problem in the city’s public schools. After a brief period of public consultation, Education Secretary Michael Suen (孫明揚) unveiled a city-wide school-based drug test program (校本驗毒計劃) in which students are encouraged, though not required, to participate. Trials are set to begin in Tai Po (大埔) district beginning D…

Six Decades of Blood, Sweat and Tears 六十年的血淚

My brothers and I visited Beijing a few months ago. 
The capital city, draped in fall foliage, was magnificent, graceful and brimming with pride. Beneath the veneer of quiet confidence, however, were signs of a city frantically preparing itself for an extravaganza. 
Every 1 October, the Communist Party goes all out to put on a show to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. Central to the festivities is a massive military parade, followed by an evening of lavish fireworks and staged performances.

As our taxi sailed past Tiananmen Square, face-lifted for the occasion with giant LCD screens and slogan banners, we spotted convoys of military vehicles docked by the roadside after a day of grueling rehearsals. In a few days, rocket launchers and tanks would rumble down Chang An Avenue (長安街), a scene that most of us associate only with North Korea, Iran and the former Soviet Union... _______________________ Read the rest of this essay in No City for Slow Men, avai…

In Sickness or in Health – Part 2 疾病或健康-下卷

Several months ago a good friend of mine in Hong Kong had a medical emergency. Struck suddenly by paralyzing stomach pain, Wilson checked himself into Hong Kong Sanatorium & Hospital (養和醫院) in Happy Valley. He underwent surgery the following day and remained hospitalized for a week. 
Luckily for Wilson, his employer’s medical plan covered a big part of his hospital bill, and whatever extra charges for staying in a swanky semi-private ward were picked up by the supplemental insurance my friend had purchased on his own. Fully recovered and feeling quite pampered, Wilson walked out of the Sanatorium seven days later with a new found zest for life.

Sickness, like natural disasters and death, is a powerful leveler of mankind. Sure enough, Wilson’s health scare struck him without warning and brought his busy life to a complete halt... _______________________ Read the rest of this essay in HONG KONG State of Mind, available at major bookstores in Hong Kong and at Blacksmith Books.

In Sickness or in Health – Part 1 疾病或健康-上卷

Earlier this month, an army of 450 volunteer doctors and dentists from Remote Area Medical, a non-profit group created to bring modern medicine to third world countries, took over a football stadium in Los Angeles, California, to treat thousands of Americans who otherwise could not afford health care. At the same time, in town-hall meetings around the country, angry constituents shouted at their congressmen against President Barack Obama’s initiative to bring health care to every American, calling his reform bill “socialist” and comparing the president to Adolf Hitler. Something doesn’t add up.

My first brush with the infamous American health care system came when I went to college in Philadelphia... _______________________ Read the rest of this essay in HONG KONG State of Mind, available at major bookstores in Hong Kong and at Blacksmith Books.

Total Eclipse of the Mind 理性的日全蝕

The local news report last night covered the solar eclipse that has captured the imagination of millions in China and India. The report ended with snippets on the annual Hong Kong Book Fair and an update on the drawn-out courtroom battle over the family fortune of Nina Wang (龔如心), the late chairlady of the Chinachem Group and the richest woman in Asia at the time of her death.

A single thought stirred in my head: what do the three news stories have in common? Then it dawned on me that each of the stories, unrelated as they may seem, provides a window on how superstition still figures prominently in our everyday life. A decade into the new millennium, some 200 years after the birth of Charles Darwin and four decades since Apollo 11 landed on the moon, folk beliefs and practices have shown no signs of backing down here in Hong Kong.

We begin with the fascinating tale of the pigtailed billionaire Nina Wang... _______________________ Read the rest of this essay in HONG KONG State of Mind,…

Seoul Searching – Part 2 尋覓漢城-下卷

It was 12:05 pm and we were still on item 2.3 of the two-page agenda. Inside the conference room as white as a morgue, bankers and lawyers pored over company accounts and peppered senior management with probing questions prefaced with profuse pleasantries. Jin-hoon, my colleague and friend, faithfully translated every word for me like a seasoned UN interpreter.

Then came the first piece of good news of the day: we were to break for lunch in 15 minutes at a nearby restaurant. Kamsamnida, I whispered the only Korean word I knew despite myself.

Outside the office tower, the midday sun had warmed the urban sprawl to a balmy 25 degrees... _______________________ Read the rest of this essay in HONG KONG State of Mind, available at major bookstores in Hong Kong and at Blacksmith Books.

Seoul Searching – Part 1 尋覓漢城-上卷

I snatched the ream of documents from my secretary’s hands and shoved them into my carry-on luggage. So began the 48-hour cycle of a mundane business trip: a mad rush to the airport, a hurried nap on the humming plane, and two days in a faceless city. 
Far from the glamor its name suggests, business traveling these days is all business and hardly any traveling. Imagine a trip where the final destination is a stuffy conference room and your travel companions a table of men-in-black who take their jobs way too seriously. Outside the dreary meeting room and just minutes from the sterile office building, a city beckons, waiting to be discovered. For an avid traveler like myself, it is the adult world equivalent of leaving a child behind the iron bars of the Disneyland entrance gates. So close, and yet so frustratingly far away.

This time my Mission Uninspirational took me to Seoul. Most of us in Asia know the capital city by its former name, Hanseong... _______________________ Read the re…

A Tale of Three Cities – Part 3 三城故事-下卷

The first sunbeams pierce the morning fog and sweep across the island’s verdant back. A lonesome streetcar emerges from the west praya, still dark in the shadow of the Peak, and rumbles noisily down the tracks. One by one congee shop owners push up their metal gates, not long before the sound of clanging crockery fills the dewy air. As the rising sun pours gold over the silver city, tree sparrows tweet to its quickening pulse and Hong Kong wakes up to another day.

If New York is the city that never sleeps, then Hong Kong must be the one that doesn’t even blink... _______________________ Read the rest of this essay in HONG KONG State of Mind, available at major bookstores in Hong Kong and at Blacksmith Books.

The Butcher’s Atonement 屠夫的救贖

The other night my niece asked me to tell her the story of Tiananmen Square. My avuncular instincts kicked into high gear and I made up a story more suited for juvenile consumption.
Once upon a time in a land far far away, an old butcher ran a humble meat shop. One hot summer’s night, he got into a heated argument with his sons over the way he managed his struggling business. In a fit of rage, the impetuous father reached for his cleaver and went on a bloody rampage against his family. Shocked by his own monstrosity, the man frantically buried the bodies and vowed to be a better father to his remaining children. As the years passed, the butcher shop prospered and the family grew. Still, any discussion of that fateful summer’s night remained taboo. Convinced that he would never be forgiven, the old man resigned himself to waiting out the generation who witnessed his murderous acts. With each passing day, as memories thinned and denial thickened, the old butcher’s chance of atonement eb…

A Tale of Three Cities – Part 2 三城故事-中卷

Macau is a rustic peninsula hugged by a muddy, silt-laden estuary of the Pearl River. Petite, laid-back and never prosperous, the middle sister exudes a touch of lazy Mediterrasian charm. 
In the mid-16th Century, Portuguese merchants turned the sleepy fishing village into a leading entrepôt for the silk and silver trades between Europe, China and Japan. Macau’s heyday lasted until 1842, when British-controlled Hong Kong, with a deeper harbor and better-run government, dethroned the sandy peninsula as the gateway to the Orient. From then on, Macau was relegated to the role of an adjunct city of Hong Kong and would forever live in her big sister’s shadow.

In the post-war era, Macau survived on revenues from government-sanctioned gambling and the sex trade, making a name for herself as Asia’s Las Vegas and a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah... _______________________ Read the rest of this essay in HONG KONG State of Mind, available at major bookstores in Hong Kong and at Blacksmith Books.

A Tale of Three Cities – Part 1 三城故事-上卷

Shenzhen, Macau and Hong Kong are three sisters separated at birth. 
Tucked away in the Pearl River Delta, they might have been mistaken for triplets if it weren’t for the vicissitudes of history that put them on such different paths. A century and a half ago, armed foreigners came knocking on their door in the dead of night, waking the sleepers out of a national slumber. 
The mightiest among the intruders, bearing the Union Jack, snatched the oldest sister in the name of free trade, not long before a Latin conquistador ran off with the middle one. Their pillage and plunder would go on for several more decades before a new enemy brought on by a divine wind opened a chapter so dark that history textbooks had to be bowdlerized.

Luckily or not, Shenzhen was the only sister of the three spared from colonial rule. While Hong Kong thrived under British rule and Portuguese Macau carved a niche for itself as Asia’s Sin City, Shenzhen didn’t begin to come of age until 1980 when Chinese paramo…

The Real Aftershock is Yet to Come 真正的餘震還未來

Exactly a year ago, an 8.0-magnitude earthquake ravaged the heartland province of Sichuan, killing an estimated 70,000 and leaving another 17,000 missing. Among them were thousands of students crushed by collapsed schools, most of their bodies buried deep under the rubble. 
Weeping parents, suddenly childless, struggled to fathom how the wrath of nature could be so cruelly selective, flattening school houses but leaving surrounding buildings standing. Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶), determined to score public relations points in the lead up to the Beijing Olympics, promised a full investigation into the so-called “tofu dregs” (豆腐渣) construction.

A week before the one-year anniversary of the disaster, the Sichuan provincial government finally got around to publishing the first ever official tally of students killed by collapsed schools. Officials blamed the high death toll on force majeure and diverted media attention to the heroic rescue efforts and the reconstruction swimmingly underway. 

Return of the Masks – Part 2 口罩回歸-下卷

The H1N1 virus has reached Hong Kong. 
We knew it was just a matter of time but the news managed to shock us just the same. Signs of a city on full alert are everywhere and feelings of an eerie déjà vu palpable. In a place as densely populated as Hong Kong, no amount of planning or emergency drills will prepare us for an all-out epidemic. 
Peculiar but somewhat understandable, the city’s response to its first confirmed case of the swine flu provides a window on our collective psyche in the post-SARS era. The temptation to offer a few of my own observations is too great to resist.

Take one for the team. The symbolic first case of the deadly virus prompted the government to lock down the Metropark Hotel (維景酒店) in Wanchai, where the infected, a 24-year-old Mexican man, once stayed. During the SARS outbreak in 2003, Metropark’s sister hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui rose to infamy after one of its tenants fell ill and infected 16 others. And you think lightning doesn’t strike twice! 
Taking no cha…

Return of the Masks - Part 1 口罩回歸-上卷

The sudden outbreak of swine flu in Mexico has grabbed the world by the throat. A highly contagious strand of the H1N1 virus, capable of human-to-human transmission, has spread to nearly 20 countries on every continent. 
Every few hours, CNN updates its country-by-country tally of confirmed and suspected cases like an Olympics medal count. The World Health Organization and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security were quick to declare the outbreak a public health emergency, just short of calling it an all-out pandemic.

This morning, Hong Kong woke up to newsstands plastered with the familiar images of worried citizens wearing those ominous powder blue face masks, except this time the epicenter was a hemisphere away in Mexico City. 
In the office, I sat through a debriefing session on our disaster recovery plan handed down from the Paris head office. At lunch time, busy salarymen slowed their pace to watch live coverage of the news story on LCD screens, united in a single thought: we’…

Why Must All Our Minibuses Be Yellow? 難道小巴總是黃色的?

You hail it like a taxi but you share it shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers as you do a double-decker bus. Sixteen riders sit snugly in cellophane-wrapped seats, their eyes glued to the flickering speed display installed by law to discourage speeding. It is the omnipresent minibus: our perky, peculiar and indispensable means of public transport.

Invariably painted a soft hue of yellow, the minibus dons a green or red top (depending on its route) and sits on four dark-skinned tires with yellow rims that match the body. So long as the fare is paid, each passenger takes up a single seat and submits to the vagaries of the unpredictable driver. It is an egalitarian experience in an otherwise stratified society... _______________________ Read the rest of this essay in HONG KONG State of Mind, available at major bookstores in Hong Kong and at Blacksmith Books.

Riding Out the Tsunami – Part 2 渡過金融海嘯-下卷

The global recession has come upon us and no one is spared. Stock prices around the world, having lost over half of their value since November 2007, have recovered somewhat in the past 12 months. Experts are calling it a “bear market rally” and warn of a calamitous double-dip recession. 
As the news media continue to stoke recessionary fears, at some point even the most defiant among us must yield to the grim economic outlook we face. If this turn of events were God’s way of testing our faith, then by setting off the financial market dominoes at the height of globalization, He sure has succeeded in bringing the rich and the poor, the famous and the unknown, the powerful and the meek all to their knees.  Locusts, boils and death of the first-born are so 2000 B.C.!

Whatever our religious beliefs are, each one of us is trying to get through these tough times in our own way. Some choose to stay a little later in the office every night to prove themselves indispensable, while others decid…

Riding Out the Tsunami – Part 1 渡過金融海嘯-上卷

There is a new expression in the U.S. “That’s so August of you” is a jab at people who continue to spend lavishly during what has been touted as the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression. 
For too long, Americans have been sleepwalking through life in the shopping mall, their bank accounts ebbing and flowing through the credit card billing cycle. From the gas-guzzling SUV to the fancy kitchen remodeling, every expense is put on the credit card or financed with a second home mortgage. “Spend within your means” is an axiom that has gone unheeded for generations.

The world’s wealthiest country has a long and dysfunctional love affair with plastic. The credit card is at once a symbol of high-rolling panache and a fuel for irresponsible spending... _______________________ Read the rest of this essay in HONG KONG State of Mind, available at major bookstores in Hong Kong and at Blacksmith Books.