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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…

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.


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…

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.

She Puts A Spell On Me 她跟我下了咒

Her skin was black. Her manner was tough. She was awfully bitter in her days, because her people were once slaves. What did they call her? 
Her name was Nina Simone.
I borrowed these lines from the song “Four Women,” a biographical sketch of four negro women growing up in segregationist America. 
Nina Simone wrote this haunting ballad in 1966 in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, two years before the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Spell-binding, compelling and at times scathing and foreboding, the songstress was dubbed the “High Priestess of Soul” for her imposing stage presence and readiness to use her music to take on social injustice.

Nina Simone embarked on her musical journey at a time when racial tension in America was coming to a boil and the country could no longer turn a blind eye to the widespread oppression and violence against black Americans. In “Mississippi Goddam,” she responded to the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, one of the watershed events in the Ro…

Bangkok Story - Part 2 曼谷物語-中卷

I visit Bangkok three or four times a year. Surely the food and the shopping are great and the hotel suites and health spas are to die for. But truth be told, I go there in large part because I like being around Thai people. Gentle, patient and friendly almost to a fault, the Thai are natural born hosts and hostesses. With these proud national traits, Thailand has carved a niche for itself as one of the top, and certainly the most pampering, travel destinations in South East Asia.

Thai people are also remarkably creative and artistic, qualities that are often overshadowed by their hospitality... _______________________ Read the rest of this essay in HONG KONG State of Mind, available at major bookstores in Hong Kong and at Blacksmith Books.

Bangkok Story - Part 1 曼谷物語- 上卷

I hopped onto the purple-tailed Boeing 747 and let Thai Airways whisk me away to one of my favorite cities in Asia. Just a little over two hours from Hong Kong, Bangkok is a ready playground for vacationers of all ages. A passport and a change of clothing were all I needed for a three-day getaway. For everything else, there is the credit card.

March and April are the hottest months in Bangkok but that was little deterrence to this ardent visitor… _______________________ 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.

The Secrets of Self-Preservation 保身祕訣

I have had this stubborn, persistent dry cough for about a month now. Multiple visits to the doctor’s office have been paid and a cocktail of anti-allergy drugs, cough syrups and steroid inhalers has been prescribed to little avail. Cold drinks and sugary food tend to irritate my windpipe and I have summarily cut them from my diet. One irritant remains as unavoidable as April showers: the sooty air from rush hour traffic in Central.

It was a déjà vu of what happened when I first moved to Hong Kong. The dry cough was just one of the host of health issues that beset the early months of my repatriation... _______________________ Read the rest of this essay in HONG KONG State of Mind, available at major bookstores in Hong Kong and at Blacksmith Books.

Laws of Nature 大自然定律

Back when I was still living in Toronto, my family and I used to spend a lot of time in front of the television set. If nothing good was on, we would flip to the Discovery Channel by default and watch ferocious felines rip apart an innocent zebra or a helpless gazelle. I often wondered why the camera crew would just sit on the sidelines and let the film roll, while savagery unfolded before their eyes. Would a successful rescue upset the order of the jungle and threaten the delicate balance of the entire ecosystem? Perhaps it is best not to interfere.

One afternoon I found myself shopping at City Super, a high-end grocery store in Hong Kong that sells mostly imported foods...
______________________ Read the rest of this essay in HONG KONG State of Mind, available at major bookstores in Hong Kong and at Blacksmith Books.

What's in a Cup - Part 2 杯中乾坤-下卷

My earliest memory of coffee was my father’s large ceramic cup with Chinese inscriptions, an unlikely choice for a coffee mug. Before he retired a decade ago, my Dad was a freelance illustrator for a handful of local newspapers in Hong Kong. For four decades, he worked his paintbrushes and black ink every day at home in his snug corner, stealing noisy slurps from his signature coffee cup buried somewhere on his perennially cluttered desk. Every day I would hear the familiar noise of the rattling teaspoon as he stirred granulated instant coffee with powdered creamer and condensed milk. This explained why growing up we always had a sticky jar of yellowish curd in the fridge.


It wasn’t until many years later that I found out instant coffee was something coffee drinkers scoff at because the powder is made from the lowest quality beans. Indeed, instant coffee has lost much of its popularity in Hong Kong since my early childhood. These days discerning consumers demand authenticity and opt …

What's in a Cup - Part 1 杯中乾坤-上卷

People who have just moved to America enjoy ranting about their cultural shock in the Land of the Free: the rude U.S. customs officers, the broken health care system and the way families load up on junk food and frozen dinners at the grocery store every weekend. But few subjects stir greater emotion than the Godawful American coffee.

For a country that puts a Starbucks in every corner of the world and where the Morning Joe verges on a national addiction, America seems decidedly incapable of brewing a decent cup of coffee... _______________________ Read the rest of this essay in HONG KONG State of Mind, available at major bookstores in Hong Kong and at Blacksmith Books.

Tokyo Impressions 東京印象

Twice a year, I make a pilgrimage to Tokyo, one of my favorite cities. Like many in Hong Kong, I take guilty pleasure in all things Japanese. Saddled by the burden of history, all ethnic Chinese in my generation are taught to loathe the Japanese or at least keep them at bay. How we are to separate our sworn enemies’ heinous past from their admirable qualities continues to elude every Japanophile among us.

Moral dilemmas aside, I find the Japanese aesthetics irresistible. The marriage of Shintoism and Zen Buddhism has produced such core values as wabi (侘; simlicity and transience) and sabi (寂; beauty of age and time). They are the underpinnings of every aspect of the Japanese culture from theater and architecture to food preparation and social etiquette. A perfect storm was formed when these values collided with bushido (武士道), the strict code of conduct of the samurai warrior, resulting in an idiosyncrasy that is exacting, nuanced and immensely graceful. At once a philosophy and a nat…

Le Sacre du Printemps 春之祭

I grabbed my briefcase and stepped out of my apartment building onto the quiet street. But something felt different this morning. The thick white fog had returned and swallowed everything near and far. Somewhere in the nearby woodland, atop an aged magnolia perhaps, a chorus of sparrows chirped and worked up a Stravinskian dissonance. 
Crimson hibiscus buds, ever the symbol of renewal, adorned a stretch of wild shrubs. From a distance, roosters crowed in eager succession, evoking images of the rustic Toishanese village in which my parents grew up. 
I slowed my pace with deliberation and gazed down the distant valleys where the southerly wind conspired with the morning sun to disperse the fog. Plumes of white smoke rose from the mountain ridge before they quietly dissolved into the storm-pregnant sky, foreshadowing an afternoon drizzle.

I inhaled the heavy, humid air in a deep breath and the smell was unmistakable: spring had arrived.

Confessions of a News Junkie - Part 2 癮君子的自白-下卷

Lifestyle magazines often feature a section where celebrities make a list of the ten things they can’t live without. Brad Pitt goes everywhere with his Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses and Sofia Coppola her Louis Vuitton luggage. I yawn with indifference every time I come across such silliness, but only seconds later find myself mentally going down my own list: my 24-inch iMac, Octopus card, extra virgin olive oil, and of course, the daily delivery of The New York Times.
The Times is hands down my favorite news source. Averaging only 18 pages, the newspaper can be read cover-to-cover in a single sitting. From politics and business to travels and arts and entertainment, “all the news that’s fit to print” is packed into a single fold. The paper’s editorials and op-eds, written with old-fashioned gumption, always pack a punch. Daily crossword puzzles edited by word wizard Will Shortz get progressively difficult as the week matures and provide a workout for the brain that at once entertains and…