31 December 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 yore joined together
   to become a third contender

While the three kings fought and bickered
   oceans rose and rivers simmered
Chirpy bluebirds tweet night and day
   modest faces put on display
Two millennia and a decade
   such is the curious world we made

* *              *

1. The September 11 Attacks The low-tech, well-coordinated assault on the twin towers marked the beginning of a troubled decade. From that point on, events in American history would forever be divided into those that happened before 9-11 and those that happened after. The terrorist attacks were a rude awakening for Americans that their action overseas could have grave consequences at home. New words suddenly entered our everyday lexicon: “Al Qaeda,” “jihad,” “Islamist” and the infamous “Axis of Evil.” Just 20 months after the world celebrated a new millennium of hopes and dreams, America found itself in a nightmare that would never end.



2. Afghanistan and Iraq – September 11 had turned America into a wounded animal, hungry for revenge. The attacks led to its twin invasions in the Middle East, as the Bush Administration took on an all-out retaliatory initiative under the “War on Terror” banner. Launched in March 2003, the war in Iraq became the most controversial military action of the United States since the invasion of Panama in the late 80s. In the end no weapons of mass destruction, the original justification for toppling Saddam Hussein, was found. Seven years on, Osama Bin Laden is still at large and the land that is home to the oldest civilization in the world continues to be ravaged by daily suicide bombings and sectarian violence. Far from achieving its stated goal of making Afghanistan and Iraq safer, America’s strategy to “shock and awe” has instead put two Vietnams on its hands.



3. The Great Recession – The global financial crisis, triggered by the burst of the sub-prime mortgage bubble in the United States, gave new meaning to the old saying that when America sneezes, the world catches a cold. In September 2008, the collapse of Lehman Brothers sent shock waves across global stock markets and plunged America into the deepest recession since the Great Depression. Half way around the world, the bankruptcy pushed the Hang Seng Index down by 12.7% on October 27 that year and squandered the life savings of some 40,000 mini-bond holders in Hong Kong. In the weeks and months following the meltdown, corporate executives from Detroit’s Big Three turned up in Washington begging for government handouts and Wall Street bankers, once revered and envied, became social pariahs. The crown of America’s high finance, it seems, has lost much of its luster.



4. Obama Mania – Just when the world was busy writing obituaries for Uncle Sam, he surprised us all with a move that no one had thought possible. With the election of the first black president, the American Dream flickered back to life long enough to silence even the staunchest skeptics. Obama’s history-making win was also a story of atonement for a race of people wronged by history and mistreated by fellow citizens. Outside America, the regime change marked the end of the country’s cowboy diplomacy and lone-ranger unilateralism. The young president even received a Nobel Peace Prize, the most coveted award on the planet, just for not being George W. Bush. Obama is at once America’s symbol of hope and its best PR spokesperson on the world stage.



5. The Rise of New China – Since its accession to the WTO in 2001, China has gone on an unstoppable rise to G-2 status. It surpassed France’s GDP in 2004 and in less than three years replaced Germany as the world’s third largest economy. With a predicted 9% economic growth next year, it is all but certain to overtake Japan in the new decade. In August 2008, the communist party wowed the world with a breathtaking opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics, showcasing not only its new wealth but also talent and creativity befitting a superpower. But China’s success does not come without a price. Daily reports of man-made disasters from deadly coal mine explosions to toxic food products dominate the news, making the country look more like Victorian England in a Charles Dickson novel than the kind of classless utopia depicted in propaganda films.




6. Tsunami and Earthquake – On Boxing Day 2004, a powerful 9.3-magnitude earthquake shook the floor of the Indian Ocean and triggered a series of tsunamis that killed a quarter million people in 14 countries. Indonesia, ever the perennial victim of earthquakes, floods and volcano eruptions, bore the brunt of the seismic event. The gut-wrenching disaster was matched in devastation four years later by the Sichuan Earthquake that claimed 87,000 lives. As the Katrina debacle in 2005 showed us, a natural disaster is often followed by a man-made one, when authorities fail to respond properly and victims are left to their own devices. In the case of the South Asian Tsunami and Sichuan Earthquake, the governments involved managed to act swiftly and draw praise from the international community. But China’s goodwill from its rescue efforts proved short-lived, as allegations of cover-ups and intimidation of victims’ families soon came to light.



7. The Plagues of Asia – Along with the massive tsunami and earthquake came deadly viruses, one strain more frightening than the last. It was as if God was reenacting the Book of Exodus right here in Asia. In 2003, the sudden outbreak of the little-known SARS virus took lives and pounded regional economies. In Hong Kong, where the outbreak hit the hardest, Armageddon unfolded on the evening news night after night, week after week. By the end of the decade, Hong Kong has survived the SARS epidemic as well as bursts of avian and swine flu outbreaks, and citizens have grown thoroughly sick of hearing H1N1, H5N1 and other four-digit alphanumeric codes.


8. Creation of the Euro – Turning our attention away from the U.S. and China, on New Year’s Day 2002 the Euro became the legal tender for 16 EU member states. Introduction of a common currency realized the ambition in the Maastricht Treaty to create an economic system with a population half the size of India’s. It was part of Europe’s Charlemagnian effort to challenge America’s hegemony and to contain China’s increasing dominance on the world stage. While conspiracy theorists cited the Book of Revelation and called the EU the “fourth beast” in Nebuchadnezzar’s vision, others questioned the stability and staying power of the new currency. Like the panic over the Y2K bug and the Large Hadron Collider, fear of the Euro proved to be just a puff of hot air.








9. Global Warming – Speaking of hot air, global warming is real and we have the pictures to prove it. The arctic ice caps are melting and the polar bears are starving to extinction. And if we keep destroying our planet the way we did to Pandora, the fictional moon in James Cameron’s sci-fi epic Avatar, it is only a matter of time when the Maldives will be under water along with low-lying cities like Buenos Aires, New York and Shanghai. In 2005, the watershed Kyoto Protocol went into effect but to this date, the United States remains the only country on the planet that has shown no intention to ratify the treaty. Weeks before the decade drew to a close, 16,500 delegates from 183 nations once again found themselves in the same room, this time for a climate change conference in Copenhagen. High profile as it as it was, the summit amounted to not much more than a roomful of people waiting to see which one of the two mega-polluters, America or China, would blink first. Twelve days and 40,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent later, the conference had nothing to show for except a three-page non-binding Copenhagen Accord.


10. Internetworking – The decade witnessed the replacement of the television set by the Internet as our primary source of information, entertainment and, for some of us, companionship. Social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter have forever changed the way we interact and socialize with each other. Good old-fashioned visits and even telephone calls have given way to tweeting, wall-posting and blogging. The onslaught of the world wide web has also sounded the death knell for conventional media. Dozens of newspapers and magazines in the United States are closing every year and the venerable Chicago Tribune and Philadelphia Inquirer are among the many to file for bankruptcy. In the mean time, file sharing technology continues to hemorrhage the music and film industries, while record stores and even CDs and DVDs are quickly becoming a thing of the past.


*                      * *

From terrorist attacks to deadly pandemics and a global financial crisis, the past ten years have brought us more bad news than good, more tragedies than celebrations. And if the foiled Christmas attack by Nigerian spoiled-brat-turned-suicide-bomber and the sentencing of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) on that same day are any indication of what lies ahead, the next ten years will not likely be much rosier than the last. That is perhaps more the reason for us to raise a champagne glass and pat ourselves on the shoulders for coming out of a trying decade relatively unscathed and to prepare for many more roller-coaster rides to come. May history judge us fairly. Happy 2010!



25 November 2009

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 15% 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...

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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.



19 November 2009

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 nearly 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...


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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.



18 October 2009

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 December this year. So far the scheme has received widespread support from school principals in the district amidst mild muttering from critics over the potential adverse effect on teacher-student relationships.



At first glance, the school-based program appears expedient, even clever. The scheme’s voluntary nature allows the government to not only sidestep a lengthy legislative process – mandatory drug tests, the kind that has been implemented at a number of international schools in the city, require new legislation to be drafted, argued and passed – but also avoid unwanted public debate over privacy rights that could plunge the administration into another political crisis. That explains why the Education Secretary and Sally Wong Pik-yee (碧兒), Commissioner for Narcotics, have gone to great lengths to stress the voluntariness of the program, reassuring students that refusal to take part in the scheme will in no way be construed as an admission of guilt. At a press conference in August, a straight-faced Suen promised, “we hope the scheme will be effective by the fact that it is completely voluntary and we will keep the data confidential.”



But therein lies the fundamental (and fatal) problem of the school-based program. If the program is truly voluntary, as authorities have claimed, then it is destined to fail because students simply can’t be bothered with the silliness. After all, being called out of class in the middle of the day to urinate into a plastic cup isn’t exactly what teenagers consider fun these days. Those who use drugs – the very target of the program – will most certainly snub it unless they want to turn themselves in and risk being expelled or locked up. So is the big hoopla just another publicity stunt certain to fall flat on its face?



Perhaps not. What the government doesn’t say much about, or at least hopes that no one would pay much attention to, is all the harassment that comes with not taking part in a scheme that is “voluntary” only on paper. In practice, if a student strays from the fold and checks the “no” box on the consent form, then parents, social workers and school officials will descend on him like angry villagers carrying torches and pitchforks, waving banners that say “denial is proof!” To sugarcoat these dire consequences, however, Suen offered non-participating students this gentle warning: “social workers will try to find out the reason for the refusal [to take part in the program] and inform the principal who will then decide whether there is a need to arrange counseling for the student.” And so if it all works according to plan, every student will be scared into checking the “yes” box and the program will achieve its stated goals to deter and detect. Bureaucrats score major political points for a job well done and parents sleep better at night. Everybody wins.




Well, everybody except for the students. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the entire success of a voluntary scheme hangs on a single assumption: that teenagers are too ignorant to realize that they can, and probably should, say “no” to voluntary testing. There are about two dozen reasons why a person would refuse to take a drug test other than having something to hide. Privacy is one, confidentiality is another. My personal favorite, I just don’t feel like it, should be the default answer to anyone asking for an explanation. In the office theft analogy, if ever building security dare even raise an eyebrow over your refusal to have your bag searched, you would bark right back at him with a reminder that the program is supposed to be voluntary. But we are not to expect the same civic awareness of our students, are we? That’s why we end up with a scheme whose very creation is based on the intimidation and disempowerment of our youths.

But that is not all. The same way students are pressured to take the drug tests, school officials are coerced to cast their yes” vote to the scheme before they have time to figure out whether it actually makes any sense. Fearful of appearing soft on drugs or worse, trying to conceal drug problems in the schools they run, public school principals have uniformly embraced the government’s proposal and in doing so proven themselves to be just as easily intimidated as teenagers. Cloaked with truisms like “inaction is fatal,” “save our children” and “no time to lose,” the force of coercion sweeps from our classrooms to the principals’ offices, flattening anything that stands in its way. Angry villagers, it seems, are everywhere in our public schools.




Six months after its trial in Tai Po, the school-based program will be reviewed for its effectiveness. The scheme may well turn out to be a smashing success, but it still will not cure the logical fallacy inherent in a “Turn-Yourself-In” program. To confront our teenage drug problem, mandatory testing seems inevitable and the legislative pill, hard as it is, has to be swallowed. Our government is doing the city enormous disservice by shying away from the legislative process, a process designed precisely to deal with situations where competing societal interests are at play. That is, after all, what we pay them to do.

01 October 2009

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.

Modern China is now a superpower 

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...

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Read the rest of this article in No City for Slow Men, published by Blacksmith Books, available at major bookstores in in Hong Kong and at Blacksmith Books.



31 August 2009

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 company’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...

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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.