27 January 2009

Nikko Revisited 重返日光

It has been eighteen years since I last visited Nikko (日光), an idyllic city nestled in the mountains of Tochigi Prefecture (栃木) two hours from Tokyo by train. My memories of the city have yellowed, but time has only made the heart grow fonder. And so when I decided to spend Chinese New Year in Tokyo this year, I made certain that a proper visit, long overdue, was paid to the City of Sunlight.

I planned a three-day sojourn at a ryokan (旅館; traditional inn) in the town of Kinugawa (鬼怒川). A popular onsen resort in the city of Nikko, the town was named after the Kinugawa River, which literally means the wrath of demons. Far less sinister than its name suggests, the sleepy town is home to thousands of retirees eager to chat up visitors who cross their paths...


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 January 2009

And I Finally Exhaled 終於呼口氣

I stayed up till 2am last night to watch the inauguration of Barack Obama live on television. Two million cheering fans, as far as the eye could see, packed the Capitol Hill and the Washington Mall and turned a quadrennial domestic affair into a global celebration. Reporters and commentators talked ad nauseam about the historic significance of the first African-American president and the unprecedented challenges he now faces. But this transformative moment in history required neither narration nor embellishment. The sense of hope and renewal in the air, palpable and indescribable at once, moved us far beyond words. As one administration ends and the other begins, I can finally finish my obituary on George W. Bush’s accidental presidency.

Bush is not a terrible person per se. In fact, W (as he is often affectionately referred to by the press) is folksy, unpretentious and an all-around nice guy. In the 2000 presidential election, the Republican marketing machine sold the boyish Texan to the American public as the kind of Joe Six-Pack you wouldn’t mind sitting next to on a plane, in contrast with the stiff, professorial and sometimes awkward Al Gore. And weeks of cliff-hanging vote recounts and millions of hanging chads later, the average Joe stumbled into the Oval Office and began running the country like a dude. The football-watching, beer-drinking, pretzel-choking Ugly American overnight became the de facto leader of the free world.

W never belonged in Washington. True to form, our average Joe mangled his speeches, fumbled in front of world dignitaries and froze when a national crisis broke. Under the same kind of constant media scrutiny and daily bombardment of partisan politics, you and I probably wouldn’t have performed much better. But that’s why we are not not President and that’s why we leave it to people like Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. Unfortunately for W, however, national crises kept landing on his desk. Naturally, our average Joe turned to his ex-President father and Washington-savvy Dick Cheney for guidance. Unfortunately for W again, Bush Senior never got over his 1992 loss to slick Billy and Cheney turned out to be an evil power usurper. Lacking the experience and the intellectual capacity to understand, let alone resolve, complex issues, the President succumbed to the artful persuasion of unscrupulous advisers and special interest lobbyists around him and that made him as dangerous as a bus driver inside the cockpit of a passenger airplane.

W’s first term was a patchwork of monumental blunders and embarrassing malapropisms. The world might have forgiven America for its collective lapse of judgment in 2000, but handing the lone-ranger a second term was a crime as unforgivable as it was unbelievable. You know what they say, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me!" Better late than never, however, Americans came to their senses last November and told the Republican Party that enough is enough. And so America snapped out of its stupor, but only to find itself deep in a gargantuan mess.

Domestically, America has regressed on every front: social security, healthcare, schools, infrastructure and energy independence. The country's social insurance program is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Millions remain uninsured and find themselves one accident away from losing their life savings to hospital bills. Grades are falling across the nation and inner-city schools are as lawless as Chicago in the 1930s. Bridges and highways are falling apart, sometimes literally as we have watched in horror on the evening news. From coast to coast, citizens scramble to adjust their daily routine to gasoline prices that soared and plunged at the whims of OPEC and commodity speculators. None of that seems to fit the description of the world's most powerful nation.

Internationally, America’s reputation has hit rock bottom. The once military superpower and economic engine of the world has become a wounded behemoth, universally hated and diabolically despised. Asleep at the switch, the Bush administration let the deadly sub-prime virus fester in his country and spread around the world, leaving Iceland dead and the rest of Europe seriously wounded. Then there are the failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a double-trouble that turned America from a tolerable Big Brother to a schoolyard bully. In the past eight years, the star-spangled banner has never been burned more frequently or desecrated more spitefully than any other time in its history. It would make Betsy Ross roll over in her grave.

Struggling to salvage his tattered legacy, W defended himself in his farewell speech last week. “You may not agree with some of the tough decisions I have made, but I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions," he said, sounding like a fifth-grader who flunked his Math test but wanted credit for having attempted all the questions. Unlike his predecessors, this two-term president is not getting any million-dollar book deal, keynote speaker invitation or Fortune 500 board seat. No one is offering and he probably doesn’t want them anyway. Our average Joe seems relieved to be finally out of the White House and content with spending a quiet retirement at his Texas ranch, riding horses and brushing up on third grade phonics.

America’s love affair with the average Joe is over, and it has been a costly lesson for the country. But if luck is on America’s side, President Barack Obama will spend his first term undoing all the damages Bush did and focus his second term making the country stronger and more respected than ever. Perhaps that was the one only good thing that W has done for America: he has created such a hunger for a proper leader that it opened the door for an African-American president to heal a deeply divided country. And if the liberals’ prayers are answered, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be elected the first woman president in 2016 and continue Obama’s work to nurse America back to health. But I should not get carried away. I should count my blessings.

And so I will. On 20 January, the Obamas moved into the White House and America is once again open for business. At the precise moment of 12:05 pm Eastern Standard Time when Barack Obama took his oath as the 44th President of the United States and renewed the American Dream, I finally exhaled. Citizens in places like Hong Kong and Singapore where democracy exists in form but not in substance should take note of the Obama phenomenon and realize what it feels like to be able to elect their own leader. Until then they have to keep holding their breath.

20 January 2009

Rhapsody on Pedder 畢打街狂想曲

It was an unseasonably cold November afternoon. I finished my workout at California Fitness and hurried back to the office. I walked down the precipitous Wyndham Street, where dense traffic from Midlevels collected and emptied onto Queen’s Road Central. The cacophony of car horns and audible traffic signals for the blind reached a deafening crescendo, drawing everyone’s attention to the busy crosswalk that marked the start of Pedder Street. There, pedestrians built up along the curb and stared unseeing at their mirror image on the opposite side. Double-decker buses and delivery trucks pushed forward in every direction and shook the ground like a wildebeest migration. Dispassionate traffic lights changed at even intervals, trapping and releasing machines and humans competing for speed. The opening bars of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue started to ring in my head. It was lunch time in Central.

Outside Marks & Spencer, a homeless woman lay prostrate on the sidewalk, her hair wrapped in wrung-up plastic bags and her body a cocoon of sullied blankets...


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.

13 January 2009

The Tutelage of the Tutored 上了學的生一課

I have been teaching English in my spare time for several years now. I classified my students into two main groups. The first comprises mostly eleventh and twelfth graders who need help with their literature class. They tend to be children of well-to-do expatriates who have been plucked from faraway homes and placed in one of the handful of exclusive international schools in the city. As traumatic as their displacement has been, these young, porous minds quickly adapt as they bond with schoolmates who share similar experiences.

The other group of students I teach comprises everyday folks from a cross-section of society. They come in all ages, professions and aspirations, from a 19-year-old office clerk who wants to watch Hollywood movies without Chinese subtitles to a trio of hairdressers at a beauty salon seeking group lessons on how to communicate with foreign customers. These students are typically working adults who stopped learning and using English the day they stepped out of school. Few within this group have much extra cash to spare and I charge just enough to cover teaching materials.

Last weekend I took on a new student by referral…


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.

08 January 2009

Daily Conundrum 每天的困惑

Every weekday at roughly the same time, when the Hong Kong market is about to take its mid-day break, a recurring question pops into my head and gives me an instant migraine. Tackling this question requires creativity and the ability to work through an intricate matrix of parameters: timing, budget, location, weather and mood. It has nothing to do with finance, accounting or the law. It’s the eternal question of what’s for lunch.

To most worker bees, lunch is a welcome break in an otherwise never-ending day and a source of relaxation or gastronomical indulgence. To this picky eater, however, the mere mention of the word makes his head throb. Every day at the dreaded lunch hour, I find myself out of options and out of time.


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.

06 January 2009

Department Store Culture 百貨公司文化

Back in my school days in Philadelphia, The Wanamaker’s, founded by prominent merchant and politician John Wanamaker in 1902, was among my favorite places to hang out in the downtown area. Every Christmas, the department store delighted children and adults alike with an in-store light show while holiday tunes played beautifully on the world’s largest operational pipe organ housed inside a majestic, seven-story high courtyard. Unfortunately for Philadelphians, as the department store industry waned, the iconic retailer eventually succumbed to changing times and in 1997, the century-old Wanamaker’s name was taken down from one of the city’s most prominent landmarks.

Once a social institution, department stores around the world are facing extinction. The rise of the “big-box store” that specializes in a single category of merchandise, such as office supplies, toys, footwear and sporting goods, has forever altered our shopping habits and made it impossible for department stores to compete in either price or selection. Trying to be all things to all people, these retail dinosaurs end up pleasing nobody. Here in Hong Kong, one department store after another went out of business at the turn of the new millennium, each time leaving an ocular void in the neighborhood like the carcass of a sunken ocean-liner.

Corporate Darwinism aside, the Japanese department store culture has long been an integral part of Hong Kong’s history. Back when the British colony was still coming of age, Daimaru (大丸) opened a store on Great George Street in Causeway Bay in 1960...


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.

02 January 2009

Kowloon Complex - Part 2 九龍的心結-下卷

I decided to spend a lazy Saturday afternoon exploring West Kowloon. I dragged a friend of mine along for company and to get a second opinion on things. Jack moved to Hong Kong from Los Angeles to take up a banking job two years ago. Like many other expatriates, Jack’s knowledge of Hong Kong is limited to Central, Wanchai and Causeway Bay, and anything outside this tiny comfort zone completely eludes him. I thought my friend’s unfamiliarity with Kowloon would give his perspective some objectivity.

Driving through the Western Tunnel felt a bit like going through immigration in a foreign country: there was that mix of excitement and trepidation. It was, after all, the first time I took my car to the other side of the harbor. Jack made the old joke about Kowloon, I think I forgot to bring my passport.His remark got a few chuckles from me. At the toll booth, the uniformed cashier asked me for a whopping HK$45 (US$5.50) for a one-way passage, which prompted me to gripe to my friend about the Western Tunnel. Eleven years after its completion, the tunnel still languishes at 33% capacity, doing little to ease the bumper-to-bumper traffic at the old Hunghom Tunnel that charges half as much and handles 50% more vehicles daily. To make things worse, government officials flatly admitted to the frustrated public that they were powerless against CITIC Group, the PRC state-owned company that built and operates the tunnel. Big businesses walk all over us like a doormat and the government throws up its hands. Suddenly our 15% income tax rate doesn’t seem like such a bargain.

As soon as we came out of the tunnel, we were greeted by clear skies and cool breezes. There are far fewer tall buildings on the Kowloon side, thanks to the old Kai Tak Airport that for 75 years imposed stringent height limits on nearly all of the peninsula. Ever since the old airport became defunct a decade ago when the new Chek Lap Kok Airport took over, high-rise residential blocks have been shooting up like mushrooms one after another, as property developers scrambled to make up for lost time. Today, the Tsim Sha Tsui cape is flanked by the cloud-hugging ICC Tower on its left and the brand new 64-floor Hyatt-Regency Hotel on its right. Smack in the middle is the swanky One Peking Road, which together with the two skyscrapers creates a curious W-shaped skyline against the Lion Rock ranges in the back.

We made our first stop at the Elements shopping mall atop the Kowloon MTR Station. Opened in October 2007 with much fanfare, the million square foot mega shopping center declared war on glitzy competitors like the Landmark and Pacific Place. Bulge bracket investment banks like Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse and Deutsche Bank have all signed leases to move into the nearby ICC Tower, at literally half the rent they were paying in Central. But the global financial crisis and the collapse of the banking industry have caught the property developer off guard, and sale clerks out-number shoppers even during the holiday seasons. Bad timing, coupled with several miscalculations, such as a dizzying layout and the inclusion of an indoor ice-skating rink – hardly an “it” sport for the mall’s target demographics – may very well sound the death knell for the snake-bit shopping mall.

With my insistence, Jack and I left the Elements to explore the neighboring Yau Ma Tei area, walking eastward on Jordan Road (佐敦道) lined with double-decker buses. Our quick detour through Shanghai Street (上海街) proved worthwhile, as vestiges of the post-war era fed our curious eyes. The three decades between the 50s and 70s were Hong Kong’s most romantic period, when my parents’ generation, still struggling to make ends meet, welcomed free television broadcast into their living rooms and set foot in the first Japanese department stores. My nostalgic trance was interrupted by Jack’s candid remark. “This looks just like those old streets in Wanchai near the Pawn,” he observed, referring to the old Lee Tung Street (利東街), now boarded up to make way for a bridal shop city. Jack had a point: there are no short supply of these quaint neighborhoods on the Hong Kong side. His casual remark put me out of my short-lived fascination in Yau Ma Tei.

By the time we reached the kitschy but still charming Temple Street (廟街), the winter sun had set and we were both a little Kowloon’ed out. We took a taxi back to the Elements, hopped back into the car and retraced our path home. At the other end of the Western Tunnel, office towers in Sheung Wan formed a receiving line to welcome us back. I felt instantly at ease. I don’t know what it is, but here on the Hong Kong side, the streets look a bit friendlier and even perfect strangers seem familiar. Perhaps I am just a hopeless islander.