28 April 2009

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’ve been there, we know what it’s like. Six years ago, a sudden outbreak of SARS brought Hong Kong to its knees. The furtive virus with an awkward name made seven million citizens prisoners of their own homes and took away three hundred innocent lives. In a case of life imitating art, Hong Kongers were helplessly praying for a deus ex machine as did citizens of Oran in Albert Camus’ existentialist classic The Plague.

I was in New York when SARS hit Asia in 2003 and was therefore spared from one of the darkest episodes in our city’s history. Every time my brother Kelvin regaled me with first hand accounts of those terrifying six months, a strange feeling of envy would overcome me. He was part of a true defining moment of Hong Kong and I had missed out on it. In much the same way, my other brother Dan was envious of my being in New York City the morning those planes hit the twin towers. I suppose the fortune cookie wish “may you live in interesting times” is not without its truth.

I will always remember the weekend I flew from New York to visit my parents in Toronto during the SARS outbreak. Until then I had no idea that the rest of Canada viewed the respiratory ailment as a “Chinese disease.” On the subway train or in the restaurant, the arrival of a Chinese person (or anyone who looked like one) would draw unwelcome attention, a whisper here and a stare there, our faces suddenly a scarlet letter. Every sneeze or cough from the banished group would cause a minor panic followed by frightened faces scurrying away. The anecdote made me wonder if Hispanic immigrants around the world will experience a similar racial backlash from this swine flu outbreak. Crises, after all, have a way of bringing out the best and the worst in us.

All eyes are now on the Mexican government to see how it responds to the epidemic. Between the swine flu and the equally deadly drug cartel violence that has all but plunged the country into anarchism, 2009 has not been a good year for Mexico. But just as SARS has made Hong Kong a world leader in disease control and thrust our own Margaret Chan (陳馮富珍) to the top job as Director-General of the W.H.O., perhaps Mexico too will come out of the swine flu outbreak stronger and more united than ever.

21 April 2009

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 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 April 2009

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 twelve months. But 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 and deterministic 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 decide to live under self-imposed house arrest and cut all non-essential spending. But life without an occasional splurge can get a little dull. The truth is, we have been spoiled by decades of continued economic growth, so spoiled that we have forgotten how to have fun without inflicting the sadomasochistic pain of hurting our own wallets. Consumption has become a necessary condition, sometimes even a sufficient condition, for enjoyment. But as my mother always says: the best things in life often cost the least. To prove her right, I am sharing my thoughts on how to have a jolly good time in Hong Kong without breaking the piggy bank. I call it “Jason’s Day of Fun on a Shoestring.”

Start the day in Repulse Bay...


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.

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 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.

05 April 2009

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 Roaring Sixties, and hinted at the radical approach of seeking a separate black state. The political underpinning of her music alone, to say nothing of her talent, was enough to make Nina Simone one of my favorite singers/songwriters of all times.

Simone’s singing style was eclectic, combining elements of jazz, soul, blues, gospel, R&B and pop. Though her vibrato was often loose and her high notes pitchy at times, these flaws did little to detract from the hypnotic power of her music. As a pianist, she drew from her classical roots honed at the venerable Julliard School in New York and infused her playing with grit and fervor. No single song captures her vocal and instrumental style better than the riveting “Sinnerman.” With apocalyptic words and dark exuberance, the ten-minute epic was a somber warning to all mortals, black or white, that they can neither run nor hide from the Lord’s watchful eye.

Nina Simone left America in 1970 and never returned to her motherland. While some say her self-imposed exile was for tax reasons, others believe that the songstress grew tired of the constant fight for acceptance in America. Simone would spend the next two decades drifting between the Caribbean, North Africa and various parts of Europe before settling in Southern France. In the semi-autographical and deeply nostalgic “My Father,” released in 1978 on my favorite album, Baltimore, the protagonist reminisces over her childhood in Ohio under her father’s care (Simone grew up in Tryon, North Carolina, with her parents). A blue collar negro, her father dreams of one day sailing on the Seine. Here, Simone offers yet another plausible explanation for her decision to leave America: to fulfill her childhood dream of escaping from the South and living in Europe free from the scars of slavery. With sultry lyricism, the protagonist laments:
My father always promised me
That we would live in France
We’d go boating on the Seine
And I would learn to dance
And I live in Paris now
My children dance and sing
Words of a miner’s tongue
Language they have never sung

I sail my memories of home
Like boats across the Seine
And watch my father’s eye, watch the setting sun
As it sets in my father's eyes again

Nina Simone died this month six years ago in Carry-le-Rouet, France, leaving behind a discography of 50 albums and inspiring a generation of R&B singers, including Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys and John Legend. She lived through one of darkest pages in American history and spent the second half of her life a musical gypsy on the other side of the Atlantic, bitterly looking on at the racial divide in America. It is a shame that Simone did not live to see her country elect the first African American president and how a man, so “young, gifted and black,” puts a spell on the nation reeling from financial ruin and injured pride. The high priestess would have been so proud.

01 April 2009

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 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.