30 December 2010

Dining Out... - Part 2 出街食-下卷

Both my freelance work and my day job give me plenty of opportunities to live out a foodie’s dream. As a restaurant reviewer I get to try out fancy new places and sample their best dishes for free. The price to pay, however, is having to keep detailed notes of everything I put in my mouth so that I can spit out a thousand words on a two-page magazine spread the next day. Likewise, expensing client lunches sounds like a no-lose proposition until I find myself stuck with a table of stodgy bankers yapping about China’s next big IPO and why everyone should buy gold. It all bears out the old adage that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

One of my restaurant reviews

Hong Kong is a foodie’s paradise and we have the numbers to prove it. There are over 20,000 eating establishments listed on Open Rice, the city’s popular online restaurant guide. Based on that figure alone and excluding thousands of hole-in-the-wall noodle houses and neighborhood kitchens yet to be catalogued by the website...


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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.


25 December 2010

NEWS FLASH: Jason's Book Now Available! 快訊:《香港情懷》現已出版!

Dear Readers,
 is available in Hong Kong at:
Readers outside Hong Kong
can order it from:
Support a local writer
and purchase a copy today!




--------------------------------------------------------

PRESS RELEASE

For immediate release


New PublicationHONG KONG State of Mind: 37 Views of a City that Doesn’t Blink

HONG KONG State of Mind is a collection of essays by Jason Y. Ng, a popular local blogger, who zeroes in on the city’s idiosyncrasies with deadpan precision. 
The 37 essays are organized into three thematic sections: people we see, things we do and places we go, each providing a window on Hong Kong’s city life. Ng’s topics range from the shark fins debate to our unique and unmistakably Cantonese coffee-drinking culture. While the book is meant to pay tribute to Hong Kong’s many quirks, it also puts her flaws on center stage. In “Rhapsody on Pedder,” the author juxtaposes his fellow citizens’ sense of alienation and vulnerability against their unbridled materialism. In “Total Eclipse of the Mind,” he puts our pervasive superstitious beliefs on trial using a series of unrelated news events. In “A Tale of Three Cities,” he compares the coming-of-age stories of Hong Kong and its sister cities Macau and Shenzhen and prompts us to reflect on who we are and where we are heading. 
At once an outsider looking in and an insider looking out, Ng has created something for everyone: a travel journal for the passing visitor, a user’s manual for the wide-eyed expat, and an open diary for the native Hong Konger looking for moments of reflection. 
“Many foreign writers have written about their experiences living as a gweilo and among other gweilo in the city, but their account of Hong Kong is often confined to the expat community,” Ng said. “Books by local writers, on the other hand, tend to focus on the city’s history, politics or economy. They tend to be academic and the average reader finds them heavy, if not altogether inaccessible. I wanted something to celebrate Hong Kong in a light-hearted, authentic way. There is a gap in the existing literature about Hong Kong and I wanted to fill it.”
The author’s no-nonsense style, punctuated with wry humor, cuts through the obfuscation and gives the reader the kind of social commentary that recalls F. Scott Fitzgerald during America’s Jazz Age. Each essay is graced with a line drawing by Lee Po Ng, the author’s father, which lends the book a personal touch and the aura of an old-fashioned travel journal.
The official book launch, organized jointly by Bookazine Ltd. and Blacksmith Books was held on 5 March 2011 at Bookazine’s new location at the IFC Mall. 
About the Author
Jason Ng is a globe-trotter who spent years in Europe and various cities in the United States and Canada before settling back in his birthplace five years ago. He is a full-time lawyer and a contributing writer for lifestyle magazines. In 2008, Ng started his blog, As I See It, commenting on local culture and news events. Over a short span of time, the blog has attracted a sizable following of online readers. Ng lives in Hong Kong and can be contacted at info@jasonyng.com. 
Media Contact
Blacksmith Books5th Floor, 24 Hollywood RoadCentral, Hong KongTel: +852 2877 7899Email: mail@blacksmithbooks.com





14 December 2010

Dining Out... - Part 1 出街食-上卷


The Michelin Guide published its first Hong Kong/Macau edition in 2011. Since then, the little red book has sparked spirited debate and sometimes even nationalistic rumblings among citizens. Hong Kongers balk at the idea of a bunch of foreigners judging our food, when most of the undercover inspectors sent by the guide can’t tell a fish maw from a fish belly or know the first thing about dun (燉), mun (焖), zing (蒸), pou (泡) and zoek (灼) – to name but a few ways a Chinese chef may cook his ingredients with steam. For many of us, it seems far wiser to spend the HK$200 (that’s how much the guide costs) on a couple of hairy crabs currently in season than on a restaurant directory published by a tire manufacturer.

The little red book


Food is a tricky business. It confounds even the most sophisticated of cultures and peoples. The English and the Germans, for instance, excel in everything else except for the one thing that matters most. Young nations like America, Australia and Canada...


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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.


29 August 2010

Post Mortem on a Massacre 屠殺後的檢討

Not since the SARS outbreak in 2003 has a news event gripped the city with such intensity, as live coverage of the hostage crisis in Manila unfolded on prime time television and left us in shock and disbelief. On August 23rd, what started out as a media stunt staged by a frustrated ex-cop ended in a shooting gallery leaving nine dead and three seriously injured. In the days that followed, as details of the bungled rescue were exposed, dissected and analyzed, citizens of Hong Kong united in a kind of collective anger never seen before directed at another sovereign nation. 



A lot of ink has been spilled by the local press over the sheer incompetence of the Manila police force. We saw it with our own eyes: rescue units performing a slapstick comedy titled Amateurs’ Night at Rizal Park. Using props from sledgehammers that bounced right off unbreakable windows to ropes that broke after a few pulls and purple glow sticks that smacked of a Halloween toy, the comedians completed their unfunny theatrical joke in front of a stunned audience 700 miles away. But the joke was on the victims and their families: a pair of young girls suddenly orphaned, a woman clever enough to save someone else’s child but not her own husband, and a mother weeping by the side of her comatose son after losing the rest of her family. Their stories tugged at our heartstrings and resonated across a city where taking a vacation in less developed parts of Asia is a national pastime. What happened to those families could have happened to any of us.



As is the case for other man-made disasters, many of us are looking for something or someone to direct our anger and frustration at. Unfortunately for the 150,000 Filipino expatriates working in Hong Kong, every aspect of the hostage crisis – from the gross negligence of the police force to the public relations blunders at the national level – feeds into our racial stereotypes. However untrue and unjustified, the stereotypical Filipino, ever lazy, sloppy and corner-cutting, has been part of the Hong Konger’s psyche since the first crop of domestic helpers from the Philippines arrived in the late 1970s. Within days of the Manila Massacre, a racial backlash started to simmer. Our chief executive, in an act of bravado that could only be described as closing the barn door after the horse has bolted, slapped the country with the most severe travel advisory the next day, not as a safety measure but rather a form of punishment against the tourism-dependent economy. Legislators organizing this Sunday’s mass rally urged participants not to carry racist banners or harass Filipino passers-by. Patience and understanding are in short supply in Hong Kong this week, and the already tenuous relationship between our city and its impoverished neighbor has gotten more tenuous still.


Determined to get a more balanced perspective on things, I sat down with a few of my Filipino friends earlier this week for some one-on-one, heart-to-heart discussions about the hostage crisis. Before I even began, Benny, a musician who moved to Hong Kong from Manila three years ago, asked me if the stories he had heard about Filipino maids being beaten or sacked by their Chinese employers were true. Indeed, rumors of violence and dismissals have begun to swirl within the Filipino community here. I could neither confirm nor deny these rumors, and so I instead offered Benny a rather cynical response: if there were abuses by Hong Kong people out of retaliation, the stories would have been all over the news and we would have known about it. Cold comfort, but comfort nonetheless.



On the subject of police incompetence, my Filipino friends proffered a unanimous explanation. In the Philippines, the police department’s budget is being strangled daily by rampant corruption. Police officers, including the half-hearted SWAT units charged with the perilous task of freeing the Hong Kong hostages, are under-paid and few are willing to risk their lives in the line of duty. “They just want to go home to their wives and children at the end of the day,” explained Lisa, a co-worker who sits three floors above me in the office. A cash-starved police force also means officers must muddle through the day with antiquated equipment and non-existent training. That explains why rescuers fumbled through the bus siege without so much as a step ladder, a battering ram or a pair of night vision goggles.


And so it once again boils down to that third world woe: corruption. The subject is echoed by every Filipino I have talked to and is the singular reason why the Philippines is mired in perpetual poverty. The country is currently ranked 139th on the worldwide corruption perceptions index, below even Bangladesh, Uganda and Libya. In the Philippines, corruption is simultaneously the oil that greases the economic machine and the venom that poisons it. With half of the country’s GDP controlled by 15 powerful families, bribery is the only way money can seep through the crevices of the crony system. Every new government since Ferdinand Marcos, crowned the second most corrupt head of state of all time by watchdog organization Transparency International, has run on an anti-corruption platform but none has made even a dent on the vipers nest. In my past visits to Manila, I tasted first-hand the poison of corruption that flows through every vein of society. In the wealthy Makati City neighborhood within the greater metropolitan area, my friends and I couldn’t get through the day without passing out “coffee money” to umpteen police officers like it was Chinese New Year in Hong Kong.



In this week’s hostage crisis, corruption reared its ugly head and did so on multiple fronts. Corruption was what made the police department sack the gunman Rolando Mendoza a year ago, when the highly decorated cop got thrown under the bus for bringing drug charges against the scion of a powerful family in the Philippines. Corruption is what starves the police department of resources critical to keeping it afloat and capable of responding to emergencies like a hostage standoff. And corruption was possibly the reason why the Mayor of Manila ordered to have the gunman’s brother arrested in the middle of a hostage negotiation, a decision that defied all common sense and ultimately pushed the gunman over the edge.


In the weeks and months ahead, citizens of Hong Kong are expected to step through the various stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining and mourning – before we finally come to terms with the heart-wrenching tragedy. Similarly, the Philippines will take a bit of time to recover from the national embarrassment of staging the most disastrous rescue operation in human history. But perhaps embarrassment is the last thing its people should worry about. Until and unless the endless cycle of corruption is dealt with, this country has no future.




05 August 2010

I Died Three Saturdays Ago 我在三星前期死了

“I have never given much thought to how I would die,” wrote Stephanie Meyer in the opening line of her best-selling vampire romance Twilight.




Well, neither have I. But on the ordinary summer morning of July 17, at a busy intersection on Pokfulam Road not 50 feet from my apartment building, my moment of reckoning finally arrived. And in the last few seconds of my life, I realized that death, that ultimate leveler of mankind, was not nearly as fearsome as I had thought. Nor was it as remote...


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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.


21 July 2010

An Okay Performance 不過不失的一埸

The World Cup is over. Finished. The End.


Now that the soccer circus has left town and the blare of the vuvuzela is no longer ringing in our ears, we can’t help but feel a little lost. I am not talking about that sense of emptiness we get when something spectacular has finally come to an end, like finishing a great vacation or learning your best friend is moving to California. Instead, it feels more like watching a firework rocket into the sky, explode and then realizing that it is merely good but not great. Okay lah, as we Hong Kongers would say.



Calling this World Cup a bore or a disappointment would have been too harsh. To be fair, there was no shortage of twists and turns, surprising upsets and reversals of fortune. Who could have predicted that past champions France and Italy would crash out after the second round in such public disgrace? Even the once invincible Brazilians became suddenly beatable, losing 1-2 to The Netherlands in the quarter-finals. But as much as the suspension of disbelief kept our adrenaline rush going, this World Cup has left many a soccer fan unsatisfied, especially those who have been around long enough to remember what it was like to watch the spectacle in the 70s and 80s, with moments so beautiful that they alternately hushed the audience and roused it to a frenzy. As if to prove that none of the star players nowadays is deserving of his celebrity status, Paul the Psychic Octopus, trapped in an aquarium thousands of miles away, stole the show without so much as a kick or a header.



So what’s changed? The world today is a very different place than it was three, four decades ago. During the Cold War era, the notion of friends and foes, us versus them was much more clear cut. Back then international sporting events like the World Cup were as much emotionally charged as they were symbolically significant. But much of that last century romance disappeared when the Eastern Bloc fell, and the world slowly realigned itself into an ever-shifting balance of power among the United States, Europe and China. Perhaps the World Cup would have been more exhilarating if other “Axis of Evil” regimes were to join North Korea in the tournament against the terrorist-fighting West. A playoff between Iran’s Jihadists and America’s Freedom Fighters would have been an epic battle between good and evil worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy.



Technological advancement and mobility of players – spurred by intense inter-league trading – have also changed the game of soccer by leveling the playing field across the globe. Countries can now study each other, learn from each other and, much to soccer fans’ dismay, play like each other. The painfully robotic Germans, for instance, are now able to work the field as gracefully as the Argentineans, whereas the South Koreans these days often display traces of samba football once found only in sweltering Brazil. As styles merge and nationalities blur, the signature moves and quirky antics that make a team instantly recognizable are slowly becoming a thing of the past. And the World Cup that used to draw us in and blow us away has given way to a series of safe and predictable plays, stuff that belongs to the “okay lah” category alongside the Olympics and the Oscars.



But don’t tell that to the Spaniards or the South Africans. First-time champion Spain has obvious reasons to celebrate and for a few days citizens could legitimately take their minds off unemployment and national debt. Just as excited, South Africans patted themselves on the back for throwing a coming-out party without a hitch, making skeptics who warned of violent crime and other calamities look like a bunch of party poopers. While commentators continue to debate how much of the World Cup money will trickle down to the 50% of the South African population living below the poverty line, World Cup 2010 has already paid off by lifting the spirit of a nation still trotting down the arduous road to reconciliation after a half-century of apartheid. Nothing captures Nelson Mandela’s call to “forget and forgive” better than pictures of black South Africans waving the Dutch flags during the final match in support of their former white oppressors. That must be what they mean by the healing power of sports.



I have never been a big fan of any spectator sports. Still it wasn’t difficult for me to get into the World Cup spirit in Hong Kong. Here, the quadrennial event is much more than a soccer tournament; it is a high-stake enterprise. The Hong Kong Jockey Club, the dubiously “non-profit” organization that enjoys a legal monopoly over soccer betting, raked in a multi-billion dollar windfall from the 52-game tournament, especially given the large number of surprising results in this World Cup. And in the zero-sum game of soccer gambling, the Jockey Club made its fortune on the backs of grassroots citizens lured by the prospects of winning millions simply by picking the color of the team uniform. And that’s not even counting illegal gambling, a bourgeoning social problem in Hong Kong that spikes with every major soccer tournament broadcast in the city. In the weeks and months ahead, news stories of cash-strapped citizens driven to self-destruction by bookies and loan sharks will begin to surface. Just a few days ago, I read an article in a local newspapers about a problem gambler who lost $100,000, many times his monthly salary, in a single World Cup quarter-final match. It was then I realized that no matter how dull and unexciting the World Cup becomes, we can always count on the addictive power of gambling to bring us back to that SoHo sports bar in the dead of night every four years.

26 June 2010

And Then There Were Thirteen 剩下的十三個




After months of jeers and cheers, gaffes and laughs, even a mock referendum and a televised debate, the government’s 2012 Reform Package was passed by a wide margin this Friday. Less than two weeks before the bill was put to a vote, with time running out and Beijing breathing down his neck, Donald Tsang cobbled a feeble campaign together to promote what he touted as the only way to break the legislative impasse and to pave the way to universal suffrage. But the snake oil salesman failed to impress and Tsang was all but ready to accept defeat, just as he did five years ago when the pan-democrats vetoed a similar bill. Then suddenly, the storm calmed and the sky cleared: the biggest opposition party came to the chief executive’s rescue and handed him the seven votes he needed to close the deal. The rest, as they say, is history.



Before we begin talking about the reform package, you need to understand a few of things about our wacky political system. The Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, stipulates that gradual changes are to be made to the way our chief executive and legislators are elected, with the goal that citizens will eventually be given the right to universal suffrage. What the government doesn’t want you to know, however, is that to get there we must first do away with the functional constituencies (功能組別), an invention put in place by the colonial government in 1985 out of political expediency. Taking half of the 60 seats in the Legco, functional constituencies are each handpicked by a small circle of voters within a trade or interest group. The Engineering seat, for instance, is selected by only a few thousand registered engineers, whereas the electoral base for the Insurance seat is made up of not a single individual but 140 insurance companies. It is absurd, but hey, this is Hong Kong!



Despite their small and uneven electoral base, functional constituencies wield enormous political power. Under the so-called “separate vote count” (分組點票) mechanics, any bill introduced by a Legco member must first be passed by the 30 non-functional, “geographical” seats, before it is put to a separate vote by the 30 functional seats. Think of the split as the Upper and Lower Houses of the British Parliament or the Senate versus the House of Representatives of the United States Congress. Designed to keep the opposition at bay, the bicameral voting procedure enables pro-Beijing special interest groups to override any decision made by democratically-elected lawmakers. But the wacky gets wackier yet. This procedure applies only to bills proposed by individual lawmakers; government-led initiatives, on the other hand, such as the controversial high-speed rail link proposal, require only a simple majority resolution by the 60 seats voting together. The double standard ensures that the government retain complete control over the legislative process and flies in the face of the principle of separation of powers.



If you are still reading this, then you must have a longer attention span than the average Hong Konger. Say the words “electoral base” or “super-majority” and people cringe and run for cover. In a money-grubbing, politically apathetic city like ours, few have the time or patience to understand all that mumbo jumbo, and fewer still bother to do something about it. That is precisely why the functional constituencies, as grotesque and pitifully undemocratic as they are, have managed to survive for 25 years unscathed and unchanged. But not any more. Despite the abysmal voters’ turnout at the de facto referendum organized by the League of Social Democrats (社民連) and the Civic Party (公民黨), the campaign succeeded in cutting through the obfuscation and telling Hong Kongers the one thing they need to know about the whole debate: functional constituencies are bad for us.



Now back to the reform package. When members of the Democratic Party (民主黨) were invited to sit down with government officials and representatives from the Liaison Office (中聯辦) to try to end the legislative stalemate, party chairman Albert Ho (何俊仁) came up with a few minor tweaks to the government’s reform proposal and offered to endorse it on the condition that Beijing must promise to abolish the functional constituencies by 2020. And when the Central Government finally threw him a bone, accepting the Democratic Party’s small revisions but rejecting that other more important demand, Ho made a 180-degree turn and hailed Beijing’s pygmy concessions as a major political breakthrough. In a matter of just a few days, the Democratic Party went from the administration’s sworn enemies to its cozy bedfellows, catching his opponents off-guard and angering even the staunchest of supporters. Local politics, I realized, is every bit as unpredictable as this year’s World Cup group matches.



On the issue of political reform, the only thing the city should care about is true universal suffrage. How we get there and what baby steps we should take in the interim to reach the finish line are a political exercise at best. The ugly U-turn by the Democratic Party has not only legitimized the functional constituencies by endorsing a plan that increases, rather than reduces, the number of their seats, but it also tacitly ceded the control of our legislative process to Beijing and in doing so threw the “one country, two systems” framework under the Basic Law out the window. Ever since the 1997 Handover, pan-democrats have closely guarded their veto power as their only weapon against the government on constitutional matters, only to be blindsided at the most critical moment by one of their own who handed over its votes to their enemies on a silver platter. The passage of the reform package has pitted the pan-democrats against each other, and a realignment of power within our political landscape is already underway. We will find out at the next general election whether the Democratic Party’s high stake gamble, played out so publicly this past week in front of a watching city, will pay off or backfire. For now one thing is for sure: Ho and his party members have crossed over to the dark side and passed the point of no return. In the end thirteen lawmakers stood their ground and voted with their conscience, but from this point on they must fight their battles alone. If it was Beijing’s plan all along to use the reform debate to drive a wedge among the pan-democrat coalition, then they had succeeded many times over.


15 June 2010

Paradise of the Blind 瞎子的樂園

Not long ago I asked a friend of mine what he thought about Vietnam. Lee, a Taiwanese living in Hong Kong, travels there frequently for business. “The country is not much to look at,” Lee shrugged, “except for their beef noodle soups and mail-order brides.” Indeed, there is a perception in the wealthier parts of Asia that, with all the human trafficking going on in the country, you can order Vietnamese girls online or even bid for them on eBay. My friend’s candid response left me with a frozen smile and a broken heart. That’s when I decided to write an article for all the Lees out there, not to change their minds but to open them to a beautiful country with an ugly past.



I visit Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s twin metropolises, a few times a year for work. Few in Hong Kong know or care much about Vietnam...

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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.