Skip to main content

Apocalypse Now - Part 1 現代啟示錄-上卷

On the early spring day of 11 March 2011, as citizens were busily preparing for the upcoming cherry blossom season, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck northeastern Japan, the biggest seismic event ever recorded in the country’s history. The powerful quake unleashed a 3o-foot high tsunami that swept across the Pacific coast of Honshu (本州) Island and leveled everything in its path. 

By the time the tremors ended and the water receded, entire cities and towns as far as the eye could see were reduced to a landfill of sludge and rubble. Sendai (仙台), the closest major city to the epicenter with a population of one million, was pummeled beyond recognition. Successive explosions at nuclear facilities near the quake zone spewed radioactive materials into the air. If this was Mother Nature’s way of proving her dominion over man, she had done so many times over.

Fukushima in ruins

Around 2:30pm Hong Kong time, 45 minutes after the big temblor hit, I received an email from someone in the Tokyo office titled “EARTHQUAKE” in all capital letters. Mika, a colleague of mine doing a deal with me, had sent the message to tell me that she had lost her Bloomberg connection and that she would not be able to send out the term sheet she had promised me. I told my dutiful – and in this case rather insane – colleague to forget the stupid term sheet and hide under her desk in case of aftershocks. 

An hour after receiving Mika’s harrowing email, iPhone videos of the earthquake captured by Tokyo citizens began to trickle in on CNN and YouTube: office towers swaying like reeds, frightened office workers running to open space, subways, Shinkansen and other mass transit coming to a complete standstill. As is the case for many natural disasters, the physical devastation preceded the economic one. The Nikkei index fell nearly 17% in the first two trading days after the quake, the kind of decline not seen since the 1987 market crash. But the actual economic impact of the twin disasters of earthquake and tsunami remained too vast to ascertain. Apocalypse had befallen Japan and the rest of the world looked on in awe and disbelief.

Like many others in Hong Kong, I was glued to the television screen watching the endless loop of raw footage playing on the 24-hour news channel. One of the first things that struck me was how calm and composed Japanese citizens appeared. There was no screaming, no mass panic and certainly no violence or looting. All I saw was quiet, orderly citizens lining up outside convenience stores and at telephone booths. 

Part of it is that earthquakes are simply a fact of life in Japan, a quake-prone nation where minor tremors can be felt several times every year. Elementary schools hold monthly earthquake drills and train small children to duck under their desks and run away from simulated fires. There is a fire proof cushion on every seat in the classroom that can be turned into a bousai zukin (防災頭巾; protective hat) to be used during evacuation. 

A Japanese friend of mine once told me that it is not uncommon for him to wake up in the morning and find his bed having shifted inches away from the wall. But awareness aside, another explanation for the general tranquility is that Japanese people are disciplined, self-restrained and remarkably civilized. Not even the worst crisis since World War II would betray the sense of mutual respect and dignity so ingrained in the national psyche. It saddens me when I compare how one people behaved in their worst hour to the way the Chinese did in their best, when visitors trampled over each other and elbowed their way into the 2010 Expo in Shanghai, presumably a proud event to showcase China’s civility and modernity.

A prepared nation, from a young age

The other thing that struck me about the news footage was that almost every structure survived the powerful quake. Surely the coastal area had been completely ravaged by the unstoppable tsunami – fishing boats, cars and standalone homes were swept away like bath toys. But by and large there have been few reports of collapsed buildings, a testament to the Japanese government’s extraordinary preparedness for natural disasters. 

Japan has put in place strict building codes to ensure every structure withstand seismic shocks, including the use of some of the world’s most sophisticated springs and dampers systems. All the expensive earthquake engineering that for decades has pushed up construction costs finally paid off, bearing out the age-old Chinese saying that it is worthwhile to feed an army for a thousand days if you can use it for an hour. 

Then there is the early warning system: as soon as the first tremor was detected, J-Alert, the nationwide satellite-based system broadcast announcements to local media so that citizens were given sufficient time to get to safety. Within hours of the quake, brigades of jieitai (自衛隊; self-defense forces) were bused to the scenes by armored vehicles, while helicopters were deployed to airlift patients from hospital rooftops. Neatly packed supply kits stockpiled in nearby bunkers containing water, dried food and flashlights were promptly handed to victims. This is a government with a plan, a plan designed to minimize casualties and maximize survival in the event of a national crisis. 

The same cannot be said about that other superpower. Just six years ago, the world witnessed in horror the way the United States bungled the rescue efforts after Katrina, a Category 5 hurricane, overran the city of New Orleans. Six years later, with memories of their government’s mismanagement and lack of leadership still fresh on their minds, many Americans must be watching CNN in marvel of the Japanese government’s efficiency and organization.

A well-thought out disaster response plan 

Watching the earthquake and tsunami unfold in Japan, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if something this big happened to Hong Kong. 

For starters, an earthquake, even one of much less magnitude, would turn every tenement building in the city into a pile of rubble like the collapsed building on Ma Tau Wai Road (馬頭圍道) last year. And it was only a month ago when concerned residents in Wanchai reported tremors in their homes as a result of nearby construction. It would be unimaginable the kind of complete destruction an earthquake could do to a city that fills every occupiable space with pencil buildings up the hills, down the shore and inches from each other. 

What’s more, the earthquake would force the nuclear power plant at Daya Bay (大亞灣) in nearby Shenzhen to shut down. But Hong Kongers would probably be kept in the dark about radiation leaks, for its operator China Light and Power (中電) doesn’t always tell us what is going on as we so horribly found out last October. Then there is the tsunami that would swallow every square foot of reclaimed land on the north shore of Hong Kong Island from Kennedy Town to Shau Kei Wan, as well as the entire Kowloon peninsula up to Lion Rock. In Central alone, a 30-foot wall of water would push debris all the way up to SoHo and even Midlevels. 

But don’t count on our government to be of much help. Despite years of drainage projects, Wing Lok Street (永樂街) in Sheung Wan and Ho Sheung Heung (河上鄉) village near Fanling are perennial flood victims vulnerable to even moderate rainstorms. Just last week, a water main on Wong Ngai Chung Road (黃泥涌道) broke and it took the Water Department a total of 6 hours just to locate the valve to turn the water off. Residents and restaurant workers waited late into the night for water trucks that never came. 

Compared to Japan, Hong Kong is a place utterly unprepared for any emergency situation. Our overpaid, underworked bureaucrats wouldn’t know the first thing about disaster recovery and would instinctively look to Beijing for direction, all the while jealously guarding its HK$260 billion foreign reserve as a political lifesaver. My only hope is that citizens of Hong Kong could be half as civilized and well behaved as their counterparts in Japan so as to prevent the city from plunging into a complete anarchy should any large-scale natural disaster befall us.

Disaster on Ma Tau Wai Road

In the days and weeks ahead, Japan will have to deal with more aftershocks and nuclear power plant malfunctions. The death toll will continue to climb and gut-wrenching survival stories will come to light. What will not happen, however, is another humanitarian crisis like Katrina and Haiti. In its darkest hour, Japan has proven itself a true superpower, one not measured by its GDP growth or military prowess, but by the way its citizens and government work together in times of national crises. As we take our hats off to the Japanese for their grace and civility, we must put on our thinking caps to figure out what to do with our own sclerotic government.

Popular Posts

Seeing Joshua 探之鋒

“We are here to visit a friend,” I said to the guard at the entrance. 
Tiffany, Joshua Wong Chi-fung’s long-time girlfriend, trailed behind me. It was our first time visiting Joshua at Pik Uk Correctional Institution and neither of us quite knew what to expect.

“Has your friend been convicted?” asked the guard. We nodded in unison. There are different visiting hours and rules for suspects and convicts. Each month, convicts may receive up to two half-hour visits from friends and family, plus two additional visits from immediate family upon request.
The guard pointed to the left and told us to register at the reception office. “I saw your taxi pass by earlier,” he said while eyeing a pair of camera-wielding paparazzi on the prowl. “Next time you can tell the driver to pull up here to spare you the walk.”
At the reception counter, Officer Wong took our identity cards and checked them against the “List.” Each inmate is allowed to grant visitation rights to no more than 10 friends and fam…

About the Author 關於作者

Born in Hong Kong, Jason Y. Ng is a globetrotter who spent his entire adult life in Italy, the United States and Canada before returning to his birthplace to rediscover his roots. He is a lawyer, published author, and contributor to The Guardian, The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong Free Press and EJInsight. His social commentary blog As I See It and restaurant/movie review site The Real Deal have attracted a cult following in Asia and beyond. Between 2014 and 2016, he was a music critic for Time Out (HK)
Jason is the bestselling author of Umbrellas in Bloom (2016), No City for Slow Men (2013) and HONG KONG State of Mind (2010). Together, the three books form a Hong Kong trilogy that tracks the city's post-colonial development. His short stories have appeared in various anthologies. In 2017, Jason co-edited and contributed to Hong Kong 20/20, an anthology that marks the 20th anniversary of the handover. In July 2017, he was appointed Advising Editor for the Los Angeles Review…

Join the Club 入會須知

You have reached a midlife plateau. You have everything you thought you wanted: a happy family, a well-located apartment and a cushy management job. The only thing missing from that bourgeois utopia is a bit of oomph, a bit of recognition that you have played by the rules and done all right. A Porsche 911? Too clichéd. A rose gold Rolex? Got that last Christmas. An extramarital affair that ends in a costly divorce or a boiled bunny? No thanks. How about a membership at one of the city’s country clubs where accomplished individuals like yourself hang out in plaid pants and flat caps? Sounds great, but you’d better get in line.

Clubs are an age-old concept that traces back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The introduction of coffee beans to England in the mid-17th Century spurred the proliferation of coffeehouses for like-minded gentlemen to trade gossip about the monarchy over a hot beverage. In the centuries since, these semi-secret hideouts evolved into main street establishments t…

Media Attention + Upcoming Events 媒體關注 + 最新動向

2017 and upcoming events and speaking engagements


Keynote speaker at Leadership & Social Entrepreneurship Program graduation ceremony co-organized by Wimler Foundation and Ateneo University Venue: TBD Date: 22 October Time: 9:00am to 1:00pm

Guest lecture at Faculty of Law, University of Hong Kong Course: International and regional protection of human rights
Topic: Universal suffrage and free expression Venue: Centennial Campus, Pokfulam Date:16 November
Time: 6:30pm

Legal workshop for foreign domestic workers at University of Hong Kong's Domestic Workers Empowerment Project (DWEP) Topic: "Understanding Hong Kong Culture" Moderator: Dr. Michael Manio Venue: Ming Wah Complex, University of Hong Kong Date: 19 November Time: 1:30 to 4:00pm

Talk at Independent Schools Foundation Academy
Topic: No City for Slow Men
Venue: Telegraph Bay, Pokfulam
Date: 30 November
Contributor to HK24 (2017 Anthology by Hong Kong Writers Circle) Release date: December

Guest speaker and prize prese…

The Moonscape of Sexual Equality - Part 1 走在崎嶇的路上-上卷

There are things about America that boggle the mind: gun violence, healthcare costs and Donald Trump. But once in a while – not often, just once in a while – the country gets something so right and displays such courage that it reminds the rest of the world what an amazing place it truly is. What happened three days ago at the nation’s capital is shaping up to be one of those instances.

Last Friday, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a 5-to-4 decision on same-sex marriage, the most important gay rights ruling in the country’s history. In Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Kennedy wrote, “It would misunderstand [gay and lesbian couples] to say that they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find fulfillment for themselves… They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” 
With those simple words, Justice Kennedy made marriage equality a constitutionally prote…

What’s Killing Hong Kong Bookstores? 誰令香港的書店滅亡?

Earlier this month, Page One unceremoniously announced the closure of its megastores at Harbour City and Festival Walk, ending the Singapore bookseller’s nearly two-decade stint in Hong Kong. The news came less than two years after Australian outfit Dymocks shut down its IFC Mall flagship and exited the city.
Reaction on social media to the loss of yet another bookstore chain was both immediate and damning. While some attributed Page One’s demise to competition from e-books and online retailers, many put the blame on the lack of a robust reading culture in Hong Kong. Still others pointed their finger at greedy landlords and the sky-high rent they extort from retailers.
But what really killed Page One? An autopsy is in order to examine the cause of death of the book industry’s latest casualty.

E-books
The technorati have long prophesized the end of paper. Portable and affordable, Amazon’s Kindle and other e-readers are the physical book’s worst nightmare. But are they really?
After yea…

Maid in Hong Kong - Part 1 女傭在港-上卷

Few symbols of colonialism are more universally recognized than the live-in maid. From the British trading post in Bombay to the cotton plantation in Mississippi, images abound of the olive-skinned domestic worker buzzing around the house, cooking, cleaning, ironing and bringing ice cold lemonade to her masters who keep grumbling about the summer heat. It is ironic that, for a city that cowered under colonial rule for a century and a half, Hong Kong should have the highest number of maids per capita in Asia. In our city of contradictions, neither a modest income nor a shoebox apartment is an obstacle for local families to hire a domestic helper and to free themselves from chores and errands.

On any given Sunday or public holiday, migrant domestic workers carpet every inch of open space in Central and Causeway Bay. They turn parks and footbridges into camping sites with cardboard boxes as their walls and opened umbrellas as their roofs. They play cards, cut hair, sell handicraft and p…

The Hundredth Post 第一百篇

This month marks the third birthday of my blog As I See It, a social commentary on the trials and tribulations of living in Hong Kong. The occasion coincides with the 100th article I have written under the banner. Having reached a personal milestone, I decided to take the opportunity to reflect on my still-young writing career and wallow in, dare we say, self-congratulatory indulgence.

It all started in November 2008 on the heels of the last U.S. presidential election. I was getting ready to create a personal website as a platform to consolidate my interests and pursuits. To do that I needed content. That’s how my blog – or my “online op-ed column” as I prefer to call it – came into being. 
Before I knew it, I was banging it out in front of my iMac every night, going on and off the tangent and in and out of my stream of consciousness about the odd things I experienced in the city, the endless parade of pink elephants I saw everyday that no one seemed to bat an eyelid at. Though singi…

When Free Speech Isn't Free 當言論不再自由

The school year had barely begun when two incidents—both testing the limits of free speech on campus—unfolded at Chinese University and Education University and sent management scrambling for a response.
On Monday, at least three large banners bearing the words “Hong Kong independence” were spotted in various locations at Chinese University, including one that draped across the famous “Beacon” sculpture outside the school’s main library. Within hours, the banners were removed by the school authorities.
A few days later, a sign “congratulating” Education Undersecretary Choi Yuk-lin (蔡若蓮) on her son’s recent suicide appeared on Education University’s Democracy Wall, a public bulletin board for students to express opinions and exchange views. Likewise, the sign was taken down shortly thereafter.


That could have been the end of the controversies had university management not succumbed to the temptation to say a few choice words of their own. In the end, it was the reaction from the schoo…