13 March 2011

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


  1. Perhaps another reason to explain why the Japanese behave so disciplined is that they have full faith in their system & government. On the contrary, Chinese, learnt by (bad) experiences, have a completely different belief system - that they have nothing to count on but themselves. People, even family members, are not to be trusted. Government officials are corrupted - count yourself lucky if they are not making a profit from donations. Which explains the self-serving behavior we see in the Chinese society.

  2. I think we all know that the Japanese are polite and civilised. To my surprise, they still maintain their manner in this devastating situation. They let the elderly to stand at the front of the queues, even the shocked children don't shout. I believe that it's because not only they receive good education, but also they have full confidence that the government will spare no effort to help them. They are not afraid that they will ever lack anything they need. The government can gain the trust and confidence from the people, maybe it's because they seldom let their people disappointed. We seldom heard any corruption among the government. All they have is integrity.

  3. "Our overpaid, underworked bureaucrats wouldn’t know the first thing about disaster recovery and would instinctively look to Beijing for direction"???


    Please refer to this link for the Security Bureau's range of contingency plans. These are the plans that could be released to the Public with some are restricted for internal used (for other types of emergency)


    Granted, we would not know how everyone will react at a real disaster when it strikes. But that is what those plans are for.

  4. Thanks, Phil. Its interesting that you tried to defend our government. I suppose that is refreshing.

    Our Security Bureau is a bureaucratic mess. Their responses to overseas crises are slow and driven only by public opinion. I have very little faith in their so called "contingency plans" -- something that they probably copy-and-paste from Japan or the UK. Surely just because the government posted contingency plans on their website doesn't mean they know what they are doing. I am sure the Philippine police has hostage negotiation procedures as well but what good did that do?

    I think the readers who left the first two comments have hit the nail right on its head. How citizens react at a real disaster depends in large part on how much confidence they have in their government to take care of them and to deliver them out of harm's way. In our case there simply isn't much confidence in ours.



  5. Jason,

    Thanks for writing this article for us to share our thoughts on this very tragic and unfortunate event that shocked and shook the world.

    The high-magnitude earthquakes and gigantic tsunami waves were catastrophic events in Japan last week. More aftershocks are predicted in the coming days with another earthquake forthcoming of magnitude 7 in the making. Let's hope that they are only false alarm.

    The natural disasters, that challenged everything big and small on their way, had ruined communities and taken many precious lives despite full alert and preparations were in place by Japanese authorities and citizens. Many families lost their loved ones - father, mother, son, daughter....at ferocity of Mother Nature's call with nothing spared along her destructive path. It is a painful experience to see visions and images of these malicious acts of nature which caused destruction of everything within a few minutes of what we, human beings, took many years to plan and build.

    Time and again, the reality check constantly reminded us that our human life is fragile with nothing guaranteed. We must always treasure and love those around us like our families, friends and others daily.

    Not until we encounter the destructive might of Mother Nature, we would not believe the scale of devastation - where everything from houses, ships, planes and cars swirled and drifted away like paper-made look-alike. The horrific scenes and images have brought many people around the world to tears.

    And to think of that to happen in Hong Kong (touch wood), it may probably be doomsday. Our high-rises are not structurally built to withstand a high magnitude earthquake, and then the citizens are not being alerted on how to counter and prepare for one when it strikes. The only solace is Hong Kong is not in or within an earthquake zone. The various small islets of mountain ranges around Hong Kong act as buffers to reduce impact of tsunami before any high tidal waves reach the city. With all that said, HongKongers should not stay complacent as nothing is guaranteed in life.

    I have full respect for the Japanese people, old and young. Hats off to them. In midst of un-expected chaos, confusion and calamity with many losing lives, homes and property, they consistently remain composed and orderly and showed complete civility and restraint facing such a large scale disaster.

    Kudos to all rescue teams and front-line people in Japan and around the world in helping in the rescue efforts.

    Let's hope to see light at end of the dark tunnel soon.


  6. The defination of superpower is not just scaled by her economic growth but also the integrity of the citizen. Indeed we are all saddened by the unfortunate event in Japan, we admire the calm and no violent reaction from the Japanese in this calamity.

  7. I really like this article. I reread and reread again...


  8. Thank you, Jason. Though its no time for humour, that Japanese colleague who emailed you about the earthquake and her not being able to send you the term sheet is such a typical example of Japanese way of behaving, even at times like this.

    Being a Korean national living in Japan all my life (except a portion of adult years), I always have mixed feelings towards Japan and its people. Though it may seem unfortunate, it is a fact of life for me and I know that I will carry those feelings for as long as I live. However, I cannot help but have immense respect for the way they are dealing with the hardship each moment since the earthquake struck last Friday. At times like this, I want to drop all my political sentiments and call Japan my "home".

    I am sure that Japan will show resilience and get back on feet much faster than the world ever anticipates.


  9. Thanks for your comment. S.A., I hope your relatives and friends in Japan are safe.

    Speaking of mixed feelings toward Japan, I read a while ago that there was a massacre of Korean and Chinese people living in Japan after the 1923 Kanto Earthquake. There were false rumors that Korean people poisoned the water in Japan and looted stores to take advantage of the disaster. Japanese authorities stopped random people on the streets and made them say certain words to detect their Korean accent and would kill whoever didn't pass the language test. The story was quite gruesome.


  10. Yes! I agree with you. I'm amazed seeing how organize the Japanese are during this disaster. They manage to queue up to buy their daily sundries aftermath. I've seen people rushing for food, snatching for food in other countries in such a devastating moment. But Japan, is totally different.

    Another kudos, we should give is the Strength they holding on. After seeing videos by videos of all the aftermath of the event, I hardly see the survivors or the victims shed tears. Even kids that were save by the Teams, they just look so calm.

    Really Proud of them. It's something we all need to learn from them!!!

  11. Dear Jason,

    I really enjoyed reading your article. I especially liked how you took this opportunity to condemn our government here in HK. Spot on!!

    My deepest condolences and sympathy goes out to all the people of Japan who is impacted by this quake. Please stay strong and you will always be in our prayers.


  12. 日本人是值得敬佩的, 但這幾天感覺怪怪地, 因為從电視新聞, 我感覺不到日本人的悲傷, 他們好像不會大哭, 即使父母被洪水沖走, 他也沒有哭, 也沒有流淚. 更沒有悲天憐憫的情況. 不像汶川地震, 個個哭得死去活來. 或許這是教養, 但我不知到, 只是覺得怪怪的. 因我看完电視新聞,我覺得我還比他們傷心呢......

  13. Love your new article, Jason! Have been a big fan of your writing!


  14. Re "日本人是..." comment:

    I think Japanese people do grieve, just that they don't do it publicly. That's the famous "omote" (public face; 表) versus "ura" (private face; 裏) dichotomy. It's a very interesting cultural phenomenon.


  15. Just read the article. I cant really tell about Hong Kong, only know about it in terms of its film industry and I can very well imagine it would be more chaotic!

    As for Japan, or rather, the Japanese, I entirely agree with you, especially after my trip. I was tangentially part of a conference so I had to deal with a lot of annoying Westerners' comments/jokes about the Japanese's obsession with politeness and order (and these people were all university professors, by the way), whereas I, for myself, I could only envy the all-around feeling of peace, safety, and respect towards other people, something absolutely impossible to find in Buenos Aires or any other big city I've been to. For heaven's sake, I was in the most heavily populated city in the world and nobody EVER used their honks while waiting in traffic, or their cellphones in public transportation. Also because, at least to me, all of those measures about how to behave in public that seem so ridiculous to some foreigners, made perfect logical sense in the context of such an overcrowded society. Most of the time it was simply a case of social policy made by intelligent people, for a change.

    Very first time that I was in a culture completely different from mine in every way, and thinking very seriously "I would really like to live here for a couple of years." And even now, I still do, earthquakes and all. Totally floored about the situation, keep wishing every day the news will get better, but they don't.

    Thanks again for your article, take care,


  16. Another brilliant and perceptive article - you don't really expect me to say anythign otherwise, do you?

    Discipline aside, perhaps it unveils our PRC innate value system, our general, I wouldn't want to say prevalent, disrespect, total disregard for life, human or animal. The one child per family system for so long, the convenient abortion, the tofu-texture construction, the adulterated milk-powder, the contaminated and fabricated fish (白飯魚 and other marine life served on our tables), all under the pretext of economic growth. It's a "great leap forward" for those who can afford to manipulate the system, but many more mere mortals are used as the springboard for it. The springboard can break if it's leveraged too far back.

    BUT IT DOESN'T MATTER, right, they are dispensable, and there's plenty of ready supply still, who may just risk anything in pursuit of a (long-disillusioned to an outsider ?!) dream. This is a bad joke, and no offence, but it reminds me of the lives of the junior audit trainees in the auditing firms in HK: squeeze them dry and let them die. The next batch of young blood will take over. As long as the "upper echelons" can bask in glory and parade before the global stage. We just don't really see enough of what's happening at the backstage till calamities cascade down... But the flip side of the coin is, it's probably this national psyche of Japan that contributes to its imperialism. Taken to the extreme, every being in a Japanese enterprise (so I learnt before) is "robotized". They too, I believe, rightly or wrongly, would not fight back even if "sprung" too far back, albeit for a different reason to the Chinese. Whether it is for a "justifiable" r eason or not, I'm afraid I have no answer for.

    I was once a research assistant to a professor in Construction Law at the HKU (in fact, the "Professor" as I think practically no one else specializes in this field). He told me once that if an earthquake shakes HK, it can probably uproot every single building and none can withstand the quake's furrowing. My research term pre-dates the construction of the ICC and now the government twin towers on Wanchai waterfront, but I won't bet on any of these providing the flimsiest shelter for anyone inside.

    And another Chinese trait which most Hongkongers hae inherited is, regard / disregard for life aside, our egotistic traits (betrayed in our continual quest for fame and our kids to emulate the best) demand that we for ourselves and save ourselves first, the 各家自掃门前雪mentality. True, we are witnessing an apparent torrent of generosity whenever these disasters happen in recent years, but that's because we are spectating the events in the luxury and safety outside a 20 or more inches monitor. Despite the many honourable acts shown at the Sichuan earthquake, do we honestly believe that the body next to us in the rubble or deluge himself to reach out for us? It's not impossible (I'm stirring up indignation here, I know), but it requires a great leap of faith as well.

    No offence, Jason, but I am surprised that you even mentioned the HK government. As a negative example, maybe, but that institution would probably be the last I'd rely on in such a state to save our souls. They'll probably debate for (with all the accompanying demonstrations of course) the passing of a new law on whether to salvage the construction or the bundled up vehicles first before realizing that there are bodies underneath both.

    At least you drew the curtain of your article on a more encouraging note, and that's a relief as I realize what a grim picture I've penned to your article. Let's pray that we Hongkongers can learn to fight for ourselves and for others, and that Japan can sprout from the current mire soon, like what they have done after WWII.


  17. Well-written analysis on how prepared and disciplined the Japanese people are. It is worth emulating least to say. But I really hope we can have the same spirit here in the Philippines.

  18. Phil,

    I am afraid I am totally with Jason on the point your raise. You can probably detect that from the insinuation in my response. If you tell me that 3 members in the entire HK government has actually read that policy I'll buy you dinner in whatever place you want in HK or buy you whatever book in HK (except those from Lok Man Bookstore). I am sure they don't even know such a policy exist at all and I am even more positive that they have no idea how to implement it (a mean example, a hit by a revolver's recoiling force could be very painful) and even if they do, they would have no idea how to do it properly / tactfully.

    And S.A., I totally empathize with you. I have always regarded Japan with mixed feelings in that there are many things I like about the country and the culture, but at the back of my mind I don't think I have ever gotten over the mortification they inflicted on us Chinese during the WWII. It is the commission of a bygone era, and we should learn to forgive and forget (if I am in a position to forgive at all) but occasionally I still blame myself for liking anything "Japanese" especially when vivid scenes of torture reeled into my mind. And even up to this day I can't forgive them for killing the whales and dolphins which I absolutely adore, or even serving sashimi of horses on our plates. But for their courtesy, courage and discipline in black times like these, I have nothing but the utmost respect for them.


  19. Please keep writing articles.


  20. Just two quick comments on Jason's original article and to Christine.

    I agree the Japanese are discipline crowd. They are trained to be since birth and it is part of their culture.

    However, as the series of incidents develop, some Japanese are starting to question their government (or the leadership that of) for lying to them the magnitude of the explosions or the level of leakage of the radioactive material.

    May be the Japanese people do really have confidence to their government and entrust it to take care of them. But remember, their government also has proven record of, let's say, "bending the facts". Up to today, the past and current Japanese government did not admit the massacre in "Nanjing" and merely use the phrase "entering China" instead of "invading China" in their history books. The people are taught of such "facts". So would you question if the Japanese are moulded to act in certain ways, or to think in certain paradigm? (Don't get me wrong. In no way I am saying we should not give support, donations or in-kind, to the people affected. I am discussing the point Jason made on the quality of the people and how they entrust their government).

    As to Christine, I messaged Jason privately but don't have your contact. But I can tell you that - Dinner is on you! Any budget restrictions? =)


  21. I can always count on Christine and Phil for a lively debate!

    As I have explained to Phil over email, my frustration over the Hong Kong government is not directed at a specific department but rather the entire system. Though over these past few days, the nuclear crisis in Fukushima has shown that the Japanese government is by no means perfect either. It has been less than forthcoming with the radiation leaks, for instance.

    Christine, I don't think you are being too harsh on Chinese/HK people. I am working on part 2 of the article and I can't help but mention the recent runs on salt and baby formula in Hong Kong and Mainland China.


  22. Haha, goody goody, some nice pieces for me to savour (but don't tell me "I don't think you are being too harsh on Chinese/HK people" is the only response you've got to my comments (though I can't say anything if it really is : p )

    And Phil,
    either add me as your friend (I always mess up when I do that, I can only confirm who is my friend)and let's team up for dinner before I die at the office. Then I can email you on fbk and let you have my private email add. And work your charm on Jason and invite him out too, owe him lots for all the intellectual nourishment he is giving me. And do that before he gets so popular on magazines cover that it's impossible to grab him like the movie stars. I'll pick somewhere you both like.

  23. Jason,

    Get pumping and publish the follow up article quickly. It is a must if you are writing about life in HK. OK, I admit I was slow on following this particular "salt grab farce" when I was busying concentrating on other news. I finally saw the news clips on Youtube on Sunday. That was wild, boisterous and absurd.

    An article on this week's Next magazine (壹週刊 - 1097期, titled - 日本地震暴露的港人質素), strangely, was fairly cogent. You may want to check it out too.

    Let's see if we all have time after this whole Japanese earthquake and aftermath settle a little bit. I suggest in the spirit of supporting Japan, let's have Japanese food.

    What do you think, Jason? Hahaha...

  24. This is the second time I got your mail about your articles. So, I just give a little of my thoughts. Hope you won't get offended. I seldom write and speak English now. I don’t have excellent language proficiency. But, i think you can do something more about the content and the style of writing. It is quite plain although choice of words is generally rich. It's more important for me feel your heart. Perhaps, you are just recalling what you saw on TV and what you heard from the news. A lot of facts are given.

    Let me share with you how I feel about the disaster. I just make a few points. The title “Apocalypse Now” make me associate it with “Judgment Day” or the “End times” depicted in the bible. Does it give some kind of signal to the human on earth ? – Perhaps it is JUST the beginning of all those disasters that about to eventuate as a result of SIN. Do we still want to have atomic tests or weapon? I just begin to know what “life and death in split-second” means when I saw how the waves roars and claim the lives of the innocent people who were just about to evacuate. My tears kept rolling when I pray for the factory workers and the elderly on knowing how they are suffering each day and we are unable to offer any help. We should cherish the times we have with our love ones on this earth.


  25. Anthony...spoken like a true "bible thumper" :)

  26. Thanks Jason for this article. It is quite amazing how the Japanese continue to act in this crisis. They are the model but I think their patience is thinning about what the government is telling them. I do not feel that Americans or Chinese can do the same.

    Sometimes I feel like Hong Kongers are already living a daily pollution crisis. No I am not talking about the elite such as yourself but the ho polloi 90% of HKers. The majority of HK kids have no chance at college and are stuck in the worst jobs for little pay. When I look at the elderally doorman or doorwoman- I see someone who sacrificed their youth and life by working in factories as children to only be discarded as a adult.
    It has to be hard to be living in a mall of the world where people come and take from you and then leave. I respect Hong Kong for its strength and self-reliance and pray that a natural disaster never hit HK.
    Have fun in Siena-- I love Siena and my husband stayed there for 3 months as a UCLA language exchange student.

    bravo on your book,