29 November 2011

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.

http://jasonyng.blogspot.com

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 singing was what I wanted to do since a child and I always thought of myself as a singer first, in the past three years writing has taken over and, in the process, taken on a life of its own. I suppose things often happen when you least expect it. If self-indulgence is my favorite pastime, then serendipity must be the story of my life.

Singing has always been my first love


Since I started writing I have picked up a few new habits along the way. Because so much of writing is about reading and learning from what you read, each time I come across an interesting expression in a book or a quotable line from a movie, I will scramble to jot it down somewhere, before my 15 seconds of short-term memory run out. That explains why my desk is peppered with random scraps of paper with scribbling understood by no one else but me. The saying that “to a man carrying a hammer, everything looks like a nail” is an apt one for writing. At times it seems that even the most mundane of my daily experiences, from window shopping in Causeway Bay to an argument with a minibus driver, is worthy of a blog entry. And because I never know when the next topic would come up or how long my creative juice would flow, I am known to get up in the middle of night and work my opposable thumbs on the Blackberry placed inches from my pillow.

Write it down or lose it forever

I regard myself a perfectionist a tattered copy of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style is never too far from my desk and perfectionism begets revisionism. In the foreword to his famous sci-fi novel Brave New World, Aldous Huxley urged writers to “resist the temptation to wallow in artistic remorse” by revising their works to correct errors and defects. If serendipity is the story of my life, then chronic remorse must be my destiny. When it comes to editing my writing, I take notes from, of all things, instructions on the back of a popcorn box: stop the microwave when popping slows to two to three seconds between pops. In other words, I would keep editing until the revisions whittle down to a half dozen changes between versions. Until then the article is deemed unfit for public consumption, for there is always a better way of saying the same thing and what seems brilliant today can look painfully tedious the next day. Famous writers have their famous writing habits: Ernest Hemingway insisted on writing 500 words a day and Truman Capote was known to write lying down. I, on the other hand, choose to write the way microwave popcorn is made. It goes to show that every writer, even the most inexperienced and unskilled, is entitled to his own quirks.

Edit like making popcorn


As much as reading has made me a better writer, writing has made me a better reader, by heightening my senses to appreciate all the hard work that goes into crafting a sentence or making a scene come alive  all the secrets to be unlocked and treasures to be hunted on a single page. Writing has also given me new found respect for those who make it their living. For the price of a single drink at a bar, the reader reaps what has taken the author years or even a lifetime to put together. Worse, half the book proceeds is kept by the bookstore and half of what remains goes to the publisher. Perhaps that’s why writer as a profession commands so little respect in Asia. In Hong Kong, where “freelance” often means “free,” whenever I tell people I am an author, they respond with anything from mild acknowledgment to complete disregard. But the moment I mention I am a lawyer by day, I am hit back with a sudden burst of interest. “So what kind of law do you practice?” he asks, while checking out the watch I am wearing. Respect and social acceptance, for what they are worth, are things I would have to give up alongside a comfortable living, if I were to quit my day job to write full-time. How many of us are brave enough to make those sacrifices?

Writing for a living is not an easy gig

Looking back on the past hundred blog posts, I see the best and also the worst. My two-part series Kowloon Complex, for instance, earned me a slew of scathing comments, with one reader calling me “prejudiced, pretentious and stupid.” Experiences such as that taught me not only to take criticisms as readily as I dish them out, but also to defend my views with solid research and listen to both supporters and critics. And listen I do. For instance, because readers are slow to take to my political commentaries, such as my responses to the express rail link saga and the five constituencies resignation (五區總辭) campaign, I try to steer away from those topics and focus on things that interest both writer and reader. Over time, I have learned that my most popular articles are also my most personal, like Ah Gah and The Hill about my childhood growing up with my sister Margaret and A Tale of Three Cities when my comparison of Hong Kong to Shenzhen and Macao prompted me to reflect on who we are and where we are heading. Both articles made it into my first book and remain my personal favorite.

One of my favorite essays


Writing satisfies my narcissistic tendencies and scratches my obsessive-compulsive itch. But it also makes me a better person. Whenever I write, I seem to take on a different persona, one that is far more reasoned and reflective than I actually am. The transformation both surprises and delights me. In time I realize that writing provides a conduit to a good side of me I didn’t know existed. And if there is one thing that I would like my reader to take away from my blog, it is reflection. Before accepting someone’s opinion or forming your own, whether it is the right of foreign domestic workers to apply for permanent residence or the decision to visit northern Japan after the radiation leaks, ask a few questions and think the issues over. You may look to a friend, a co-worker, The Apple Daily or my blog for a point of view, but ultimately it is you who must decide what position to take. Healthy skepticism and constant reflection are the stuff that separates the independent thinker from the intellectual couch potato. In a city inundated with half-truths, pseudo-science and outright lies, it is, as philosopher John Stuart Mill once said, better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. So keep reading and keep reflecting.

Don't take anything at face value



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If you like this article, read 37 others like it in HONG KONG State of Mind, now available at major bookstores in Hong Kong, on Amazon and at Blacksmith Books..


16 November 2011

Unfaithfully Yours 愛偷吃的男人


What do Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods and Arnold Schwarzenegger have in common? They are all American icons who use their celebrity status to make our world a better place. Yawn. They all have promising young daughters who are destined to follow in daddy’s footsteps and achieve great things. Yawn again. As if the column title hasn’t already given away the answer, all three of them are powerful men who, at the pinnacle of their careers, put everything they had on the line and cheated on their wives.

Powerful men who fell from grace


For every Bill, Tiger and Arnold, there are hundreds other famous men who got caught with their hands in the cookie jar. At times it seems that the more successful a man gets, the more willing he is to throw away everything for a fleeting moment of carnal pleasure. According to a 1950s study on American men by the Kinsey Institute, there is a one in two chance of indiscretion occurring during marriage. In the Information Age where you can download free porn, order Viagra and hook up with an old flame all at the click of a mouse while the wife is asleep in the other room, that estimate seems a wee bit conservative.

The ground-breaking study on sex and the sexes

So why do famous men cheat? The notion itself seems to defy the basic principles of economics. Common sense tells us that those who have little or nothing to lose – the loser dude in a trailer park – would be more inclined to cheat. But studies suggest just the opposite. A recent New York Times article cites evidence that people who have more to lose are more prone to risky and self-destructive behavior. In much the same way best-paid executives are more likely to engage in insider trading, powerful men are more likely to stray. Is it ego, arrogance or the delusion of grandeur that makes men in high places cheat? Or does life on the fast lane demand a dose of clandestine thrill to spice things up? After all, high-stake politics and billion-dollar acquisitions can get a little stodgy if you do it day after day. We can psycho-analyze the cheating man all we want, but at the end of the day it might all come down to one word: probability.

Caught in the cookie jar

Remember your high school science? Chemical reactions occur when particles collide. We all know that. We also know that only a fraction of these collisions can cause a chemical reaction. Increasing the concentration of the reactant particles, scientists argue, leads to more collisions and therefore more successful collisions, ultimately raising the rate of reaction. This Collision Theory, first proposed by German chemist Max Trautz in 1916, is seemingly applicable today in explaining why men who have it all are more likely to lose it all. Fact: successful men meet more women of higher caliber than the average Joe. Fact: women throw themselves at these men like moths to the flame and lemmings to the cliff. Result: more collisions, more chemical reactions. It is that simple.


Modern chemistry explains it all

If an eighth-grader understands this, so do politicians. That's why the sex snare remains the weapon of choice for politicians on the look-out for ways to destroy their opponents. Better still, the smarter the target is, the harder he falls. When the scandal of former chief of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Dominique Strauss-Kahn first broke in May this year, many in France suspected that the hoopla with the hotel maid was but an elaborate set-up to sabotage Strauss-Kahn’s bid for the French presidency. Within a week after his arrest, the disgraced 62-year-old bowed to mounting political pressure and resigned from the IMF. Even after he was cleared of all criminal charges five months later, he threw in the towel and walked away from the presidential race. Whether he was guilty or not, the damage was already done. The trap of infidelity did it again.

Strauss-Kahn arrested by police, convicted by the public

The epic fall of tragic heroes in the likes of Strauss-Kahn is not limited to the West. Here in Hong Kong, there is no shortage of public figures who have rolled the dice in the underworld of adultery and lost. From actor-comedian Jackie Chan to property tycoon Walter Kwok and even our chief executive heir-apparent Henry Tang, these powerful men have been known to keep mistresses, fornicate with movie starlets, impregnate domestic caregivers, and, in the case of one Stanley Ho, did all of the above. In truth, men looking for a booty call in Hong Kong are spoiled for choice, whether it is a guys' night out on Lockhart Road or a day-trip to nearby Macau or Shenzhen. For those who prefer to go off the grid, there is that three-day golf trip to Hainan Island where a visit to the massage parlor gets them much more than a back rub.

Henry Tang mobbed by reporters 

In a city known for materialism, even torrid affairs can’t escape a bit of commercialization. In Hong Kong, money is always part of the equation, even – or perhaps especially – when it comes to love and lust. Just a few weeks ago, a bar hostess was sentenced to seven years in jail for blackmailing a wealthy businessman, referred to as Mr. X by the local press. When their four-month affair ended on a bitter note, the accused demanded a whopping HKD140 million (USD18 million) in “break-up fees” and threatened to murder Mr. X and his family if he didn’t pay up. After the 1987 thriller Fatal Attraction scared the pants off male movie-goers around the world, random men reportedly went up to Glenn Close, who starred as the bunny-killing mistress Alex Forrester, and thanked her for saving their marriage. It looks like Hong Kong has just found its very own Alex Forrester to keep married men in line.

Glen Close in the final scene of Fatal Attraction


Male infidelity is a phenomenon that transcends time and culture. The question of why-men-cheat is a horse that has been beaten to death by psychologists, feminists and day-time talk show hosts. Entire shelves of books have been written about it. Ah yes, women are from Venus and men are, well, just pigs. Biologists tell us that male primates are hunter-gatherers biologically programmed to maximize sexual partners. Female primates, on the other hand, are nurturers who stay in the cave and raise the young. That’s why men and women behave so differently when it comes to sex. But does it excuse us or condemn us? And when the seven year itch creeps up, are men supposed to scratch it or ignore it until it festers into a flesh-eating ulcer? To all of that, America’s leading sex columnist Dan Savage offers yet another perspective and a badly-needed glimmer of hope. The writer urges all of us to re-examine the institution of marriage and stop pretending to be something we are not: monogamous. Couples should be upfront about their sexual needs, Savage argues, and once in a while they should let a bit of air out. That means an occasional stray by either spouse, if handled with honesty and an open mind, can be a good thing. Perhaps the guy has a point. Perhaps marriage is more than strict rules and prohibitions.

John Gray's new book

If all of that sounds a bit radical to you, that’s because it is. So before you rush home tonight and suggest an open relationship to your girlfriend at the dinner table like the characters in the Farrelly brothers’ comedy Hall Pass, you are well advised to take Savage’s advice with a pinch of salt and keep that wishful thinking to yourself. When it comes to the “M” word – be it marriage or monogamy – remember what a wise man once said: freedom comes not from the absence of restraint but the presence of discipline. Or was it a woman who said that?

Wishful thinking in the Farrelly brothers' comedy Hall Pass

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This article previously appeared in the November/December 2011 issue of MANIFESTO magazine under Jason Y. Ng's column "The Urban Confessional."


As printed in MANIFESTO