In the Heat of the Night

When I got off an air-conditioned bus at around 3pm this afternoon, it was as if I was walking into a furnace – I felt as if I was devoured by the scorching heat. The fact that we are still having this sort of unbearably hot days towards the end of August is a sure sign that the summer of Hong Kong is getting hotter and longer.

I remember that the summers in my childhood years were not so hot, particularly considering that my family had no air-conditioners during that time. But in case my memory has misled me, some official figures may confirm that Hong Kong has indeed got hotter and, more worryingly, the thermometer is likely to keep rising.

In a speech given in 2008 by Mr C.Y. Lam, the then Director of the Hong Kong Observatory, said that in the 20th century, the rise of temperature in Hong Kong was roughly double that of the global average. Mr Lam attributed this to urbanisation. I would add that it is no coincidence that Hong Kong’s greenhouse gas emission also doubles that of the global average (in my blog on 13 August, I wrote that “while Hong Kong makes up 0.1 percent of the world's population, it gives off 0.2 percent of the world's total greenhouse gas emission”). We reap what we sow. Fair enough.

Regarding the future, Mr Lam presented some rather grim estimation figures comparing the “end of the last century” (1980-1999) with the “end of this century” (2090-2099) using the reference scenarios of “lower-bound”, “middle-of-the-road” and “upper-bound”. The figures are summarised in the following table:

(Right click to download table)

Back to how I felt when I got off the bus today. What worries me is that we are in the middle of a vicious cycle. I would like to think that I am environmentally responsible enough to be able to sacrifice some personal comfort for the sake of the common good (that is one of the reasons why I have become a vegetarian, and I have to add that I have found it to be no sacrifice at all), and so I use the aircon at home very sparingly. The thing is, if it gets so hot that it becomes absolutely unbearable (to be honest, the heat these days has become quite unbearable), we will be left with no choice but to turn to the cooling devices too. In the worst case scenario, it might even be a matter of life and death. We will then be on the path of no return.

It is said that in greedily and selfishly consuming the natural resources like we do now, we are drawing from the credit of the next generation. I am afraid that if something is not done fast to correct the present situation, it might not even be the next generation that suffers the grave consequences. It may well be our own one.


Honesty is Such a Lonely Word

I see the over-arching theme in today’s Bible readings as honesty.

In Reading 1, Moses said to the people of Israel: “You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.” (Deuteronomy 4:2) Not add to, nor take away from his words is Moses’ pledge for the people’s honesty.

Reading 2 echoes the message by saying: “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.” (James 1:22)

In the Gospel, Jesus quoted from Isaiah, saying: “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: `THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS, BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME.’” (Mark 7:6) Of course, to be hypocrites who honors Jesus with their lips but not their heart is being dishonest.

Being dishonest with other is not right, but to me being dishonest with ourselves, something James 1:22 warns us against, is far more dangerous. It is so easy for us to fool ourselves into thinking that we are fair and just, we are doing our best, and all that, and then we feel good about ourselves.

I am sure that the Pharisees and scribes that Jesus was so critical about also saw themselves as being in the right and feeling good about themselves. But maybe deep down they knew, as Jesus did, that they were just “deluding themselves”.


"I Paint the Way I Laugh"

As a cat lover, I like paintings or drawings about cats. One painting about cats I love is this one by Dutch painter Jan Nieuwenhuys.

Nieuwenhuys is one of the artists of the CoBrA Movement in the 1940s and 50s. The name CoBrA is derived from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam, the cities from which the artists who founded the group came from. CoBrA artists painted directly and spontaneously. They used their fantasy and lots of colours. The subject matters of their paintings included animals or fantasy animals, mythology, folklore, primitive art, children’s drawings, etc. Such features can be seen in Nieuwenhuys’s “Cats” as well as this quotation of his: “I start with my material and my color. With that I express myself. From the material I come to my subject and that is maybe contrary to what painters did in earlier days. I paint the way I write, the way I laugh. That’s why I paint differently all the time, because my moods change. That’s the way I feel.”



There is yet another campaign to stamp out “Chinglish”, this time in Shanghai, the city which will visited by millions of visitors in the upcoming World Expo fair.

As we all know to our amusement, Chinglish refers to the poorly translated or mis-spelt phrases seen in public places – on road signs, notices, menus, etc. The mistakes range from complete nonsense (e.g. ‘Fivst Aicl Centrt’ instead of ‘First Aid Centre’) to abosolute howlers (e.g. ‘crap’ instead of ‘carp’ on a menu). This latest effort to clamp down on Chinglish reveals a few facts:

  • The problem is a big concern.
  • China would try to boost its public image before major events.
  • China has much faith in the power of campaigns, political or otherwise.

  • Unfortunately, previous experience shows that such campaigns have not been effective. As early as 2001, shortly after Beijing had won the right to host the 2008 Olympics, the city launched a similar campaign in which awkward phrases were sent to a panel of English teachers and foreigners for revision. Similar campaigns, along with others targeting at bad habits such as spitting, littering, queue jumping, swearing and bad driving, were launched again in 2006 and 2007 after previous attempts were met with little success. Still, it appears that the Chinese authorities’ blind faith in such short term fixes is pretty much unshaken. It is like making a frantic effort to sweep the dirt under the carpet before someone comes to visit. The long term vision of developing good living habits and a sense of pride in a clean living environment is less of a concern.

    In one of those campaigns the Beijing Tourism Board was quoted as saying that the poor English translations “either scare or embarrass foreign customers”. Now who should be scared or embarrassed by the following translations? Them or the Chinese themselves?

    A warning of slippery roads: "To take notice of safe, the slippery are very crafty"
    Emergency exits at Beijing airport: "No entry on peacetime"
    The Ethnic Minorities Park is named "Racist Park"
    On a cruise on the Yangtse River: "Don't Bother" instead of "Do not Disturb" on the cabin doors
    A paragliding site is named "Site of jumping umbrella"
    On a hotel brochure: "Please take advantage of the chambermaids”
    A sign pointing to the help desk of a train station: "Question Authority"
    Forbidden: Prostitution, gambling and drag abuse!A sign in the Shanghai metro: "After first under on, do riding with civility"Another sign in the Shanghai metro: "If you are stolen, call the police at once"
    A sign in a hotel lift: "Please leave your values at the front desk"
    A sign in the stairwell of a department store: "Please bump your head carefully"


    "Forever Young"

    It is obvious that to be “forever young” is many people’s dream. For that reason, “forever young” a very popular subject for creative or literary works. Look at the three different songs by the same name "Forever Young", sung by Alphaville, Bob Dylan and Rod Steward respectively. Look at Mel Gibson's film "Forever Young". Look at Peter Pan.

    But how is it like to be forever young? Ask this question to the little creature in the picture below and he will tell you it is not as romantic as you think.

    In fact, the species, called axoltyl, may have to pay the heavy price of extinction for staying forever young.

    Here are some facts about this highly unusual animal:

    • Axolotl is a kind of salamander that lives in Mexico.

    • It spends its whole life underwater in its larval form and never undergoes metamorphosis.

    • It is able to regenerate its body parts.

    • It is estimated that there are now only between 700 and 1,200 axolotls in the Xochimilco area of the Mexican Central Valley, their last stronghold in the wild.

    • Its population has declined alarmingly in the last decade, from about 6,000 axolotls per square kilometre in the Xochimilco in 1998 to around 1,000 in 2004 to just about 100 in 2008 – a 60-fold reduction in about ten years. The main reason for this dramatic reduction in number is urbanisation of the axolotl’s natural habitat and deterioration of water quality.

    • There are captive colonies of axolotls in different places of the world, but scientists do not think reintroducing them to the wild is a good idea as it reduces the genetic variability and increases the chance of disease.


    The Children of Cambodia (1)

    When I went to Cambodia some years ago, I took some pictures of a number of children I met. I felt for them so much that I wrote about each of them. Here are the pictures and what I wrote about them:

    I had been observing you
    For a full hour
    You were idling around this wooden table
    Fumbling with the empty can
    Examining the rubbish bins
    Leaning on the coconuts
    Playing with an old knife until an angry looking man came to snatch it away
    Doing things without purpose
    Without meaning
    Without value
    Was that all you enjoyed doing
    Or were capable of doing?
    And when you saw me leave
    You came and stretched out a hand
    That all too familiar gesture
    And the all too familiar look
    A look with little hope in it

    (To be continued)


    He Was Me, He Was You

    The sisters I wrote about yesterday, who were abandoned and marginalised by society, reminds me of the song "He Was Me, He Was You", one of my favourite of the 70s.

    The little man was lonely but they took him as a tramp
    with a love note in his pocket and no money for a stamp
    He just sits there in the doorway and he sings his lonely song
    mumbling the cold out of his hands
    watching the shadows weave and dance
    smiling but in his mind the chances are gone

    He was me, he was you, maybe someone that you knew
    there goes everybody's brother
    what's his name?
    walk on by, pay no mind, heartbreak happens all the time
    ain't it cold enough today, so let it rain

    The painter tries to paint him and the poet he tries to see
    I think he had a castle in the man he used to be
    He just stops to ask a question
    can you tell me what you've learned
    nobody knows the truth he said
    not till the book has all been read
    follow the one you love instead of the road

    He was me, he was you, maybe someone that you knew
    there goes everybody's brother
    what's his name?
    walk on by, pay no mind, heartbreak happens all the time
    ain't it cold enough today, so let it rain

    The central question is: What have we learned from seeing sad people like that? The song title, "He Was Me, He Was You", suggests that they were not always so unfortunate but used to be like us. It reminds us that we could easily have been in each other's position. So show compassion to these people because they are "everybody's brother". Do not "walk on by, pay no mind" and have the rather selfish idea that "heartbreak happens all the time".


    The Town of Sadness

    There was this news story a couple of days ago about a mentally ill woman who had sat besde the dead body of her twin sister for three days without food and water as she was not capable of summoning help. The dead sister was also a mental patient. Records show that after the twin sisters had been discharged from a mental hospital in 2005, they were allocated to a flat at a public housing estate. It was in that the death of the woman was discovered after neighbours complained of the stench.

    The public estate is in no other district than Tin Shui Wai, commonly known as "The Town of Sadness" for all the wrong reasons, some of which are illustrated in a PowerPoint presentation I made about the district. Here are some contents extracted from the slides:

    Tin Shui Wai - What has it got to offer?

    A population of 270,000...

    The largest number of family abuse cases per head of population...

    The largest number of low income groups...

    And the hardest hit by unemployment.

    Tin Shui Wai says a lot about the gap between the rich and the poor in Hong Kong.


    An Agreeable Choice

    I know I have referred to William Glasser's choice theory a couple of times. I have no wish to canonise the theory or make the claim that it is the panacea to all problems, but I can't help noticing that today's Bible readings have much of the shape of choice theory in them. Here are the extracts from the readings:

    Reading 1

    Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and called for the elders of Israel and for their heads and their judges and their officers; and they presented themselves before God. Joshua said to all the people, "...If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD." (Joshua 24:1-2, 15)


    Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this said, "This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?" But Jesus, conscious that His disciples grumbled at this, said to them, "Does this cause you to stumble? "What then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before? "It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. "But there are some of you who do not believe." For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him. And He was saying, "For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father." As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore. So Jesus said to the twelve, "You do not want to go away also, do you?" (John 6:60-67)

    In Reading 1, Joshua presented the people with the choice of either to serve the Lord, or, if they find it "disagreeable", to "choose" for themselves whom they would serve. In the Gospel today, which continues from last week's Gospel in which Jesus said that "He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life", many of Jesus's disciples found what He said difficult to take in and started grumbling, and in the end they left Him. After that, Jesus asked his twelve disciples whether they wanted to go away also. Like Joshua in Reading 1, Jesus was presenting his disciples with a choice.

    While God so wants us to serve Him, just as Jesus so wants us to eat His Flesh and drink His blood so that we can have eternal life and we can abide in Him and He in us, God would like us to see doing so as agreeable, and so make the choice of doing it. To use the terms of choice theory, God would like us to keep Him in our quality world, and maintain a close relationship with Him.

    Both the people of Israel in Reading 1 and the twelve disciples in the Gospel made a good choice:

    The people answered and said, "Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods; for the LORD our God is He who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, and who did these great signs in our sight and preserved us through all the way in which we went and among all the peoples through whose midst we passed. The LORD drove out from before us all the peoples, even the Amorites who lived in the land. We also will serve the LORD, for He is our God." (Joshua 24: 16-18)

    Simon Peter answered Him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. "We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God." (John 6: 68-69)

    In answering God's invitation to us, do we make a good choice too?


    On Poverty

    Some time ago, when I travelled to Japan, I remember reading from the guidebook that the country is able to boast that every Japanese is a middle class. From what I saw about the city and rural life there, I can say that it is not far from the truth. Not only do the people of Japan enjoy a decent standard of living, it is also a country with a very good social security system.

    In comparison, it is shameful that while Hong Kong has a per capita GDP which, at over USD30,000, is ranked among the top thirty in the world, we also have a Gini Index of 53.3, which is not only the highest in Asia but also among the developed countries. Only countries like Botswana, Lesotho, Sierra Leone, South Africa, etc. fare worse. This is a community where the gap between the haves and the have-nots is wider than ever. This is a community where one’s worth is measured in terms of wealth, where the poor is regarded as failure and is marginalized.

    So the documentary mini-series on the topic of poverty in Hong Kong, which will be on show for a few weeks starting tonight, is a stark reminder of the situation. Filmed in the genre of reality show, the programme invited four privileged citizens – a listed company CEO, a red wine merchant, a lawyer-turned-housewife and a beauty pageant contestant whose father is the Asia-Pacific chairperson of a multi-national company – to experience the life of the poor people of Hong Kong. For one week, they were given only HKD15 and had to earn their living by cleaning dishes and clearing rubbish during the daytime. At night one of them slept in the street while others lived in the equally abhorring conditions of the poor.

    Some of the observations or insight that they obtained from the experience are strong accusations of our social injustice and neglect:

    “There are some poor people who are actually very hardworking, but they cannot get the return that their effort deserves. Still, they are very positive in facing their difficulties.”
    “The worst thing [about the old people living along] is to gradually lose awareness of their own existence. They do not have any hope, just waiting to die. But things get very different when there is someone to care about them and give them hope.”
    “Previously I didn’t know much about poverty, thinking that people are poor because they do not work hard enough. I don’t think like that any more now.”

    Obviously, poverty in Hong Kong has become a structural problem which, if not properly attended to, will lead to the social divide being more and more unbridgeable, and the plight of the poor being passed from one generation to the next.


    Expensive Jokes

    These are my two jokes that got published in Reader’s Digest years ago:

    'One of the most annoying things about living in a college dormitory was the frequent disappearance of food from its refrigerator. At my wit’s end, I put two shiny apples in the fridge and placed a sign beside them: “One of these has been poisoned.”
    Later I showed my roommate what I had done. The apples were still there, but next to my sign was a new one: “Now both are.”'

    'My grandmother dislikes the revealing outfits that sportswomen wear. One evening, she was watching TV when I heard her say with considerable indignation, “As if one needs to be told what it is!”
    Intrigued, I looked over at the screen and saw members of the Brazilian women’s beach volleyball team. Printed on their tops were the letters, “B-R-A.”'

    Together I earned USD300 for just 129 words. Not bad for an absolute amateur. Reader’s Digest was, and probably still is, pretty generous with its contribution payment.


    Hard to Digest

    Having referred to a Reader’s Digest article yesterday (yes, I still read the magazine… though just very occasionally), it saddens me to learn that this august magazine is set to file for bankruptcy in the US. It appears that this 87-year-old publication, which at its peak had a circulation of 18 million a month and was often found in the magazine racks of households and, as many liked to quip, in the dentist’s or the doctor’s waiting room, cannot stand the test of time.

    Few people of the older generation have grown up without at least some memory of this iconic magazine. Remember, for example, its logo, with its Garamond font, immense R, and Pegasus next to it? Remember “Your 101 Favourite Melodies” and numerous other vinyl records that the magazine used to promote with the strategy of letting you sample and then return if not satisfied? Remember the sweepstakes?

    My memory of the magazine started very early, when my school teacher recommended it as healthy reading and as good language model. I soon fell in love with the jokes and the uplifting true stories. I started subscribing it as soon as I could afford to, all the way until, much later, the stacks of unread copies reminded me that I had simply become too busy to read them anymore. And after being a consumer of jokes the years, I also tried writing and contributing them, and had the immense satisfaction of having a couple of jokes published and getting USD150 each time.

    Gone are the good old days when Reader’s Digest enjoyed distribution in 60 countries, in 50 editions and 21 languages, reaching 40 million people worldwide. And it was barely four years ago that the magazine celebrated the publication of its 1,000th issue. It was not as though the company had not tried to change. The new logo, with its more modernistic Gill Sans font, a techie look, and a website address at the bottom, says a lot about what they tried to do. But either the changes were, like the new logo, rather ineffective, or they came too little too late. With circulation dropping to less than one third of its peak, it is obvious that Reader’s Digest has lot its hold on this generation.

    As the cover of the 1,000th issue shows, one of the featured article was "Life-changing BIG ideas". One wonders whether Reader's Digest ever used some of those ideas to change its own life.


    Good Things in Life

    In a recent Reader’s Digest article in which Jean Chatzky, author of the books “Make Money, Not Excuses” and “The Difference” was interviewed, she was asked whether she thought the poor can learn to be as optimistic as the rich, she said of course they can. She suggested doing a simple practice: In every of the coming three days, take note of five good things in life. After three days, you will see that life is full of good things. And as you keep paying attention to the good things in life, a virtuous cycle is formed. You become more optimistic, and optimism is the magnet for wealth.

    I tried the practice, and I think I tried too hard at first. I was looking for something that happened that was really special, and after a day or two came to the demoralising conclusion that there are not too many things like that happening on a daily basis. Well, not in my routine life anyway. But I soon saw what I failed to see at the beginning, and that is if we really pay attention, we can see that life is full of blessings and miracles. We just don’t appreciate them because we think they are our entitlement. But even small things like being able to make use of our five senses or even to breathe are full of wonders and should not be taken for granted. With this realisation my list of good things started to grow.

    It was at the same time that my reading of Don Piper’s “90 Minutes in Heaven” took me to the page which said that during Piper’s long hospitalisation, somebody gave him a magazine article about a young man who lost his sight. The blind man was incredibly bitter and depressed. A friend who cared enough about him told him that he just needed to get past that and gave him the practical instructions of making a list of all the stuff he could still do. The following is what followed:

    “Now what kind of a list would that be?” the angry blind man asked.
    “Just do it for me. You can’t write it, obviously, but you can get a tape recorder and dictate it. Just make a list of all the things you can still do. And I’m talking about simple things like ‘I can still smell flowers.’ Make the list as extensive as you can. When you’re finished, I want to hear that list.”
    The blind man finally agreed and made the list… When the friend returned, the blind man was smiling and peaceful.
    “You seem like you’re in a much better frame of mind than the last time I saw you,” the friend said.
    “I am. I really am, and that’s because I’ve been working on my list.”
    “How many things are on your list?”
    “About a thousand so far.”
    “That’s fantastic.”
    “Some of them are very simple. None of them are big, but there are thousands of things I can still do.”

    This lovely little story ended on a positive note. Not only did the blind man realise that there were so many things he could still do, he also decided to do all the things he could. That, I suppose, is the optimism Jean Chatzky refers to. When the optimism is transformed into action, the action will help change the fortune. In that sense, Chatzky is right in saying that optimism is the magnet for wealth.


    China's "Purest Photographer" (3)

    Lu Nan took the photos of the “On the Road: The Catholic Church in China” series in more than ten provinces in China. As the Catholic faith is a sensitive topic in China, several times he had his cameras and films being confiscated. Some of the films he took in Inner Mongolia have not been returned up till now. One can imagine how difficult the shooting process was, and the psychological and financial pressure Lu was under.

    “I don’t have a religion, only conviction,” Lu said. “Artists should have conviction and preferably no religion.”

    “The reason why I chose Catholicism as the theme is that I wish to show the holiness, solemnity and purity of a religion. I found it difficult to capture and visually present these things from other religions. With the Catholic faith there are ceremonies, and ceremonies are suitable for visual presentation.”


    China's "Purest Photographer" (2)

    The most stunning and touching of Lu Nan’s three bodies of work is the “The Forgotten People: The State of Chinese Psychiatric Wards” series, which was produced in the early 90s. Lu said that in taking this series of pictures, he was completing a journey that he saw as unfinished by other local and international photographers. Lu said: “Once I saw a Spanish photographer’s collection of work on the life of psychiatric patients. She did a very good job, but there was still room for improvement and I thought: ‘Leave it to me.’ Of course, that was only one of the many reasons why I chose this theme. What finally made me commit to it full scale was that after photographing the first hospital, I was greatly unsettled by the living conditions of the patients.”

    In order to take those pictures, Lu had to spend a couple of years making frequent visits to China’s 38 psychiatric hospitals and getting in touch with over ten thousand patients, to such an extent that he sometimes thought he himself was a psychiatric patient too. “It was very difficult to take photos of these patients,” Lu said. “At the beginning I simply couldn’t communicate with them. Either they did not speak at all, or they just keep talking on and on. Sometimes I nearly fell into a nervous breakdown. Even my eyes couldn’t on them.”

    In so realistically documenting the shocking state of living of those patients with his lenses, Lu also managed to raise the awareness of the Chinese society towards this marginalised group of rural psychiatric patients. But it was also beauty and not just realism that Lu was after. “If realism and beauty cannot co-exist, I would rather give up,” Lu said. “There were so many scenes in the psychiatric hospitals that were very real, so real that they were shocking, but as they were not beautiful, I did not take a single shot.”


    China's "Purest Photographer" (1)

    I came across some breathtaking photos showing Catholic worshippers in China through a link from a priest friend's website. I did some research and found that the photos are the works of an amazing Chinese photographer called Lu Nan. Below is some information I have gathered about him.

    Lu Nan (1962- ) is one of China’s most legendary photographers. His early work “Adding One Metre to the Nameless Hill” has been regarded one of the most classic performance arts images in China’s contemporary art. Lu is the only contemporary Chinese photographer to have featured in the American magazine Aperture. Over the years he has declined countless invitations to photographic exhibitions, insisting that “good work is accomplished in silence”. His idiosyncrasy earned him the title of China’s “purest photographer”.

    Lu Nan produced only three bodies of work over a fifteen-year period between 1989 and 2004, namely, “The Forgotten People: The State of Chinese Psychiatric Wards” (1989-90), “On the Road: The Catholic Church in China” (1992-96) and “The Four Seasons: The Everyday Life of Tibetan Peasants” (1996-2004).

    Lu spent eight years in Tibet for the the series “The Four Seasons: The Everyday Life of Tibetan Peasants”. Unlikely most other series showing the beautiful landscape of Tibet, the series depicts the daily lives of the Tibetan peasants as the seasons evolve. According to Lu, the 109 black and white photos of were painstakingly selected from over 126,000 negatives from 3,500 rolls of films. Once, Lu returned to China with two suitcases of films. Only a few were photos were selected. The rest, even those showing the rarest beautiful scenery, were abandoned.

    During the eight-year period, Lu spent at least half of the time living in Tibet, the longest stay stretching nine months. He relied on a map to select photo shooting spots, calculating the time it would take for him to walk to a village by using the legend. Almost every afternoon when he was in Tibet, this photographer with “no religious belief, only conviction”, as Lu described himself, would brave the sandstorm and commute between his lodging and the villages at 4,000 metres above sea level. “I lived, worked and learned like an ascetic,” Lu said. “I am convinced that good work is accomplished in silence.”


    The Cheapest Big Mac in the World

    It seems like the Big Mac in Hong Kong is the cheapest in the world, according to this year’s Big Mac Index reported in an article in the Economist.

    If you look at the prices alone, a Big Mac sold in Hong Kong, at USD1.72, is the cheapest in the world. The five countries with the next cheapest Big Macs are China, Sri Lanka, Ukraine, Malaysia and Thailand (all Asian countries except one), and their Big Macs are within 10% more expensive than a Hong Kong one. The countries with the most expensive Big Macs are Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, Switzerland and Norway (all Scandinavian countries except one), and their Big Macs are between 186.6% to 257.6% more expensive than that of Hong Kong.

    What a bargain for us Hong Kongers. Almost makes me, a vegetarian, want to grab a bite at the nearest McDonald’s!

    But the burgernomics of Big Mac index is not for comparing prices but currencies. The index is “a light-hearted guide to exchange rates, is based on the idea of purchasing-power parity, which says currencies should trade at the rate that makes the price of goods the same in each country”. So if the price of a Big Mac of a certain country, is above the benchmark price of USD3.57, the price of a Big Mac in the US, the currency is overvalued, and vice versa.

    In that sense then, the Hong Kong Dollar is the most undervalued currency in the world.


    My Most Lethal Shot in Tennis

    I know I shouldn’t be saying this, seeing how Typhoon Morakat invaded Taiwan and claimed 500 lives, but I have to admit that I'd much rather our weather be affected by a typhoon than the notorious, dreaded trough of low pressure. The former usually comes and goes fairly quickly, but the latter brings days or even weeks of gloomy, rainy weather. In the worst case scenario, as in an El Nino year, one trough of low pressure follows the other, and it can keep raining and raining for over a month.

    Fortunately, the trough of low pressure that has been hovering over the region has weakened, in time for me to be able to play tennis this evening. My game was a bit rusty today, the result of a lack of practice due to playing sessions being cancelled because of the bad weather.

    Talking about my tennis game, I have a lethal shot. I mean literally ‘lethal’ shot. It happened in a session many years ago. After hitting a forehand, I saw, in the split second, a bird flying across the net from one side of the court. To my amazement, and by the slimmest of chances, the trajectories of the bird and the ball met. Perfect timing (awful timing, rather, considering the impact)! Pop it went. The poor bird was hit by the ball and it dropped onto the court. I raced to examine it. Its neck was twisted and some saliva was oozing out of its beak. After some weak twitching of the body, life drained out of the unfortunate feathered friend. I scooped it up, laid it gently on the grass beside the court, and picked up the racquet again with a heavy heart. That was the most lethal shot I have ever played, but not one I am proud of. Of course I didn't mean to, but it was an innocent life that I had taken away.
    (Disclaimer: The player in the photo is not me.)


    The News(paper) is out of the Bag

    It seems that at long last the government has mustered the will to do something about the plastic bag that newspaper vendors use to hold a newspaper when selling it.

    For years I have been angered by this utterly senseless and selfish practice. Of course, the vendors are to be blamed for introducing this environmentally detrimental sales tactic. The five most popular newspapers in Hong Kong (Oriental Daily, Apple Daily, Mingpao, The Sun and South China Morning Post) have a combined circulation of over a million copies. That's over a million plastic bags being given away every single day! Of course the government is to blame for not doing anything about it until now. But at the end of the day it is the end user who has to take the biggest responsibility for letting it go on.

    This is a chicken and egg situation where it is difficult to say whether the consumption of the bag is because it is offered, or because the bag is offered because the customer wants it. One thing is sure though. In this market driven economy, if enough customers refuse the bags, which actually add to the cost of the vendors, the offer will stop in no time. Unfortunately, very few people do. I have been trying to think of a good reason why the use of that bag is needed, but I cannot think of any. It defies logic that it is for keeping one's hand clean. Do you wear a pair of gloves when you read the newspaper? So it is most likely that this is merely for looking good, and is just another example of many Hong Kong people's total disregard for the damage that one million bags a day does to the environment.

    This is, unfortunately, not the most environmental friendly of cities. While Hong Kong makes up 0.1 percent of the world's population, it gives off 0.2 percent of the world's total greenhouse gas emission. And now, after 365 (days) x n (years) x ~1,000,000 bags have been produced unnecessarily, we are ready to do something about the situation.


    A Friend and a Brother

    A friend is always loyal, and a brother is born to help in time of need.

    Proverbs 17:17

    I think Parker is both.

    Parker is my visually impaired kitten. There is a layer of translucent glaze over his right eye which I think allows him to see shadowy but not clear images. According to the kind woman who gave him and Piper his blind brother to me, they were like that when she picked them up from the garbage bin during one of those volunteer trips (see blog on 28 July).

    Sometimes when Parker sleeps in a curl beside me, looking as if he is the most contented living thing in the world, I would whisper to him silently: “You sure have come a long way from the time before you were picked up, pal.”

    I don’t know anything about Parker’s life before he was rescued, beyond what the advertisement for adoption said, which is that they belonged to the same litter. Which means they were probably just born when they were found. Were they abandoned? Or was their mother a stray cat? The latter is more likely the case. When we took them to an animal clinic to be neutered, the vet said they were born visual problems were caused by viruses most probably transmitted by their mother. Anyway, I always wonder how, with that big handicap, they would have struggled to survive in the extreme adversity of a street life. Would they have stuck together like they do now? Would Piper, with no eyesight at all, have made it? Would Parker have helped his brother and how, himself having a physical challenge too?

    But I’m sure Parker would have helped Piper, because that is exactly what I’ve seen him do all his young life. Maybe it is what he really means to do, being such a kind and loving cat. Maybe to help his sibling is just something genetically programmed in an animal. Or maybe, as the Bible quote says, he is a brother “born to help in time of need”. Anyway, what has actually happened since Day One is that the racket and movement that this incredibly active and curious little rascal makes has been very good reference for his blind brother. Most of the time, be it exploring the surroundings or finding a new plaything, all Piper needs to do is follow. And of course, like all cats, they play by fighting, and that’s their natural way to sharpen their survival skills. The videos in my 28 and 29 July blogs show how Parker played with, and actually helped, his brother.

    (to be continued)


    To Help or Not to Help, That is the Question

    While waiting for the train on my way to work this morning, I noticed a blind man standing a few feet from me. Every time I see a blind person I have the same quandary. I would very much like to go over to offer my help, but then there is that inner inhibition arising from the uncertainty of whether my help will be needed or appreciated. Maybe he can manage, maybe he would like to be independent, in which case helping him will hurt his pride, I would tell myself. I felt the same this time. In any case, he most probably wouldn’t need any help getting on the train so I just let him be.

    A train came. We got on. It was still early morning and before the rush hours, so there were lots of seats. But he just stood there. I thought it was his preference, but when a woman stood up and guided him to a seat he graciously took it. It immediately dawned on me that there is no way a blind person can tell whether there are any empty seats, so unless someone guides him he will have to be standing. Next time I will not hesitate to help.

    I wondered why it is that while I have absolutely no problem at all understanding and helping my blind cat, with people it can get quite so difficult. I gathered that the difference lies in trust, or the lack of it. That is what has got human relationships so complicated or even alienated. That is what has caused us to be on constant guard. Not a very pleasant state to be in, but at least it gives us an odd sense of security.


    Praying to Die

    In Reading 1 in yesterday’s Mass, Elijah, being persecuted by Jezebel, prayed to ask God to take his life away.

    …and he requested for himself that he might die, and said, “It is enough. Now, O Yahweh, take away my life…” (1 Kings 19:4)

    The request reminded me of the same request Don Piper made to God, recorded in his book “90 Minutes in Heaven”, in which he told his own story about how he died after a traffic accident, and miraculously returned to life after ninety minutes, during which time he had the experience of going to heaven. The horrendous pain and disfigurement he suffered, took away his will and desire to live, and he prayed for God to let him die - not once but many times.

    ‘…I didn’t want to live. Not only did I face the ordeal of never-lessening pain but I had been to heaven. I wanted to return to that glorious place of perfection. “Take me back, God,” I prayed, “please take me back.”’ (p.59)
    ‘…many nights I prayed, God, take me back to heaven. I don’t know why you brought me back to earth. Please don’t leave me here.’ (p.72)
    I wanted to be free from my miserable existence and die.’ (p.77)
    ‘"God, God, why is it like this? Why am I going through this constant pain that never seems to get any better?" Again I prayed for God to take me. I didn't want to live any longer. I wanted to go back home, and now for me, home meant heaven.’ (p.106)

    According to Don Piper, every time God’s answer to his prayer was a flat ‘no’.

    I am sure we all have similar experiences, maybe not quite as bad as for us to wish for ending our lives, but experiences bad enough for us to pray for God to put an end to it, and God did not answer our prayer. It is hard for us to see, especially when we are in the midst of suffering, that the very experience is a lesson God would like us to learn, that there is blessing in it, and that even in the worst of times God is there to take care of us.

    1 Kings 19 goes on to tell how an angel helped Elijah after he made the prayer:

    He lay down and slept under a juniper tree; and behold, an angel touched him, and said to him, “Arise and eat!” He looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on the coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and laid down again. The angel of Yahweh came again the second time, and touched him, and said, “Arise and eat, because the journey is too great for you.” He arose, and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the Mount of God. (1 Kings 19: 5-8)

    Notice how the angel’s help not only kept coming but also became more intimate. The second time he came, he touched Elijah, and he reminded him that he had to eat because the journey was too great for him.

    So in face of hardship, do not pray for God to take us away from the suffering. Pray for God to give us the strength to overcome the hardship, after which we will have a stronger relationship with God. The knowledge that Elijah, with the help of the angel, had the strength to go forty days and forty nights to the Mount of God is very empowering indeed.


    Different Ways of Looking at "Quality" and "Choices"

    The definition of “quality education” given by Singapore’s Acting Minister for Education in 2004 (referred to in the blog on 6 August) is in line with William Glasser’s view on education, detailed in his book “Choice Theory”.

    According to Glasser, the main reason why so many students are doing badly is “schooling”, which he defines as the practice of forcing students to acquire knowledge or memorise facts in school that have limited or no value in the real world. To improve education, we must get rid of schooling and the belief that “what is taught in school is right and that students who won’t learn it should be punished”, and redefine education as using and improving knowledge rather than acquiring it. Glasser believes that if we force students to learn and fail them if they don’t, students will be alienated, and they will “retaliate” by taking schoolwork, teachers and school out of their quality worlds. Many then drop out of school into lives of violence, crime, drugs and unloving sex. He posits that we should have quality schools which are “coercion-free and failure-free”. In these quality schools, students are led by the teachers to learn to speak, listen, read, and write and to use these skills to solve problems. What is behind everything the teachers do is choice theory, by which Glasser means the teachers put themselves, school and schoolwork into the students’ quality world, through good relationships and through providing students with choices.

    Now contrast these ideas from Mr Shanmugaratnam and Mr Glasser with the drug testing scheme recently proposed by the Hong Kong government, under which secondary school students, with parents’ consent, will be randomly selected to provide urine samples for drug testing. The government officials are trying to do all the sugar-coating they can, by claiming that the testing is “entirely voluntary” (only cases where students refuse to provide urine samples will be followed up by social workers!) and that “we are not aiming at penalising students – we just want to help them” (students testing positive will just be counselled but not expelled, suspended, or criminally charged!) and probably satisfying themselves that they have done enough to fool everyone into believing that they have provided the students with a "choice". They will never see that by introducing such a witch-hunting practice which will destroy what little trust or respect many students have for school and the entire system, they are driving the students to cast school and the system out of their quality world, to a road of no return.

    In this sense, the Catholic Church is absolutely right in not giving its support for the scheme.


    The Swan Dancing to the Tune of Emerald

    It’s not that these days all I’m interested in talking about is typhoon, but when I get engulfed by the stifling heat the moment I get out of the subway station, when the sky is shrouded by a layer of haze so thick I can almost cut with a knife, just like this afternoon, I can be sure that there is a typhoon hovering somewhere around the South China Sea.

    Only this time there is not one - but three!

    The Swan is back (or may likely be). Typhoon Goni has made an about turn around Hainan Island and can be heading eastward again. Its track in the next couple of days depends on Typhoon Morakot, which is now crossing the Taiwan Strait and heading towards Fujian and Zhejiang. Behind Morakot is another system that is yet to be named. Quite a party this.

    It is a bit premature to be talking about the unnamed system yet. As for Goni and Morakot, when two cyclones are close to each other like this, there are the so-called “Fujiwhara effect”, whereby the stronger cyclone will affect the direction of movement of the weaker one or even absorb it. It seems then that the Swan might have to dance to tune of Emerald (the meaning of “Morakot” in Thai).


    Humility Brings Progress

    When the highflying students who swooped 10As in this year's Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination were mobbed by the media and asked about their secret of success, among heady answers such as "Strive for excellence", "Work hard, play hard" and "The future is what counts" is this refreshing one: "Humility brings improvement". It is hard to keep your feet on the ground at the moment when you are lavished with praise and glory, so for this teenager to be able to make this remark, like Jesus retreating to the mountain when he realised that people were trying to make him king (John 6:14-15), is exceptional.

    Coincidentally, Sir Alex Ferguson, manager of Manchester United Football Club was today quoted by the media as saying: "Adversity is always an important factor in developing and improving".

    The verdict - humility and adversity are both essential ingredients in the recipe for improvement.


    From "Quality" to "Quality Education"

    What caught my attention in one advertisement I saw in the subway station is the use of two logos with the letter ‘Q’, which stands for ‘Quality’. Behind the use of such logos is a kind of accreditation system. Companies which have the right to display the logos have to meet certain quality standards first. The promotional value of these logos therefore lies in the accreditation system giving potential customers the belief or confidence that the quality of the products or services the companies offer is assured. Since customers value quality so much, businesses and service providers always make the point of highlighting or claiming their quality. Another advertisement in the subway station, for example, says ‘Quality Education. Think Australia’. Likewise, there is a section under the Education Bureau called Quality Assurance Division and a logo they use also has a big ‘Q’ in its design.

    But what is quality? And what is quality education? To show how tricky trying to answer this question is, I tried an Internet search and here are some interesting findings:
    1. Searching “what is quality education” from wikianswers.com
    Result: “This question has not been answered yet.”

    2. Searching “quality education” from http://www.edb.gov.hk/ (Hong Kong Education Bureau’s website)
    Result: The first 40 returns (Life's too short for me to go any further!) are all related to “Quality Education Fund” (Says a lot about the typical Hong Kong mentality that money can solve a lot of problems, including the problem about quality education.)

    3. Searching “what is quality education from http://www.edb.gov.hk/ (Hong Kong Education Bureau’s website)
    Result: “We cannot find any results that match your keyword(s).”

    4. Searching “quality education” from http://www.moe.gov.sg/ (Singapore Ministry of Education’s website)
    Result: The first ten returns have a few speeches in which the term “quality education” is mentioned. This is a definition extracted from one of the speeches, given by the Acting Minister for Education, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, in 2004:

    “A quality education is about all the experiences our students go through, not just what they learn for their examinations. It is about how our students work and play with each other, and engage with the community around them. Our schools will help our young make the most of the years they have together, interacting, roughing it out together, and making friendships. The challenges they overcome together, the long hours they spend training together, and the fun times and anxieties they share as they grow up together, will be the experiences that they cherish for life. They are also the experiences of youth that quietly bind us together as Singaporeans. They are the experiences that tie us together as a people, regardless of race, religion and social background.

    “These experiences are not incidental to education. They are at the core of the total education that our schools want to provide. I urge parents to support schools in their efforts to provide this total education, to join in and cheer on these efforts as volunteers or coaches, and to encourage our children to make the most of the opportunities they get in school. We should all accept the knocks and scrapes that our children take as they grow and learn. And we should let our children do what they enjoy, and to savour their adventure together…

    “As educationists and planners in MOE, anything that we do – or don’t do – has tremendous impact on our schools. We must work together as one. A quality education means quality delivered and experienced on the ground - in each classroom and school.

    “We will therefore keep pushing authority to the ground. We will let schools make the decisions that shape quality. We will give teachers more space to innovate, to interact with their students, and to develop themselves. It is the energy and imagination of our teachers, and their ability to touch the hearts of their students, that determines the quality of education. We have to let them take charge of their teaching.

    “And just as we expect our students to be innovative, we have to listen to students themselves and take their ideas seriously. Including their ideas on how to run the school, and what they wish for in education.

    “We have to be constantly open to suggestions, look for new ways of doing things, and be willing to occasionally make a break with the past. That is how we will stay ahead in education.”

    To summarise, while education is all the experiences that children have when they learn and grow together, quality education is about the quality of these experiences children have in the classroom and school. It is notable that the speech urges the Singaporean government official to "let schools make the decisions that shape quality", "let [teachers] take charge of their teaching" and "let our children do what they enjoy". Impressive indeed, this coming from a government which is widely regarded as authoritarian, and also in comparison with what one can find from the Hong Kong Education Bureau website.

    More on the topic later.


    Slow Down

    A friend sent me and a couple of other friends this story in the morning:

    "Washington, DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007. The man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approx. 2 thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

    After 3 minutes: A middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule.

    4 minutes later: The violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.

    6 minutes: A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

    10 minutes: A 3-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.

    45 minutes: The musician played continuously. Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32.

    1 hour: He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

    No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.

    This is a true story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people's priorities . The questions raised: in a common place environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context? One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this: If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made.... How many other things are we missing?"

    The story generated the following interesting exchange:

    Friend 1:

    "Reminds me of Slow Dance.

    Slow Dance by David Weatherford

    Have you ever watched kids on a merry-go-round, or listened to rain slapping the ground?
    Ever followed a butterfly's erratic flight, or gazed at the sun fading into the night?
    You better slow down, don't dance so fast, time is short, the music won't last.
    Do you run through each day on the fly, when you ask "How are you?", do you hear the reply?
    When the day is done, do you lie in your bed, with the next hundred chores running through your head?
    You better slow down, don't dance so fast, time is short, the music won't last.
    Ever told your child, we'll do it tomorrow, and in your haste, not see his sorrow?
    Ever lost touch, let a friendship die, 'cause you never had time to call and say hi?
    You better slow down, don't dance so fast, time is short, the music won't last.
    When you run so fast to get somewhere, you miss half the fun of getting there.
    When you worry and hurry through your day, it's like an unopened gift thrown away.
    Life isn't a race, so take it slower, hear the music before your song is over."


    "This morning, as the swan had left and I was making a rather reluctant commute to work, on my way I saw a sparrow taking off from a puddle, a couple of droplets of rainwater dripping from its tiny feet. I saw a snail inching towards an orange flower on the ground, to take in the freshness after the rain. I was thinking, "Lovely little scenes!", but it never occurred to me to slow down. My heart was already weighted down by the thoughts of the work awaiting in the office."

    Friend 2:

    "As I was about to cross the road outside my home, I noticed one of the man-hole covers. It has four holes in the four corners, where the workers can fit in the handle to haul the cover out. These holes were covered with dirt and small little plants were growing in them and covering the little hole like a green moss carpet. I thought, 'Maybe I could take a series of pictures of these situations with my new camera and call my work Tenacity'. Just a passing thought."


    Summer of the Swan

    A swan is coming to Hong Kong, and it is a temperamental one.

    At the time of writing, Typhoon Goni (a Korean word which means ‘swan’) is situated at about 120 kilometres south-southwest of Hong and is forecast to move northwest or north-northwest at about 10 kilometres per hour. The Hong Kong Observatory has just announced that Typhoon Signal No.8 will be hoisted in two hours’ time. The swan is going to be pretty close. How close? See the weather chart.

    This is the second consecutive typhoon for which Signal No.8 or above has to be raised. The last one was Molave, which stormed past Hong Kong less than three weeks ago. However, like Molave, Goni is unlikely to benefit the employees by giving them some time off. If this petulant bird continues to travel at this speed and direction, Hong Kong workers may wake up tomorrow morning to the realisation that they face a reluctant and wet commute to work.


    Men are from Ma On Shan, Women are from Wanchai

    Here are some interesting observations based in the 2009 figures, from “Women and Men in Hong Kong Key Statistics (2009 Edition)”, the latest publication by the Census and Statistics Department:

    • Out of the 6,977,700 people in Hong Kong 3,680,200 are women and 3,297,500 are men. There are 5.5% more women than men.
    • There are more married men than women (60.7% vs 55.3%), but there are also more men who never married (34.8% vs 30.5%).
    • There are more women than men with no schooling (8% vs 2.6%), but more men than women having attended secondary education or above (80.1% vs 73%) and having received post-secondary education (26.7% vs 22.6%).
    • There are 6.8% more men than women in the labour force (1,949,400 vs 1,699,500). Men earn 20% more money than women ($12,000 vs $10,000 in terms of median monthly earnings). There are nearly four times as many male employers as female ones (105,200 vs 27,000), and more than two times as many male directorate officers in the civil service as female ones (838 vs 368).

    So it appears that men have a slight social privilege, being better educated, better paid and better positioned in the labour force.

    But is it better to be a man than a woman in Hong Kong? The statistics show that men are much more likely to get into trouble – there are nearly three times as many male criminals as female ones (30,508 vs 10,712), and nearly four times as many male drug abusers as female ones (11,275 vs 2,900). And men do not live as long as women – women outlive them by more than 6 years (85.5 vs 79.4 years in terms of average lifespan).


    More about Power and Control

    Power and control are key concepts in William Glasser’s Choice Theory. In his book so named, Glasser suggests that ‘Power’, along with ‘Survival’, ‘Love and Belonging’, ‘Freedom’ and ‘Fun’ represents our genetically driven needs. It is these needs which drive our behaviour. As the degree of these needs vary from people to people, they influence our behaviour in different ways. According to Glasser, behaviour is composed of acting, thinking, feeling and physiology. Central to Glasser’s choice theory is the assertion that all behaviour is ‘chosen’ – we choose how to act and think, which in turn influences our feeling and physiology. Therefore, many of the problems related to our feeling and physiology, in other words, our psychological problems, stem from the way we choose to act and think, which is driven by the five needs mentioned before. Glasser posits that the cause of much unhappiness is that people choose to act and think in a way that damages relationships, namely, to exert external control on others. Glasser believes that if we can understand that the only behaviour we can control is own, make better choice about how to act and think, put our relationships with the people we value above all else, and give up trying to use external control on these people, we have a much better chance for happiness.

    Power and control are coveted by so many people, but according to Glasser, they are also the major causes of our psychological and relationship problems. In the cases of many of the people I know, I have to say that this is quite true.


    "Power, In Control"

    Not until today, following the news of the death of Mrs Corazon Aquino, the former leader of the Philippines, did I realise that she was not only Asia's first female president but also Asia's first democratically elected president. The fact that Mrs Aquino was elected in 1986, barely two decades ago, shows how painfully and incredibly slow Asia's progress in democracy has been. Today, there are still countries like North Korea and Burma which are ruled by dictators or the military. It is also hard to conceive how China, the nation with the biggest population in Asia and the world, will have its leaders chosen by democratic election.

    My tennis racquet boasts that it gives the user power and lets him be in control. Ironically, power and control are not only craved by tennis players but also by authoritarians and tyrants. Asia, unfortunately, happens to have them aplenty.