Logging blog and scooping poop

Committing myself to writing a blog everyday is like tending to my kittens’ basic needs. It is a duty that has to be done everyday, like it or not. While it may not be as repugnant as scooping cat poop, it is much harder, as you need to come up with something to write about on a daily basis.

But just like seeing the growth of and enjoying the relationship with the kittens I nourish and care for grow, I am greatly rewarded in seeing the blog grow, even though I didn’t even intend for it to be read by someone I know (I never told anyone that I have a blog). The satisfaction comes purely from doing it for its own sake.

It wasn’t intended, but there may actually be an unconscious reason why I have named this blog "Faceless Book”. The name could be reflecting my childhood dream of being a book writer. I might be stretching it a bit, but am I not writing a “book” and getting it published?


The worst is over for some but not others

One thing Hong Kong is never short of is irony. One day after Joseph Yam, the world’s highest paid central banker, tried to put some halo on his imminent retirement by announcing with typical complacency and vanity that the taxpayers’ money lost during last year’s economic tsunami has been more than recouped, the newspaper published an article saying that one in six Hongkongers live in poverty.

According to the article, more than 1.23 million people in Hong Kong, representing 17.9 percent of the population, are living on income below the median level. Other troubling figures include 20 percent of youngsters living in poverty and a record number of youths between 15 and 24 unemployed.

Not only is the economic recovery not benefiting the grassroots class, the gap between the rich and the poor is widening.


Fading Love

As the Chinese saying goes, there is a rain that defines autumn.

I wonder if the one today is it?

In Hong Kong, the couple of autumn months are the time of the year with the best weather, but I have always been saddened to see the exit of summer. I know how I grumble about the heavy rain, the typhoon and the sweltering heat in summer, but what I like about summer is that it is the summit. The red hot sun, the long days, the changeable and unpredictable weather – things are so ruthless, so passionate, so unbridled. It’s like life in its prime – one can afford to live it with reckless abandon. Although doing outdoor activities under the blazing summer sun is like a torture (sometimes it’s even a matter of life and death), it is also something that I happily oblige – there is nothing like being in the pool and seeing specks of gold dancing all around you. Maybe it shows that I am a pessimist at heart. I dread experiencing life going downhill and desperately wish to cling on to the zenith.

These days (or should I say these months?), however, the heat has got so unbearable that even this diehard lover of summer has seen his love fading. So today’s rain, which eventually seems to start cooling things off, is almost taken with a welcoming embrace.

Another piece of solid evidence of how bad global warming has become.


Casting out Demons

What caught my attention in today’s Gospel is the way Jesus’ endorsement of someone casting out demons in His name, which was something John reported to Him about. Jesus asked His disciples not to hinder those who would perform a miracle in His name, “for he who is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40).

To me, we humans have many demons inside us that are always haunting and taunting us and need to be cast out – our fears, our greed, our selfishness, our sins… Jesus is encouraging us to perform a miracle of casting them out in His name, and if we do that, we are for Him, not against Him.

The question is: How do we cast out those demons in us? The hint lies in the context in which the conversation between John and Jesus took place. Shortly before this conversation Jesus was taking a child in His arms and He said to His disciples: "Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me does not receive Me, but Him who sent Me." (Mark 9:37) If we receive a child in the name of Jesus, in other words, if we live our life like a child, then we receive Jesus. With Jesus in us, we will be able to cast out the demons which are crippling our life.


The Moon

Spent the morning preparing for an English class I taught as a volunteer teacher. The Mid-Autumn Festival next week was a handy topic, so I put together some activities that got the children to talk about the moon, tell traditional stories about the festival, listen to a song and write some song lyrics, and read and write poems.

The activities worked well. They enabled the students to use a lot of English and they enjoyed them.

One poem I used was found on the Internet. It is called “The Sun and the Moon” and here it goes:

"The sun is shining in the sky
But the moon gives a sigh

He can’t light up the day
For the sun is in the way

But at night the moon shines bright
And the sun is out of sight

He was sleeping in his bed
And wasn’t angry to be said

That the moon is shining bright
In the black and gloomy night”

A simple but lovely poem that gave the students enough to talk about.

There’s actually another one about the moon that I liked even better, but I couldn’t use it as it would be too difficult for the students:

"A blackened moon once was a relic
shone down a gleaming charm on silver lined sky
her years of glory, eclipsing, rotating, waiting
though shortening, shattering, soon to die”


The Meaning of Humility

One of Hong Kong’s most unpopular politician, Leung Chun-ying, widely tipped to run for chief executive in 2012, has been making high profile public appearances recently to campaign for public support. Yesterday’s luncheon speech to the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation was one such example.

This time he tried to curry public favour by admitting that the election of some members of the League of Social Democrats (the most vocal opposition party in Hong Kong) to the Legislative Council was a clear message that some sectors of the electorate were unhappy with the social situation in Hong Kong, and the message had to be accepted by the authorities "in all humility". Such “admission”, however, should not be taken as the ambitious Executive Council convenor’s appreciation of the virtue of humility. It was rather Leung’s attempt at drawing a line between himself and the under-performing government. In any case, it defies understanding how an Exco member can distance himself from or be openly critical of the government which he is very much part and parcel of.

One appeal to “humility” that I whole-heartedly support comes from a study by Louis Lefebvre, professor of McGill University in Montreal. His findings, which are based on a study of reports in ornithological journals over the past 70 years, show that birds are highly intelligent and innovative. Some clever behaviours observed by birdwatchers include:

  • Vultures in Zimbabwe using a minefield as a frying ground, perching on the barbed wire to wait for the minefields to give them chopped antelope
  • Crows in Japan placing walnuts in the path of cars to have the shells cracked (they even learned to wait for the light to turn red so they could cross the road)
  • Herons dropping an insect on the surface of the water to attract fish
  • Tits, woodpeckers and magpies in England pecking open the caps on milk bottles

What can humans learn from Professor Lefebvre’s study? "Humility," he says. "Not necessarily seeing ourselves as at the very peak of the mountain. To understand how intelligence evolves, you've got to look at the differences within each group. You can't compare humans to monkeys, monkeys to birds, birds to octopus." To me, Professor Lefebvre’s reflection on humility much more convincing. I have always seen intelligence in animals, knowing that there’s so much we can learn from them.

What right do we stupid humans have to lord over them?


Are We a Great Generation -- or the Worst of All?

The following concluding paragraphs in Johann Hari’s article called “We must make difficult choices – It will soon be too late to stop global warming” published by Independent News Services yesterday echoes with the message given in “The Age of Stupid”:

"So are we, as a species, condemned to fall into the historical crack between a world powered by fossil fuels, and one powered by the sun? Will the fossil record discovered millions of years from now show we were just too irrational and too primitive to make that leap?

If we despair and wait glumly for the meltdown, we will make it so. Then we will have little choice but to try to survive as best we can in a radically altered landscape. But there is still a slim window in which sanity can prevail -- and I believe, perhaps madly, that it can.

It can be done. It must be done. Copenhagen is in three months.

There, and in the years after when the deal must be implemented, we will learn something profound about ourselves. Are we a great generation -- or the worst of all?"


Truer than Fiction

These pictures of the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge bear some eerie resemblance to a scene in the film “The Age of Stupid” where the Australian landmarks were engulfed in flame due to extreme weather.

The pictures actually show scenes of the dust storm which wreaked havoc in Sydney, crippling the transportation system and causing the worst air pollution since records began in the 1970s.

Here are some of the things the residents said:

"The sky was bathed in a red hue, and I must say that the thought did cross my mind that either my eyes were playing up on me, that something catastrophic had occurred...”

"It was like being on Mars... I haven't been there, obviously, but I imagine that's what the sky would look like."

"It did feel like Armageddon because when I was in the kitchen looking out the skylight, there was this red glow coming through."

According to ABC News, such dust storms are rare over Sydney, and came along with other uncommon weather conditions across the country in recent days, such as hailstorms, an early spring mini-heatwave, wildfires, etc.

Another five-minutes-to-environmental-midnight situation. Maybe the futuristic Armageddon scenes in “The Age of Stupid” should not be dismissed as being merely fictional.


The Age of Stupid

It was the global premiere of the film "The Age of Stupid" yesterday. There was one show in Hong Kong and I'm glad I went to it, not only because it turned out that my favourite newspaper columnist Nury Vittachi was there to give an introduction but also because it was such a sincerely produced film.

The timing of the premiere was perfect too. Among the many things discussed in the UN General Assembly this week is Climate change. The negotiations are likely to lead to a new post-Kyoto agreement in Copenhagen in December. This hugely popular film should play a part in raising awareness.

"The Age of Stupid", an ambitious blend of drama, animation and documentary, is making a similar environmental message as former US vice-president Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth": It is a five-minutes-to-midnight scenario: there is still time to reverse the situation but we need to act quickly. Specifically, if we do not keep the global temperature rise within 2 degrees Celsius by 2015, the tipping point will be triggered and there will be no more Stop button to press. The setting of the film is the post-midnight apocalyptic Earth in the year 2055. In a tower where the world's relics are stored, an old man reminisces about how humans could have been able to save themselves but failed to do so. He takes the audience back to those critical times through some documentaries. We are introduced to an old French mountain guide, a young India entrepreneur who started a low-cost airline, an American who rescued 100 people after Hurricane Katrina, a Nigerian young woman living in Shell’s most profitable oil region in Nigeria, two Iraqi siblings whose parents were killed in the war between Iraq and the US, and an English activist battling against some anti-turbine locals. These stories are full of horrors and ironies - the helpless minnows not having a chance in their battle against those who are rich, powerful, greedy and ignorant, and whose senseless exploitation of the Earth's resources eventually condemns the humans to the doom of self-destruction.

The message is loud and clear: Act now with what little time we have. It is quite reassuring that Obama, President of the country which, along with China, is the world's largest polluter, seems to be well aware of the situation, saying that "the time we have to reverse this tide is running out". But whether his words will be turned into action for a country which refused to sign the Kyoto treaty remains to be seen.


Pop Goes the String - Again

Like it or not, playing tennis has become more expensive.

This set of racquet string which I swear I have used for less than twenty hours was broken while I played tennis this evening. That is going to set me off HKD170 in about a month’s time. I have to add that I am by no means a big-hitter and the short lifespan of the string has nothing to do with my power.

Then there are the balls. I have long discovered that these days the balls wear very quickly. My estimate is that the balls these days are about 40-50% less durable than those of the old days. “It is try that the balls are less long lasting,” a tennis coach friend said. “But what can you do? You have to buy them if you want to play.”

Two other strategies commonly used by businessmen to boost sales are:

  • releasing models with the latest styles frequently so that after a few generations users will be so fed up with or ashamed of their old products even though they are in perfect conditions
  • releasing upgrades regularly so that after some time the technologies or features of the existing products will become obsolete or even incompatible with the latest products

To maximise profit, businessmen have to create “needs” in all sorts of manners.


Better than Viagra

No kidding.

According to a recent research study conducted by the US' Texas Fruit and Vegetable Improvement Centre, eating watermelon has a similar effect on the body to Viagra, because watermelon has a chemical called citrulline which affects human blood vessles in the same way as the sex enhancement drug.

"Watermelon may not be as organ specific as Viagra," said Dr Bhimu Patil, leader of the research. "But it's a great way to relax blood vessels without any drug side-effects."

That should certainly spare men's blushes. They would much rather buy a watermelon from the supermarket than whisper to the man at the counter of the drugstore that he'd like to have some sex enhancement pills.


A Thief Crying "Thief!"

This week, the Sunday Examiner of Hong Kong published an editorial criticising the so-called investigation report presented by the Urumqi Information Office of Xinjiang after three Hong Kong journalists were beaten up by Public Security Bureau officers in Urumqi on 4 September while reporting on renewed unrest there. The editorial accused the report as containing factually incorrect allegations and "laying charges against the three victims without any supporting evidence". It said:

"The lies propagated by the Urumqi Information Office not only harmed the local journalism sector, but have also had a negative impact on the whole city of Urumqi because lying contains the seed of discord and all consequent evils. Lying is destructive of society; it undermines trust among men and tears apart the fabric of social relationships.”

A couple of days ago, China blasted the US for listing, in its National Intelligence Strategy (NIS) report, China as one of the US's main challengers. Here is what the Defense Ministry said in a press release:

"The views and words of the US has not a scrap of truth in them and is extremely irresponsible... We urge the United States to ... correct the mistakes in the NIS report and stop publishing wrong opinions about China which may mislead the American people and undermine the mutual trust between China and the United States."

Compare the statement of the Hong Kong Sunday Examiner and the Chinese Defense Ministry and see the irony of how similar the language is.

A classic case of a thief crying thief. But then, knowing China, this shouldn't come as much of a surprise.


adidas vs Puma

adidas vs Puma.

I’m not talking about a business war.

Nor a match between two teams, each wearing the outfit of one brand.

It’s a football match between the employees of the two sportswear giants, marking the end of the feud which was started by their founding brothers, Adolf (or Adi) and Rudolf Dassler.

The brothers started making sports shoes in the 1920s in their mother’s washing room, in the German town of Herzogenaurach, but they fell out during World War II and started their own companies. The result was that the town was split in half, with one company on each side of the little river that runs throught the town.

The football match, which is a move by the companies to support the Peace One Day organisation, which has its annual non-violence day on Monday.

Unlike any other football matches, this one may end with both teams being winners.


The Power of Simplicity and The Power of Now

The Power of Simplicity
-Slogan in the advertisement of the new Rolls Royce Ghost limosine

The Power of Now
-Eckhart Tolle's best-selling book

Alas, how difficult it is to understand, not to say harness such powers.


When the Love is Gone

How would men answer this one?

You wouldn’t be interested in having sex with your wife if ____.
a. she is fat
b. she is ugly
c. she nags

For Hong Kong men, according to a recent research study by the Centre for Health Behaviours, the answer is C.

How about women? How woud they answer this one:

Which of the following factors plays a significant role in women not having sex with their husbands:
a. long working hours
b. poor marital relationship
c. unemployment

For Hong Kong woman, the answer is B.

The study lends support to one of the axioms of William Glasser’s Choice Theory - that the source of much unhappiness are the failing or failed relationships with those who are important to us.
Interestingly though, another study, conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, suggests that couples tend to avoid getting a divorce even after their lust for each other has gone.


Tennis Gear

What is the use of a tennis racquet?

How about a tennis ball?

Serena Williams’s outburst was targeted at the line judge who foot-faulted her when she was serving at a set down and 5-6 and 15-30 in the second, giving her opponent Kim Clijsters two match points.

To be fair, that foot-fault call was an extremely rare and controversial one to make at this stage of the match. As it turned out, it effectively cost her the match.


Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The Bible readings are excellent materials for reflecting on the mystery of the Holy Cross, the most potent and universal symbol of the Christian faith.

In the Gospel, preceding what is perhaps the most famous verse from the Bible, John 3:16, is the reference to Jesus having to be lifted up to the cross so that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life. While a price has to be paid for us to be redeemed from our sins, God so loved the world that He paid on our behalf the price of the life of His only son.

In Philippians 2:6-11, St Paul contemplated the mystery of the Holy Cross from the perspective of Jesus, and how beautifully he expressed it too:

"Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself,taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death,even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted himand bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess thatJesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

Apart from the readings today, there is a hymn about the Holy Cross I particularly like – Vexilla Regis written by Venantius Fortunatus (530-609):

Abroad the Regal Banners fly,
Now shines the Cross's mystery;
Upon it Life did death endure,
And yet by death did life procure.

Who, wounded with a direful spear,
Did, purposely to wash us clear
From stain of sin, pour out a flood
Of precious Water mixed with Blood.

That which the Prophet-King of old
Hath in mysterious verse foretold,
Is now accomplished, whilst we see
God ruling nations from a Tree.

O lovely and reflugent Tree,
Adorned with purpled majesty;
Culled from a worthy stock, to bear
Those Limbs which sanctified were.

Blest Tree, whose happy branches bore
The wealth that did the world restore;
The beam that did that Body weigh
Which raised up hell's expected prey.

Hail, Cross, of hopes the most sublime!
Now in this mournful Passion time,
Improve religious souls in grace,
The sins of criminals efface.

Blest Trinity, salvation's spring,
May every soul Thy praises sing;
To those Thou grantest conquest by
The holy Cross, rewards apply. Amen.

The old hymn, beautifully translated from Latin, is so moving and inspiring. Here is a link to a YouTube video of the song sung in Latin:


China - Where is Your Pride?

These two pictures are from Joe Chung’s new book “China – Where is your pride?”.

The pictures have a couple of things in common which are quite revealing about China and its culture:
  1. They depict absurd and hideous phenomena in China that are absolutely shocking to the civilized world. The one at the top shows a helpless citizen being brutally handled by two men who looked to be law enforcers. The bottom one shows Huang Chuancai, a man known as China’s "Elephant Man” because of the massive tumour on his face. The absurdity of the former phenomenon lies in how violence is so freely and starkly used when the police or security people carry out their duties, the most recent and controversial case being policemen in Xinjiang beating up Hong Kong reporters when they were reporting on the story of the mass demonstration there. As for the latter phenomenon, Joe Chung referred to James L. Maxwell’s book “The Chinese Medical Journal” in talking about how Chinese people usually tolerate hideous growths and wait until very late before seeking treatment. He quoted Maxwell’s interpretation of the phenomenon: “But special interest is added from the fact that combined with a lack of ability to remove even the simplest growth, the Chinese are as a race particularly unembarrassed by the mere presence of morbid growths which a more sensitive race would find repellant indeed. To the Chinese a growth is painful or inconvenient, but seldom disfiguring.”
  2. They show how common it is that crowds gather around what they consider to be scenes of interest. Most of the time they do nothing, just standing there and staring blankly at the scene or the victim like vultures or coyotes. Look at the onlookers in the pictures. On most faces one cannot see any emotion, or anger, or sympathy. I said ‘most’ because there are exceptions. Look at the couple of faces below that I have enlarged:
Amazingly, these people, witnessing the misery of the victims, are even grinning like… no, no, not a Cheshire cat. They are grinning like a hyena. What is even more chilling is that one of them is a young girl. What sort of a culture is it where you can find such callousness in a child?

In case there is any doubt about how typical this onlooker phenomenon is, here is a photo of China’s “Elephant Man” I found from the Internet. You can see exactly what you saw in the other pictures: Same crowd. Same grin.


Lost for 130 Years

Shown in the pictures are not just any ordinary birds. They are Fiji petrels, said to be "one of the rarest of all bird species".

Sightings of Fiji petrels are extremely limited. The seabird, one of 192 bird species listed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, once "went missing" for 130 years. After a specimen of the species was collected in 1855 in Fiji, there was no further confirmed sightings until 1984, when an adult was caught, photographed and then released.Since then, there has been unconfirmed reports of the bird at sea but no confirmed sightings.

In May this year, some scientists and volunteers set out in search of this elusive bird. Over 11 days, up to eight individuals were seen and photographs.

"To see such a little-known bird at such close range was magical," said one of the expedition members.

The remark and the pictures remind me of a dream I recently had. In the dream, I saw at a magnificent eagle gliding across the sky. I was fully of admiration, thinking that I had never seen such a giant eagle, when it swooped to a most graceful landing for me to admire it at a very close distance. My feeling was the same as that of the expedition member. It was magical!I believe that dreams carry special meanings.

A book I read sometime ago says that dreams represent our collective subconsciousness and in them there are symbols that have been passed down from countless generations that are very rich in meaning. I have been thinking what symbolic meaning that dream of mine carried and what revelation it was trying to make.


Children of Cambodia (3)

Like so many children in Phnom Penh
You were playing on the street
Dirt on your body
No shoes on your feet
But unlike those children
You had an unmistakably western face
Maybe the man who fathered you
Had gone back to his country
Not even knowing or caring that you existed
And your mother was left to bring you up by herself
Maybe that was why you were playing on the street
Like so many children in Phnom Penh


Sand is Sand, Water is Water

As I grew up, I had a different interpretation to an analogy that I once had much faith in. The analogy was that education is like an attempt to shake a bottle half filled with sand and half with water so that the state of the water being on top and the sand being at the bottom is completely changed. As I matured, I began to see that it is just an illusion. As certain as the blended contents of the bottle will return to the pre-shaken state after some time, the social equality that education is supposed to bring about through giving people an equal chance to develop their knowledge and skills does not really materialise. The fact that success is much more assured for some people with advantages beyond their own merits suggests to me that education is not a level playing field I used to take it to be.

Malcolm Gladwell’s new book “Outliers” challenges the commonly held belief that success is a matter of meritocracy. His central argument is this: “We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invarably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.”

“Outliers” gives a dazzling description of these advantages, opportunities and legacies. One of the most distressing revelations is that the only factor that accounts for the difference between how successful children of the same mental ability are in their adulthood is their family background. And what is it about family background that gives children from the middle or upper class such an edge? It is the parenting style that the sociologist Annette Lareau called “concerted cultivation”, which is an attempt to actively “foster and assess a child’s talents, opinions and skills”. Gladwell says that this parenting style has the following enormous advantages:

“The heavily scheduled middle-class child is exposed to a constantly shifting set of experiences. She learns teamwork and how to cope in highly structured settings. She is taught how to interact comfortably with adults, and to speak up when she needs to.”

Under this family environment, middle or upper class children learn what Lareau called a sense of “entitlement”. They learn to “customise” whatever environment they are in for their best purposes.

By contrast, poor parents tend to adopt a strategy of “accomplishment of natural growth”, letting their children grow and develop on their own. The outcome is that the children do not know how to get their way, and develop “an emerging sense of distance, distrust and constraint”. Such limitations are crippling as these poor children navigate their way into adulthood and result in their lack of success.

What do they lack? According to Gladwell, it is a community around them that prepare them properly for the world. Their talent is squandered, but that doesn’t need to be the case.

These days, on my way to work early in the morning, I can see some middle aged men crouching on the pavement near my office building. It is easy to tell from their style and gait that they are construction workers waiting for some odd jobs to earn them a bit of income for the day. Hearing their conversation that is often coloured by rude words, seeing some of them give the well-groomed passers-by a blank stare, I can’t help wondering how much the difference between the conditions of these low income earners and the more glamorous office workers can be attributed to the differences in family background that “Outliers” talks about.


"Hot-key stick"-like Rise in Temperature

It is probably a record nobody wants to break, but break it we did. Following an August with a record-breaking 307 hours 50 minutes under “Very Hot Weather” warnings (see blog on 1 September), we now have the longest “Very Hot Weather” warning in September on record. This spell lasted a whopping 156 hours. It took an early morning drizzle today to finally cool things off.

Of course, the rise of temperatures is not a phenomenon confined to Hong Kong. Research reveals, for example, that the temperature in the Arctic now is the highest in 2,000 years. While the Arctic is very sensitive both to solar heating and greenhouse warming, the latter has now overtaken the former as the most important factor governing the temperature of the region.

“The last half-century was the warmest of the 2,000-year temperature record, and the last 10 years have been especially dramatic,” said study leader Darrell Kaufman from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

Another research, Nicholas McKay of Arizona University put it very graphically: “The result is a 'hockey stick’-like curve in which the last decade - 1998-2008 - stands out as the warmest in the entire series.”
For Hong Kong, with its tall buildings, urban heat island effect and all that, the “hockey stick”-like curve must have been rising much more sharply.


Health and Happiness through Yoga

Among all these years when I have to fight a daily morning battle to get out of bed for work, there were five days in a row when I most willingly got up before daybreak. That was the time when I took part in the World Vegetarian Congress in Goa three years ago. Every morning there was a yoga session from 6:30 to 8:00. To take part, which was entirely voluntary, you had to be up before 6:00. But there was absolutely no struggle, no grumble. We all looked forward to it. There is probably no better way to begin a day than do yoga.

I have to say that my body was not very well conditioned for yoga. My bones and joints were so stiff that I couldn’t even sit cross-legged. I looked on with envy as some of my classmates did the various postures with ease and grace. But all credit to the teacher, an Indian man with a doctorate in philosophy, he introduced me to the joy and magic of yoga, not only through practice but also through theory. In his article published in the congress programme, the teacher posits that while the holistic connotation or meaning of “health” can be understood as “happiness”, yoga is the appropriate instrument for bringing about both. He asserts that there is an element common to all yogic practices “which can be said to be the cornerstone as regards bestowing health and happiness”. The element is “awareness”. He defines awareness as “the ability to 'stand back’ and observe one’s own physical and mental activities”, allowing one to abide in his transcendental Self. The path to happiness is on the upward path of awareness, from scattered, distracted awareness to pure, objectless awareness. This sort of awareness, according to the teacher, is precisely what yogic practices aim at. Of course I was nowhere near reaching that state of awareness, but I totally agree with the idea, which reminds me so much of this verse from Psalms:

"Be still and know that I am God.”

After those few excellent morning sessions, the only other time I ever did yoga was when the teacher and his family came to Hong Kong for a visit and kindly conducted two sessions for me and my friends. Not having the time is always a handy excuse, but I guess it’s more the conviction that I won’t find a better teacher here than the remarkable man I met in Goa, who still remains a good friend to this day.

When we embraced each other before he left Hong Kong, his final words were: “Practise yoga.” I’m afraid I have let him down.


"Be Opened!"

It is not difficult to see what is in common about the following kinds of people mentioned in the readings in yesterday’s Mass:

the blind, the deaf, the lame, the mute (Isaiah 35:4-7)
the oppressed, the hungry, the prisoners, those who are bowed down, the strangers, the fatherless, the widow (Psalms 146:7-10)
the poor man in dirty clothes (James 2:1-5)
the one who was deaf and spoke with difficulty (Mark 7:31-37)

Clearly, these are the people who are disadvantaged, the people who are less fortunate than us. There are different angles from which to reflect on these Bible passages.

Firstly, we should avoid having an “attitude of favouritism” (James 2:1) where we pay special attention to those in fine clothes and look down upon the poor. We should perform acts of kindness to them and pray for them, as when the people brought the one who was deaf and spoke with difficulty to Jesus and “implored Him to lay His hand on him” (Mark 7:32).

Secondly, if we are facing difficulties in life, like the people mentioned, we should have faith in God, “take courage, fear not” (Isaiah 35:4), for “did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?” (James 2:5)

Thirdly, it is likely that we ourselves are the ones who are blind, deaf, lame and mute – blind and deaf to God’s words and other people’s needs, and unable to speak about and act on them. For example, Jeffrey Sachs, in his book “The End of Poverty”, talks about how the plight of the poor people lies in their inability to get out of the “poverty trap”. The circumstances under which they live is such that however hard they work, there is no chance for them to improve their living condition. What is shameful about Hong Kong is that, while the poverty trap typically exists in regions which are geographically disadvantaged, such as countries which are landlocked or remote, in Hong Kong that is not the case at all. The cause of the poverty trap in this self-professed “Asia’s World City” is exploitation. The political system of oligarchy here enables the rich to take as much advantage of the poor as they like, to the extent that the unskilled workers are left with no chance because of the meagre income and high cost of living. Many of them, while not entitled to public housing, can only afford to rent a 4x6 square feet bed space – very often not for just one person but for a small family. And if you think such a small cubicle is cheap, think again. The rent is HKD1,000 (about USD125), easily 20-25% of the resident’s monthly income.

That was exactly the situation of the family depicted in Episode 3 of the reality show I mentioned on 22 August. In this episode, shown on TV last Saturday, a rich and glamorous young woman was arranged to live with an immigrant mother and her child in such a bed space for five days. What a sick society this is, which has a GDP of over USD30,000 but which also has families whose entire world is the lower bunk of a bunk bed where they eat, sleep, watch TV and study. We should not be blind, deaf, lame and mute to social injustice like this. What Jesus told the one who was deaf and spoke with difficulty in Mark 7 also applies to us. Jesus looked up to heaven and had a deep sigh, then said: “Be opened!”

May we also open not only our eyes and ears but also our heart to the plight of our brothers and sisters who are trapped by poverty.


Taylor Made

Taylor Dent is as good as his words. So far at least.

“I don’t want to just win one round here. I’d like to win a few.” Dent said after coming back from a career-threatening back injury to win his first US Open match in four years. Now, two days later, he followed it up by winning an epic five-set second round match against Ivan Navarro of Spain, serving 20 aces (including one clocked at 147 mph), making 121 winners and winning 190 points.

His next big hurdle will be the third round match against world number two Andy Murray.

"I honestly don't know how I'll fare against Murray," Dent said. "But I will guarantee everybody this: If I lose, 6-love, 6-love, 6-love, I am going to die fighting for every point."

It proves what the news headline said the other day, that he is a “resolute” player. Best of luck, Taylor!


Children of Cambodia (2)

A picture of another child I met in Cambodia and something I wrote about him:

You must have been posted here by your parents
To make a living
By saying ‘hello’ to those strangers
And offering joss sticks to them
In exchange of some donations
Your blank stare
Your feeble voice
And the way you shrank in the corner
All showed that maybe you would much rather be somewhere else
Doing something normal children would do

(To be continued)


Lost Tibet

On 16 August I wrote about Chinese photographer Lu Nan and his series of work on Tibetan livelihood called “The Four Seasons: The Everyday Life of Tibetan Peasants”.

An equally priceless collection of black and white photos about Tibet is Heinrich Harrer’s work during his seven-year stay in the then free Tibet. Harrer’s Tibetan adventure, which was recounted in his book “Seven Years in Tibet”, began in 1944 when he escaped with Peter Aufschnaiter and two Germans from a British prison camp in India. They entered Tibet in May that year. After two incredibly tough years in southwestern Tibet, Harrer and Aufschnaiter reached Lhasa in 1946. Harrer later met the then eleven-year-old 14th Dalai Lama, befriended him and taught him much about western culture and knowledge. In 1951, when the Communist Chinese took over Tibet, Harrer, like the Dalai Lama, was forced to leave the country.

Some of Harrer’s 3,000 photos about the Tibet which was lost forever, taken between 1948 and 1951, were published in his aptly named book “Lost Lhasa”. A few are also available from the website http://www.harrerportfolio.com.

The following quotation from Harrer’s “Seven Years in Tibet”, shows his deep love for the country and his sadness for its present state:

"Wherever I live, I shall feel homesick for Tibet. I often think I can still hear the cries of wild geese and cranes and the beating of their wings as they fly over Lhasa in the clear cold moonlight. My heartfelt wish is that my story may create some understanding for a people whose will to live in peace and freedom has won so little sympathy from an indifferent world."

That love was well reflected in those pictures.


Mind over Matter

Two sports headlines in the newspaper today caught my attention as they showed a very interesting contrast:

"Resolute Dent glad to be back in swing”
"It’s all mental as Serb suffers Major letdown”

The headlines are about two tennis matches at the US Open. The news story under the first headline describes how unseeded Taylor Dent, after “enduring three back surgeries, spending substantial time in a body cast, being bedridden up to 23 hours a day for weeks at a time and hearing doctors say he’d likely never play tennis again and maybe not even walk again”, came back to beat a player ranked 158 spots above him.

The second is about how former world number one Serbian pin-up tennis player Ana Ivanovic slumped to a shock first round defeat.

Both headlines, especially the second, suggest that the mind had a lot to do with the results. Dent was “resolute” and “glad to be back”. Ivanovic’s loss was “all mental”.

What the players said after the matches lent support to the observations.

"The only word to describe it is ‘elation,’” said Dent. “But I can’t get wrapped up in it too much,” Dent said. “I have a second-round match coming up. I don’t want to just win one round here. I’d like to win a few.”

Contrast that with Ivanovic’s post-match reflection. “When I follow my instincts, I play great,” Ivanovic said. “Then I think I can make other shots and I feel maybe I should go a different direction: That’s when bad shot selection comes… My mind and my body, it’s not on the same level.”

Ivanovic’s words are worth further analysis. In his book “Smart Tennis”, John F. Murray wrote about how tennis players sometimes find themselves being “in the zone”. According to Murray, when players are in the zone, the feeling is “one of pure enjoyment and effectiveness”. Here is how he describes it:

"It is a sense of complete satisfaction and absorption in the present moment and a feeling of natural power. In the zone, attention is so efficient that the mind and body act together like one integrated unit on automatic pilot. This is actually the unifying theme of the smart tennis approach. Mind and body are really one and should act as such!”

Murray goes on to talk about how to achieve that state: “Begin by allowing your instincts to rule. Spend time on the court and off the court just experiencing tennis, withholding all judgment…”

It is funny how the poor Serb’s description of her state on the court was a complete antithesis of what Murray said about being in the zone. No doubt she was completely out of it.

Elsewhere in the post-match interview Ivanovic said: “I think it has also to do with the confidence… I just don’t trust myself like I did before.”

She was quite right. Murray has this to say about confidence, and a lack of it:

"Confident athletes entertain a rich variety of successful thoughts. The thought of failure rarely occurs. Confident athletes believe deeply in their abilities, love challenges, and feel strongly that they will prevail. Finally, confident athletes expect success and display it in their body language… Success is never certain, but self-doubt, negativity, and low expectations guarantee failure. Belief in oneself prevents harmful distractions such as anxiety, allowing for a more efficient performance focus. Confidence also adds security during slumps and helps the athlete sustain effort.”

Unfortunately, Ivanovic had two enemies in that match – her opponent and herself. She was her own worst enemy. Or should I say her mind?


I'm a Ghost Writer Today

Today, the 14th day of the seventh month in the Chinese calendar, is Hungry Ghost Festival and I am writing about ghosts.

According to the Chinese belief, today marks the closing of the Gate of Hell, the last day of the two weeks during which the hungry ghosts that have been allowed to roam freely in the human world. These two weeks may be a period of reprieve for the deceased, but for many of the living, they are more than a little jittery. Ghosts are considered scary in most cultures, and in the Chinese culture it is no exception. I was brought up under much fear of ghosts. In all my childhood, I was scared stiff by ghosts, totally convinced that ghosts are everywhere; ghosts rule the night and the dark; if we are in bad luck, we may easily run into ghosts; if we do or say things which anger ghosts, they come to haunt us; ghosts have to take lives so that they can be reincarnated. While I believe I know better now, there are many people I know for whom the mere mention of ghosts or expressions with such associations are regarded as taboo.

In the two weeks when ghosts are freed from the underworld, people have to pacify them with incense and food offerings. They have to be careful not to stay out too late at night – especially tonight – in order not fall prey to ghosts looking for victims. Any bad accidents involving loss of lives during these two weeks, like the one in which a coach overturned and three airport workers were killed, are likely to be interpreted as the work of re-incarnation-seeking ghosts.

Today’s newspaper reported that due to the heated property market sentiments, there is recently some movement even for the usually stagnant market of ominous flats (flats in which suicide or murder cases happened). But the selling prices can be more than 40% lower than the market prices. Such is people’s fear or aversion to anything to do with ghosts.

It's a costly superstition.


A Burning Issue

Picking up on yesterday’s "hot" topic, my doubt about the accuracy of my memory that the summer days now are hotter than those in my childhood is quickly cleared by the news report today that we have just had an August with a record-breaking 307 hours 50 minutes under “Very Hot Weather” warnings*. This means close to 13 full days of very hot weather!

Here are more details:

  • Six “Very Hot Weather” warnings were issued in August.
  • There were "Very Hot Weather" warnings in 18 days of the month.
  • The longest warning, lasting 97 hours 55 minutes (over 4 days!), was issued from 25 to 29 August.
  • The mean temperature was 29.4°C - 1 degree above the normal temperature in August.
  • The urban temperature has never dropped below 33°C from 20 August onwards.

What is so deeply worrying is that while Mr C.Y. Lam’s forecast of the rise of temperature in Hong Kong I referred to yesterday was meant for the end of this century, there are now clear signs that such days will approach sooner than we expect. Just to quote one example, Mr Lam predicted that the lower bound of the number of very hot days by the end of this century is 12. We already have more in August!

Just now, as I was writing this, the TV sports news showed a local football team training for the new season. A foreign player, probably a new recruit, was resting beside the pitch. When asked how he felt, he said: “Very hot!”


(*Amazingly, the "Very Hot Weather" warning has been introduced since 2000, but the Royal Observatory never gave a definition of it. Based on experience, people just take it to mean a temperature of over 33°C, but there were cases when no warning was issued even when that temperature was reach.)