Monday, 29 April 2013

Differences Between Hong Kong and Taipei

I have already spent almost two months in Hong Kong, and the day of my departure draws nearer and nearer. I had already come to Hong Kong twice before, once in April and once in October last year. I had really had a great time back then, meeting nice people and having a lot of things to do every day. 

After spending more than a year in Taiwan, I made up my mind to explore the life in another place, and I chose Hong Kong, which is both a wonderful world city and a gateway to mainland China. I will write a post about my experience in Hong Kong some day; now I would like to make a comparison between Hong Kong and Taipei and list off some differences between them.

1) Thousands of Skyscrapers vs Two Skyscrapers

Hong Kong is a skyscraper city. Not only does it have one of the most stunning, beautiful and distinctive skylines in the world; but the majority of the population actually live in the thousands of skyscrapers that can be found on every corner of Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories. For example, the residential area in Kowloon where I live is full of buildings that are 30-40 floors high. 

Hong Kong's skyline

The "hugeness" of Hong Kong's streets 

View from the window of my room in Hong Kong

Taipei does not have an impressive skyline. Most buildings are small, I would say European-sized, and its most famous skyscraper, Taipei 101, stands like a lonely giant in the midst of average buildings, like a tree in a meadow. There are basically only two high-profile skyscrapers in Taipei: Taipei 101 and the Mitsukoshi Department store in front of Taipei Main Station. Of course, there are also other tall buildings, and some of them could even be described as skyscrapers, but they're scattered in different places, far away from each other, almost hidden, as if the city planners had been ashamed of grouping them together.

A street in Taipei - wow, houses with only three storeys!

A solitary skyscraper - Taipei 101

2) Huge but Small

As huge as Hong Kong's skyscrapers and residential complexes might be, the flats that these architectural giants were built to contain are surprisingly small. The contrast between the colossal looks of the buildings and the tiny flats inside is almost a joke. Entire families have to live in flats with only two rooms, and some flats are so tiny that Hong Kongers call them "cage homes". 

Taipei is the opposite. The buildings are not huge, but the flats have an acceptable size. To be fair, there are also many tiny flats, called 套房 (tào fáng), usually consisting of a single room and a bathroom. However, the problem of small flats cannot be compared with the situation in Hong Kong, where flat "subdivision" and cage homes are a widespread phenomenon.

3) An International City vs A Wannabe International City

As an ex British colony and a major global financial centre, Hong Kong has developed into one of the most international and cosmopolitan cities in Asia. Walking on the streets of Central or Tsim Sha Tsui, one feels the flair, charm and energy of a metropolis. In some areas like the Mid-Levels or Lan Kwai Fong there are so many foreigners (mostly Westerners) that if one could get there directly from the airport one would wonder if the plane was not diverted back to Europe.

Taipei, though economically globalized, is both geographically and psychologically insular. If you happen to be walking near a university campus and you are a foreigner, school kids - who know the best place where to find you - might come to you and ask you questions: "Where are you from?" "Do you love Taiwan?" This is their school assignment, and you have become part of it. I don't know how many times this happened to me. One day I was in a bad mood and I even told them I didn't love Taiwan, so I brutally screwed up their homework. 

Everyone wants to learn and practice his or her English. As a foreigner you are 'exotic' and 'cool', but if you fall in love with someone's daughter you may find out her parents are afraid you might be evil and unreliable and possibly a drunkard. There is a love-hate relationship between Taiwanese and foreigners, a mutual attraction that is often not coupled with an equal portion of mutual understanding - perhaps because there are not so many of us.     

4) Cantonese vs Mandarin

The official languages in Hong Kong are English and Cantonese, while the official language in Taiwan is Mandarin Chinese, the same as in mainland China. For a foreigner who cannot speak Mandarin, surviving in Hong Kong is easier than in Taipei. But if you speak Mandarin, it might be the opposite. In fact, it is true that many Hong Kongers can speak English (the level depending on their education), but there are also many people that cannot speak either English or Mandarin, but only Cantonese. So, if you speak Mandarin you can communicate with everyone in Taipei (maybe excluding some very old people who speak a dialect), but you might not be able to talk with a certain part of the Hong Kong population. On the other hand, if you're in Taipei and you can only speak English, you'd better learn how to use your hands to communicate effectively.  

5) PRC vs ROC

On July 1 1997, the flag of the People's Republic of China (PRC) was hissed for the first time in Hong Kong, and ever since then the former British colony has been a special administrative region (SAR) of the PRC. 

The flag of the PRC was never hissed in Taiwan. Taiwan's official name is Republic of China (ROC), the country founded on January 1 1912 in mainland China. The Communists and the Nationalists (Guomindang) both see Taiwan as a province of China. However, Taiwan has its own government and military, and it is still proudly something else than the PRC.

6) Banks vs IT

You may have heard of HSBC and Acer. The first - Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Corporation - is one of the most renowned Hong Kong brands in the world. The latter is one of the most famous Taiwanese brands and a world market leader in the computer industry. Taiwanese products - HTC, Asus, MSI, ot name only a few - can be found in every store of every country. Hong Kong's economy, after its industrial decline, is rather based on services and finance.  

7) Extremely Fast vs Less Extremely Fast

Life in Hong Kong is breathtaking. Not only because the polluted air may clog up your lungs, but also because of the rhythm, the speed and the energy of this city. Day in day out masses of people flood the streets, go to work, go home, go to party, go clubbing - it is a never-ending flux of activity.

If you compare Hong Kong to Taiwan - Taiwan seems slow! To a European they both appear to have crazy lifestyles, with work, money-making, slave-like life-corroding working hours as the absolute priority. Nevertheless, Hong Kongers apparently enjoy going to Taiwan because of the 'relaxing' pace of life.  

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Nan Lian Garden, Chi Lin Nunnery and Hakka Dinner

After talking with my flatmate for several hours (record broken!), here I am, at 5:02 in the morning, writing this post. Outside I hear the first birds chirping, reminding me that soon the sun will rise.

But before going to sleep I would just like to share a few pictures I took last evening. A friend asked me to join her and two of her friends (a girl from Hong Kong and a German guy) to visit some sights and have dinner - this pretty much saved my Saturday evening, because originally I had no plans. By the way, I'd like to thank my Hong Kong friends who were so nice to show us foreigners around.

First we went to the Wong Tai Sin temple, but it was already closed (at around 6 pm). So we went to Nan Lian Garden, which is near Diamond Hill MTR Station (see map below).


The Nan Lian Garden is a public park which despite its ancient looks was opened in 2006. It is a reproduction of the garden style of the Tang Dynasty era (7th - 9th century). It reflects the desire to rediscover the forms of the ancient Chinese civilization and offer the public an exotic, eye-catching version of the past (Rinaldi 2011 garden p. 116).

Adjacent to the Nan Lian Garden is the Chi Lin Nunnery, founded in 1934 and last renovated in 2001 after a major refurbishment (Wordie, p. 270). The resemblance between Chi Lin and the Zen temples for which Japan is renowned are due to the fact that the Tang Dynasty period, on whose architectural style the nunnery is based, was a time of great achievement for Chinese culture that deeply influenced its neighbouring country Japan.

After visiting the Nan Lian Garden we went to have dinner in Tsim Sha Tsui. One of our friends chose a really nice Hakka restaurant. Hakka is the name of an ethnic sub-group of the Han Chinese, who have their own dialect (or language, if you will), customs and cuisine. The Hakka group can be found mainly in Southern China, especially Fujian Province, and Taiwan. Here are some pictures of the great food we ate.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

The Peak - Hong Kong's Historic Heritage

The Peak is a must-see for every tourist coming to visit Hong Kong. Situated 1,200 feet above sea level, it commands an impressive view of Hong Kong's ultra-modern skyline and of its harbour. 

Here British settlers who arrived in the 19th century sought to escape the heat and the crowds of the city. Built on the highest spot in Hong Kong island, the Peak was the very centre and symbol of Western power and of the authority and strength of British rule.

Today the Peak is renowned for being the location where one can enjoy the best panoramic view of the world-famous Hong Kong skyline and the harbour.

How To Get To The Peak

The Peak is not close to the city centre, but it's very easy to reach thanks to the Peak Tram, a funicular tram that was completed in 1888 - in those days a masterpiece of Western technology. Before the construction of the tram, the only way to get there was to "hike up" the steep hill on foot, or to be carried there by local coolies on a sedan chair (see Wordie, pp. 73-74). 

The Peak Tram station is only a few minutes away from Central MTR Station exit K. This exit leads to Statue Square, and from there you can turn left in the direction of Chater Garden, go straight and then turn right towards Garden Road (see map below). 

The View of Hong Kong

What would Hong Kong be without its amazing skyline? This is the symbol of the city's dynamism, of its financial and economic might, of its vocation as a global metropolis at the crossroads between East and West. It is here that the success of Hong Kong becomes visible to the eyes of the visitor, a stunning proof of its breathtaking modernization, of its vitality and creativity. 

The energy and spirit of the millions of people that have built this Eastern miracle seem to have sprouted from the earth to reach for the sky, and even its once so self-indulgent Western masters can't help looking at it with a mix of admiration, reverence, and perhaps envy. 

View of Central and Victoria Harbour from the Peak in the first half of the 20th century 

A few houses on the Peak

On the other hand, this wonderful view is a veil that covers other, darker aspects of the city. But its visual power is so overwhelming that it indeed accomplishes its task: forgotten are all the flaws and imperfections hidden in the poorer, less fashionable districts, wiped away by the magnificent, imposing sight of the glamorous, wealthy, modern city.

The Peak Tram Lower Terminus on Garden Road

The Peak of Segregation: How Masters and Servants 

Shared a City

The Peak Tram
For more than a century the Peak was the symbol of British rule. This district, spatially separated from the city proper, gave the white settlers two things that they desperately needed: a more temperate climate and separation from the local population.

The Peak is only one example of the many secluded places that the British ruling classes that lived in the colonies chose as their "refuge", where they could re-create Britain in the midst of an alien environment. The most famous resort of this kind is perhaps the hill station of Simla in India, north of Delhi. There the British escaped the heat and ... the Indian people, with whom they  seemed reluctant to mingle.

The Peak was both a sign of the authority, but paradoxically, also of the weakness of the Europeans. As historians have pointed out, Western colonists did not have as much power as they wanted the natives to believe. Europeans were clearly outnumbered and wouldn't have had the capacity to resist against repeated uprisings. One way in which they tried to compensate for the lack of real power was to represent power, to set up an awe-inspiring stage that would make the locals believe in European superiority (Carroll 2007, p. 91).

Hill stations often helped the British keep their identity and create a strong sense of community in an alien society. Here the British could "restore the physical and psychic energies they needed for their imperial tasks, replicate the social and cultural environments that embodied the values they sought to project" (see ibid., p. 92).

When the British settled in Hong Kong, one of their first concerns was to find a place where they could be and live 'British'. The Peak offered a good location. It was far away from the crowded 'Chinese-populated' quarters, and thanks to its height it was cooler than the at times unbearably hot city.

However, against the stereotype of the Western capitalist as opposed to the 'Chinese coolie', the Chinese population was a major driver in the economic development of Hong Kong, and numerous Chinese businessmen amassed considerable fortunes. Already in 1879-80 the Chinese provided 90 percent of government revenues (ibid., p. 69). 

Accordingly to their social status, the Chinese upper class tended to move to the districts that the Europeans wanted to keep for themselves, and they indeed built or bought houses in the so-called Mid-levels, the area between Central and the hill districts.

The European District Preservation Ordinance of 1888 sought to solve this problem by reserving "a certain portion of the Town [...] not for exclusively European occupation, but for houses built according to European models and occupied in much more limited numbers than is usual with Chinese" (Tsang 2011, p. 48).

This solution seemed acceptable, because it shifted the attention from racial segregation to hygienic concerns. In fact, the Europeans believed the Chinese  lacked proper hygienic standards.

Colonial Hong Kong. Most of the old streets have now disappeared 

Nevertheless, this regulation was not considered sufficient by the expatriate community, and in 1904 the Peak Preservation Ordinance was issued, which specifically prohibited non-Europeans from settling in the area (Tsang 2011, p. 48). According to the ordinance, the only Chinese allowed to reside there were servants, cooks, and drivers employed by Europeans (Carroll 2007, pp, 90-91).

However, racism during British rule was never absolute. The British were to a certain extent willing both to recognize the political and economic role of the natives, and also to make exceptions to the rules. For example, Robert Ho Tung, who was Eurasian but "adopted the manners, deportment, and costume of a Chinese gentleman and did not seek to pass as a European" was allowed to live on the Peak. He was the wealthiest man in Hong Kong and he was among the first Chinese to be knighted and thus be admitted into the upper class of the colonial and imperial society (Tsang 2011, pp. 48-49).

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Cartoonist Arrested For Sedition in Singapore

Leslie Chew, the Singaporean cartoonist behind the popular Facebook page Demon-cratic Singapore, was arrested on Friday for sedition and was released on a S$10,000 (around 6,300 Euros) bail two days later (South China Morning Post 25/04/2013, p. A10).

He has been charged with sedition, as defined by Singapore's Sedition Act, for posting on the 27 of March a comic strip that allegedly accused the Singaporean government of racism towards Malay minorities. 

The strip, with the subtitle "Malay Population. Deliberately suppressed by a racist government", depicts a politician saying "We have the some [sic!] of the most talented Indians from India, most talented Chinese and most talented Caucasians for companies to tap on." Someone in the crowd asks: "What? No mention of Malay talents?" And two others say: "It is no secret that he abhors Malays." "Damn racist government!"

Leslie Chew's satiric Facebook page has over 22,000 followers. It claims to be "totally fictional" and "with entirely fictional characters", but the themes and the characters are clearly inspired by real people, mostly politicians, and by  Singaporean politics and society.

According to the Sedition Act, Cap. 290:

it is an offence, inter alia, "to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Singapore" (Lai 2008, p. 64).

The Sedition Act has already been used in the past against members of Singapore's blogosphere. In 2005, for instance, three bloggers were convicted under the Sedition Act for posting blog comments that were anti-Muslim (ibid.). 

Mr Choo Zheng Xi, Leslie Chew's lawyer, said that Mr. Chew's mobile phone, computer and hard disk as well as his passport have been taken by the police for the purpose of the investigation. Mr Chew was also questioned about another cartoon from 14 December 2012, which had prompted the Attorney General's Chambers (AGC) to send him a letter of complaint, in which it was stated that the cartoon "scandalises our Courts through allegations and imputations that are scurrilous and false" (The Straits Times 24/04/2013, p. B1).

Terms such as "public order", "national interest", "subversive", and "disaffection" which are used in several of Singapore's draconian security acts, such as the Sedition Act or the Internal Security Act, "are so ambiguous as to render any particular action not favored by the government susceptible to being interpreted as contravening these laws" (Tan 2008, p. 4). However,

[W]ithin the dominant discourse of vulnerability, survival, and success, it has not been difficult for the government to justify these coercive powers to [gain the support of] pragmatic, and materialistic Singaporeans who only desire to live in peace, safety, comfort, and affluence [...], (ibid., pp. 4-5).

Among famous cases of bloggers sued for defamation was that of Jiaohao Chen, a Singaporean student who lived in the United States, who in May 2005 was accused by the government-founded  Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) of posting "untrue and serious accusations against A*STAR, its officers and other parties". The agency threatened him "with legal consequences unless the objectionable statements were removed and an acceptable apology published". In order to avoid a lawsuit, Chen complied with A*STAR's requests (Deibert 2008, p. 366).

The issue of whether and when the expression of individual opinions and criticism can be considered defamation is highly controversial. Anyone risks to be perceived as libellous, because criticism and defamation can be easily confused. This is not only a problem in Asian countries, where big business and strong governments often have vested interests and don't wish to be denounced publicly. It must be remarked that criticism is often based on individual opinions and perceptions, and therefore it is easy to find in them defamatory elements. 

The West, too, has its number of controversial cases. Italy, for instance, is notorious for its media politicization and the risks "uncomfortable" journalists face. However, even in the Italian case, which is perhaps one of the worst-functioning democracies in Europe, journalists still have considerable power thanks to the judiciary. 

Only to name one example, journalist Marco Travaglio, who is a staunch critic of the political class, has often been sued for defamation. In one case that dates back to 2005, business tycoon Silvio Berlusconi filed a lawsuit against Travaglio, accusing him of slander and false statements aimed at attacking him personally and weakening his political position prior to the election campaign of 2001, in which Berlusconi ran as the leader of the party that subsequently won (note). However, Travaglio and another journalist were acquitted (note). 

The balance between free speech and defamation is often blurred. It is easy to interpret criticism as calumny. This subtle distinction can be manipulated by powerful groups or individuals to protect their image and interests. Personally, I believe that freedom of expression should always have priority and be restricted only in extreme cases. 

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Filial Piety in Chinese Culture and the Myth of Collectivism (Part III) - Footbinding In Old Chinese Society and the Concept of 疼 (téng)

Pan Jinlian with her master Ximen, the protagonists
of the ancient erotic novel "Golden Lotus". To Pan
Jinlian's charm belonged her bound feet.

Anointed with fragrance, she takes lotus steps;
Though often sad, she walks with swift lightness.
She dances like the wind, leaving no physical trace.
Another stealthily tries on this palace style,
but feels such distress when she tries to stand;
So wondrously small they defy description,
Unless placed in the palm.

(Su Shi, 1036-1101 AD, 
quoted in: Wang 2000, p. 29)

There is perhaps no better proof that the myth of the harmonious Chinese society has often been manipulated for ideological purposes, than the ancient custom of footbinding. For it is in this custom that we see how the idea of collectivism, as I have described it in one of my previous posts, has been re-interpreted in a misleading way in order to enhance a certain political agenda. 

Nowadays, no defender of Asian values would ever mention footbinding as a traditional characteristic of the Asian family; so deep has been the rejection of this practice. Yet for hundreds of years footbinding was, along with concubinage and other social conventions, an integral part of the life of millions of Chinese women, and a fundamental trait of the power structure and gender role inside the old Chinese family. It is thus not entirely purposeless to examine it more closely. 

What Is Footbinding?

Footbinding was the practice of changing the natural shape of women's feet by breaking the toes and bending them under the sole of the foot, and by stopping the blood circulation with bandages. The purpose was to create a tiny, 3-4-inch-long foot (around 10-8 centimeters). The excruciating process of footbinding began at the age of four or five and lasted overall ten to fifteen years; but it affected the entire lives of women.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The Hutchison Whampoa Strike and Hong Kong's Tycoons

Yesterday The Sunday Morning Post reported on yet another controversy between the unionist leaders of the dockworkers' strike and Mr. Canning Fok Kin-ning, the managing director of the Hutchison Whampoa group, to which the dock terminals hit by the strike belong.

Mr. Canning Fok launched a media attack against unionist lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan, one of the promoters of the strike. On 20 April, the 24th day since the beginning of the strike, Hong Kong International Terminals Ltd. (HIT), which is owned by the Hutchison group, spent estimated HK$1 million to place ads on numerous Hong Kong newspapers and denounce Mr Lee. The only media outlet that was not included in the ads campaign was Apple Daily, the most popular paper in the city. One possible reason why Apple Daily was not considered suitable for being used as a platform by the Hutchison group is that the paper belongs to Jimmy Lai, an outspoken critic of the Communist Party and an advocate of freedom of speech.

"Is someone unwilling to make a deal?" asked the ads, referring to Lee Cheuk-Yan. "Is there someone who wants to achieve his own purpose and is ignoring the interests of the workers?" The union's demands for a wage increase of around 20% were called "unachievable" and it was suggested that unionist Lee Cheuk-yan supports the strike only to advance his personal profile.

On his way to Beijing, Mr. Canning Fok launched another personal attack on Mr Lee, suggesting that the latter "resorts to every means - he doesn't want an outcome at all, hoping that as the strike drags on, he can negotiate with Mr Li [Li Ka-shing, owner of Hutchison group] so as to boost his own publicity." He further stated that Lee "has been using the style of the Cultural Revolution".

As Apple Daily reported, Mr. Canning Fok's words were heavily criticized by strikers for belittling the workers. One of them stated that Fok's defamation won't affect the workers' determination, and that "no matter if we succeed or fail, we'll have no regrets". 

According to HIT dockworkers earn HK$20,000 per month (around 2000 Euros), and a wage increase would cause "irreparable damage to Hong Kong". Moreover, Mr Canning Fok said that the workers "were willing to work long hours". However, unions claim that workers could earn this sum only if they worked many 24-hour shifts, and that real wages have been decreasing since 1995 (SMP, p. 3; Apple Daily).

In a pro-free-market and pro-big-business city like Hong Kong, all the dark sides of a "laissez-faire" regime become apparent. It is hard to imagine that Mr. Canning Fok has a clear idea of the working conditions and the necessities of the workers. 

Born in Hong Kong in 1951, Canning Fok has been called (I wonder by whom, and I wonder if ironically) the "Emperor of Employees" (打工皇帝) for being one of Hong Kong's top five taxpayers in recent years. 

In 2011 Mr Fok's annual salary stood at HK$170 million (US$21.9 million), which means HK$904 (US$116) per minute for 12 working hours per day, and HK$650,000 (US$83,750) per day for 261 working days a year (note). This is, of course, a major setback for him, because in 1999 he earned HK$200 million (US$25.77 million). So probably he must now tighten his belt and live more frugally.

Unlike my father, who was a fervent socialist, I have never considered myself to be left-wing, until I realized that today's world has shifted so much to the right, that an economist like Paul Krugman is dubbed a "socialist", I would be seen as left-wing, and my father perhaps would be called a Communist.

Hong Kong is a great reminder of the detrimental effects of an economy in which the rich dictate the agenda. As a recent survey showed, "Hong Kong's poorest 20 per cent take up just 6 per cent of society's income share while the rich take up 43 per cent, a poll has found as the city's notoriously wide income gap continues to worsen" (note).

I used to believe that the experience of the post-war boom had taught us a clear lesson: workers are consumers, consumers need money to spend, so salaries should be adjusted to productivity and allow people to spend. I believed that we had understood both the social and moral value of labour as a criterion to judge social stability and harmony. But apparently, these values have been slipping away, and powerful lobbies made up of politicians (Margaret Thatcher was a good example of that), big business and main-stream economists (such as a Milton Friedman) have pushed forward an agenda that has fundamentally changed the balance of power between employer and employee at the expense of the latter. It hasn't done that by force; but by creating a myth that we see mirrored in the recent dockworkers' strike in Hong Kong, and that is also reflected in public opinion (in a recent post, I criticized what SCMP's columnist Alex Lo saw as the entrepreneurial spirit of Hong Kong).

The idea is that entrepreneurs are, according to a neo-Darwinist assumption, the 'best people', the ones that generate wealth and jobs. Therefore, they are working for the good of the society and the nation. When they demand sacrifices from the workers, they do it because they must stay competitive against foreign competition. Wage decreases are thus acceptable, though painful.

Unfortunately for them, this point of view is completely detached from the reality. They do create wealth, but mostly for themselves; they do work for the good of the nation, provided that the nation is not the sum of the individuals, but the sum of the companies, most especially the big ones; they do remain competitive, on the basis of finding the cheapest labour and putting pressure on trade unions (where they exist).

I am not blaming all entrepreneurs, of course. But there is a large number of them, most especially big corporation, as well as influential lobbies of economists and politicians, who keep on defending the interests of the few.

It is too easy to demand sacrifices from the workers when you earn millions in a month. And it is just an excuse to say that what you earn is what you deserve, so if you earn little you are just a replaceable nobody, while if you earn a lot you are a smart guy. There are systemic problems, all around the world, which have to be addressed. 

The situation in Hong Kong is particularly complex because of the political symbiosis between the central government in Beijing and the local government in Hong Kong. Traditionally, the Communist leadership has been acting in a paternalistic way towards Hong Kong. By Chinese standards, derived from the Confucian precepts, this means that the father has authority over his children, and that he alone knows best what is good for his children, without feeling the need to ask them. 

This stance had become clear already during the Sino-British negotiations of 1982-84, when Deng Xiaoping, despite knowing very little about Hong Kong, "insisted that he knew the Hong Kong people better than they did themselves and that he acted in their best interests" (Tsang 2011, p.223).

Beijing needed a link between the citizens of Hong Kong and the Communist government; and it found this link in the powerful business tycoons. They did not push for political reforms or democratization, but saw business as their first priority, and in order to protect their business in and with mainland China, they offered themselves as a stabilizing political and social element that was useful to implement the "One country, two systems" formula.

Many of these tycoons made their fortunes through something that is traditionally more suitable for an aristocracy than for business people: land. Due to its small size and population density, in Hong Kong land means power.

[W]ith the exception of a couple of the long-established and successful British hongs like Swire and Hong Kong Land (part of the Jardine group), as well as a few large local landowners like the Hotung family and the Hysan group, most of Hong Kong’s top business conglomerates of the 1990s were built on the basis of bold investments in real estate development in this period. 
Li Ka-shing’s Cheung Kong empire is the best known example. The same applies to other conglomerates. Among the best known are the New World group, Henderson Land, the Hang Lung group and the Sun Hung Kai group. The substantial profits made by the pioneering entrepreneurs of these companies were turned into fortunes in the stock market boom of the early 1970s. The capital thus accumulated was, in turn, reinvested in a wide range of businesses and catapulted some of these astute entrepreneurs to rival long-established British hongs within a decade. 
Their spectacular rise was symbolised by the takeover of Hutchison Whampoa (originally founded in 1828 as John D. Hutchison) by Li Ka-shing in 1978 (Tsang 2011, p. 173).

A small number of property developers thus enjoys a disproportionate share of political and economic power. Many of them have expanded into other areas such as restaurant chains, mobile phone operators and supermarkets. Because they own land, they can get the best locations, and because property prices increase year by year, competition is relatively easy to wipe out. 

As a matter of fact, Hong Kong has only two supermarket chains, one of which is owned by Li Ka-shing. That is why you won't see Carrefour or Wal-mart here (note). While dockworkers strike for better wages and thousands of people live in cage homes, the illusionary formula that "what is good for the tycoons is good for Hong Kong" still doesn't let go of this city. 

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Chinese Journalist Chen Ying Leaves Her Marriage Ceremony to Report Live on Sichuan Earthquake, Still Wearing Her Wedding Dress

On the 20th of April, at 8:02 am Beijing local time, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit China's Sichuan Province, killing at least 186 people and leaving many more injured (note 1, 2).

Among the tragic pictures of destruction and death, an image, an unusual one, stood out, which made people smile despite the dreadful circumstances in which it was taken. It was a picture of reporter Chen Ying, anchor at a TV channel of Ya'an city. 

Chen Ying was about to get married, when suddenly the earthquake struck. Still wearing her wedding dress, she and a colleague of hers, a cameraman who was filming the wedding ceremony, ran to the streets to report live on the unfolding tragedy. Chen Ying thus appeared on TV clad in her bride's gown.  

Afterwards, pictures were uploaded on Weibo, a social network in China, and shared hundreds of times within just a few hours. After her live report, the wedding service was carried on (note). 

Though getting married during such a devastating earthquake could be viewed as a bad omen, a friend of the journalist wrote on Weibo that this is rather a proof that their love could conquer anything (note). This is perhaps a good way to regard this tragic convergence of suffering and rejoicing.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Lantern Festival (元宵節)

On February of this year I went with a Taiwanese friend to celebrate the Lantern Festival at Taipei Expo Park, right in front of Yuanshan MRT Station (see map).

I'd been planning to post the pictures I took that day for some time already, but for several reasons I never found the right moment to do it. Originally I wanted to write a post about Chinese New Year, but I couldn't find enough material, so I gave it up and decided to simply share the pictures of the Lantern Festival.  

The Lantern Festival (元宵節 / 元宵节; pinyin: Yuánxiāojié) is one of the major holidays in China and in East Asia. It falls on the 15th of February and marks the end of the Lunar New Year celebrations.

There are different stories about the origin of the festival. Some people believe that it dates back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 221 AD). On the 15th night of the second Lunar month the emperors used to pay tribute to the First Cause of the universe. Because the ceremony was held at dusk, lanterns were lit to illuminate the palace (Henderson 2009, p. 479).

In the High Tang era (705-780 A.D.), the Lantern Festival became one of the most popular festivities throughout the empire. According to a chronicle from that period a "spectacular lamp-lighting ceremony was held on the fifteenth day of the first month in the capital [...]. Jinwu loosened the restrictions and allowed people to pass the streets in the evening. Everybody, including aristocrats, royal relatives, bond servants, craftsmen, and merchants, went out in the evening" (Qian Ning: Art, Religion, and Politics in Medieval China. The Dunhuang Cave of the Zhai Family. Honolulu 2004, p. 131).

Whatever the religious origins of the festival may be, nowadays it has lost much of its sacredness. Throughout the Chinese-speaking world the Lantern Festival has turned into a popular, festive event with exhibitions of colourful lanterns in the form of deities and heroes of folk beliefs and myths.

The park was beautifully decorated with lanterns which were lit after sunset. We were wise enough to go there on a Monday, so that there were relatively few people compared with the weekend. The atmosphere was very nice, even romantic. That I was not the only person to think so was shown by the dozens of couples strolling around, enjoying the night view and the fresh evening air.   

This is Guanyu (關羽), a hero from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms

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