Friday, 28 November 2014

A Walk in Hong Kong's Wan Chai District: Old Post Office, Blue House, Hung Shing Temple, and Pak Tai Temple

Yesterday I had lunch with a friend of mine at a Thai restaurant in Central. After we finished our meal my friend went back to work. Since the weather was quite pleasant that day, I decided to take a walk to Tin Hau.

During my walk I took a few pictures of some interesting old buildings in Wan Chai District. Surrounded by modern skyscrapers, these old structures are among the few ones that have withstood the urban development frenzy of the post-war era.

Wan Chai

In the morning of 26 January 1841 Sir James Bremer of the British Royal Navy, accompanied by army officers and Royal Marines, landed on the north-west part of Hong Kong, a spot that came to be known as Possession Point (which is now the site of the Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Terminal). He toasted Queen Victoria and took formal possession of the small island in her name. Hong Kong had been ceded to the British by the Qing Empire during the First Opium War. London secured the naval base through the Convention of Chuanbi and later through the Treaty of Nanjing (29 August 1842). 

Hong Kong had a population of just 7,500 Chinese, mostly fishermen and farmers (Steve Tsang: Modern History of Hong Kong, A: 1841-1997, 2011, p. 16). Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston dismissed the newly acquired colony as "a barren island with hardly a house upon it" (ibid., p. 14). Hardly anyone at that time could have imagined that Hong Kong would become one of the world's greatest metropolises.

Once the British had occupied Hong Kong island they set about the task of developing it and building a replica of a European city on Asian soil. They first founded the city of Victoria, which was deemed the capital of Hong Kong until the 1997 handover. Victoria largely corresponds to present-day Central District.

Over the next decades thousands of mainland Chinese flocked to the British colony, which offered refuge from the Qing Empire's deteriorating economic and social conditions. As the Taiping Rebellion ravaged China, scores of mainlanders moved to Hong Kong, which by the early 1860s had already reached a population of about 120,000 (R.S. Chaurasia: History of Modern China, 2004, p. 326).

Plans to develop new areas outside of Victoria began already in the 1840s. At that time, Wan Chai, which was adjacent to Victoria, was sparsely populated and its inhabitants were chiefly Chinese fishermen (Michael Ingham: Hong Kong: A Cultural History,2007, p. 59). In the 19th century, present-day Queen's Road East was Wan Chai's coastline.

The colonial government originally planned to turn Wan Chai into a high-class European settlement and commercial district. Western-style buildings began to be constructed around Stone Nullah Lane and the surrounding hills (Jason Wordie: Streets: Exploring Hong Kong Island, p. 102). But the plan never really took off because Wan Chai was cut off from Victoria by the naval barracks and docks which were located in present-day Admiralty.

Instead, Wan Chai became an area of Chinese settlement and an 'entertainment district' for off-duty sailors and officers, who at the turn of the 20th century had been banned from the more respectable Victoria city (Po Hung Cheng: A Century of Hong Kong Island Roads and Streets, 2001, p. 70; Ingham 2007, p. 59).

In order to solve the issue of land scarcity, the British colonial government undertook a series of land reclamations. If there hadn't been these land reclamations, Wan Chai would look completely different today. Land reclamation projects in Wan Chai were carried out in the 1880s, 1920s, 1960s and 1970s. Up until the 1920s, present-day Johnston Road was still the waterfront.

In the 1920s, a major land reclamation project was commenced, and Morrison Hill was flattened to provide earth for it. Hennessy Road and Gloucester Road were built on reclaimed land. After World War II, more land was reclaimed, and new, controversial reclamation projects are underway.



Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Western Values vs Asian Values: Benito Mussolini and Western Collectivism

In two of my earlier posts I talked about the myth of Asian collectivism and Western individualism. In future articles I will examine several aspects of this myth. Here I would like to show an example of Western collectivism, in order to demonstrate that individualism is by no means a 'Western' concept, but simply one of the many values developed in the West over the course of its long history. In fact, a civilisation is never a homogeneous and coherent whole, but a combination of different cultural phenomena.

The idea that East Asia is more collectivist than the West is based on the wrong assumption that family ideology, epitomized in the principle of filial piety, is the only true form of collectivism. While it is true that a Confucian-style family ideology never existed in the West, it would be a mistake to overlook the fact that the West developed its own collectivist worldviews and systems of thought. The four most important ones are: Christianity, nationalism, Communism, Fascism.

In this post I will focus on Fascism and its own collectivist ideology. In the following excerpt, Benito Mussolini, the founder and leader of Italy's National Fascist Party, explains his vitalist vision of life, society and history.

We should bear in mind that the notions of 'West' and 'Western democracy' have always been fluid. In the 1920s and 1930s, many right-wing and left-wing movements rejected democracy. Especially, the Fascists and, later, the Nazis considered Italy and Germany as not being part of the Western world, and denounced democracy as a decadent, chaotic form of government.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Hong Kong's "Umbrella City"

When I left Hong Kong back in September, Occupy Central had just begun. I went to Admiralty and Central on the first day of the protests, which was the 28th. The following morning I flew to Taipei. 

I was very sad, not only because I was leaving a city which I love more and more each time I return there, but also because I had seen history unfolding before my eyes and yet I was suddenly cut off from those events. While I was sitting on the express train to the airport, I had already made up my mind that I would go back to Hong Kong as soon as possible. 

And I was right. What I have seen in Hong Kong over the past few days is amazing, and I feel glad and privileged that I could be part of this historic moment. At least I'll be able to tell my grandchildren that I was here. 

Saturday, 15 November 2014

YouBike - Good or Bad for Taipei?

In 2008 Taipei City’s Department of Transportation launched the Taipei Bike Sharing Pilot Program, which evolved into the highly successful YouBike, a bicycle rental project with over 30 million users as of October of this year.

I welcome the use of bikes as a cheaper and eco-friendly alternative to scooters and cars. However, I think that the YouBike so far has had a negative impact on Taipei. There are three major problems that need to be addressed:

1) the government has failed to make the population aware of the risks of riding their bikes on sidewalks;

2) as the city lacks an extensive network of bicycle paths, pedestrians now have to share the same, often narrow spaces with a growing number of bikes;

3) YouBike riders are not required by law to purchase an insurance, like scooter and car drivers do.

As you can see from the video below, some cyclists (in my experience, the great majority of them) have absolutely no sense of responsibility when riding their bikes on sidewalks. Unfortunately, as YouBike grew more popular the situation has worsened considerably. 

Last month I was waiting at a traffic light and, as usual, several cyclists were waiting behind me. As the light turned green, both pedestrians and cyclists moved forward, with bikes dashing from all sides trying to overtake the slower pedestrians. A bike then hit my foot; had I worn flip-flops, I may have got hurt. Luckily, the tire only left a scratch on my shoe, which is still annoying enough, since the shoes were expensive. The girl who was riding the bike smiled, said sorry, and rode off. A few days later, a bike coming from a side alley almost hit me while I was crossing the street (I couldn't possibly have seen it coming from behind a building). 

I have seen this kind of behaviour many times, and I also witnessed minor accidents. I think it should be common sense that bikes and pedestrians cannot share the same space. Especially children and elder people are at risk. Unfortunately, very few people in Taipei seem aware of this, and they ride their bikes carelessly. 

It turns out that walking in Taipei has become increasingly unpleasant and dangerous. Given that traffic regulations are often ignored and very selectively enforced, I am not surprised. Even policemen don't seem to care. Just a couple of days ago I was trying to cross Gongyuan Road at a zebra crossing. Cars and scooters simply wouldn't stop, although a policeman was there. And he simply ignored us pedestrians. 

Thursday, 13 November 2014

My Pictures of Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution

Yesterday I arrived in Hong Kong and, despite being extremely tired - I had slept for only one hour and a half in two days -, after leaving my stuff at the hostel I immediately went to see how Occupy Central had transformed the city centre. 

However, I was way too exhausted and hungry to go to Central, so I just had a look at the Causeway Bay site of the protest, which is quite close to where I'm currently staying.

The 'Occupiers' have by now settled permanently in some limited areas, one of them being a section of Hennessy Road, formerly a bustling traffic artery, now turned into a sort of 'encampment' with tens, colourful pictures, collages and posters. Actually, Hennessy Road has never been as beautiful as it is today, and the occupation does not seem to affect shops or normal life. The only thing it has affected is traffic, but, well, does Hong Kong really desperately need more cars and pollution? 

The atmosphere is quiet right now, and very little seems to be happening for the time being. This is another proof that these students are no rowdies that want to disrupt the life of Hong Kong. I can't think of a more peaceful manifestation of dissent in a city where the people have not been given a legal mechanism for changing a government they don't like. 

So far, traffic disruptions have been limited. The means of transport which has suffered the most is probably the tram, which is the only one that can't change its routes to circumvent the 'occupied' areas. 

Yesterday, I took a tram from North Point MTR Station to Central, but it didn't get that far and stopped at Victoria Park. This is now the last stop of all eastbound tram routes. At Victoria Park, trains have to change direction and go back. Obviously, the tram staff have to do quite a lot of extra work, not just to revert the tram's direction, but also to inform the puzzled passengers.

Apparently, the occupation has turned into a tourist attraction by its own right, with numerous tourists - some of whom come from mainland China - taking pictures of the site. The many versions of the 'Occupy Central Xi Jinping' are among the most popular artworks (whether it is wise to mock the commander-in-chief of the same PLA that crushed the democracy movement in 1989, is another matter).

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Can Democracy Solve Singapore's and Hong Kong's Economic Problems? (Part I)

Is democracy the precondition for economic prosperity? Does freedom create wealth? Is the market a self-regulating entity that, if left alone, will ensure that people make money and that wealth is distributed fairly?

These are the central questions of our age. The way people answered these questions in the past have shaped the world we live in. The answers we will give to them today will shape our future.

The interdependence of freedom and economic prosperity is the cornerstone of what we may call 'Neoliberalism ', an ideology based on the assumption that the market is a self-regulating entity and that 'big governments' disrupt the market's 'natural functioning'. 

In a recent interview Chee Soon Juan (徐顺全/徐順全; pinyin: Xú Shùnquán), the current leader of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), drew a parallel between Hong Kong's and Singapore's struggle for democratisation.

According to Chee, both societies need democracy in order to solve one of their most pressing issue: income inequality.

"Democratisation is essential in Hong Kong and Singapore to overcome income inequality. To reduce income inequality, we have to have an opposition voice," he said. "Without democracy, policies in both cities have been skewed to benefit those at the top of the food chain, leaving the middle and lower classes to struggle. Without democracy, there can be no workers' rights. Extreme income inequality does not induce a society's well-being."

The 'economic argument' has often been used by advocates of democracy in order to promote their ideals of freedom and human rights. However, I shall argue that proponents of this concept not only fail to acknowledge basic facts, but that they are actually damaging democracy. 

"Free To Choose": Democracy and Capitalism

In his seminal work Free to Choose: A Personal Statement, Milton Friedman, the guru of Neoliberalism, expounded his view of capitalism. 'Freedom' is the cornerstone of his worldview. According to him, in order to prosper a society needs political freedom (democracy) and economic freedom ('free market'). The combination of these two elements allows people to pursue their self-interest and thrive. Since individuals' self-interests coincide, if they are free from government control they will maximise their wealth, which will ultimately benefit the whole society. The embodiment of the ideal of freedom is the United States. Friedman wrote:

Ever Since the first settlement of Europeans in the New World America has been a magnet for people seeking adventure, fleeing from tyranny, or simply trying to make a better life for themselves and their children ... When they arrived, they did not find streets paved with gold, they did not find an easy life. They did find freedom and an opportunity to make the most of their talents. Through hard work, ingenuity, thrift, and luck, most of them succeeded. 

Friday, 7 November 2014

Customer Service in Taiwan: A Day At Guanghua Digital Plaza

When I lived in Germany many Taiwanese I met there told me that service in Taiwan is much better than in Europe. "The customer is king," they often said. I heard this opinion so many times that I obviously came to believe it. Since I myself considered service in Germany and Italy - the two countries in Europe where I lived longest - overall pretty bad, I was looking forward to coming to Taiwan and experiencing an entirely new level of customer service.

I will write in another post about the myth of Taiwan's customer service. Here I will just share my experience at Guanghua Digital Plaza (光華商場) which is, I believe, the most famous consumer electronics market of the Taiwanese capital. 

I'd been thinking about buying a new laptop for quite some time. Today my old one was so slow I could hardly use it, and I decided to buy an "emergency" laptop before purchasing a better one in Europe (if you're wondering, computers in Taiwan are not cheaper than in Europe).  

Guanghua Digital Plaza is very easy to reach. Since I like walking, I just walked from Taipei Main Station along Civic Boulevard (市民大道). I passed by Shandao Temple and Huashan Creative Park, turned left and then right, and there I was. If you don't want to walk, you can just reach it either from Shandao Temple MRT Station or Zhongxiao Xinsheng Station (Guanghua is just between the two stations; check out the map). 

Here is the building from the outside: