Archive for July, 2006

Sunday July 16, 2006

July 16, 2006 - 10:45 am 12 Comments

My sister and father are finally here! After working very hard Friday night, I managed to open up my entire weekend for a whirlwind tour of Hong Kong. Within these past two days, the three of us have experienced what would perhaps take a week to see. Since a black storm has been brewing for the past few days, the weather has been extremely windy and comparably cooler – perfect for the amount of walking that we had to do (and what we unintentionally did because of directions confusion).

In chronological, here is a list of sites/attractions that we frequented. (We also ate at all these amazing restaurants, but I will just focus on what we saw first given time constraints.)

1.      Hong Kong History Museum – Finally, a chance to go back to this wonderful museum! Instead of very boring traditional exhibits, this museum mixes film, large life size sets, and interactive displays to share the rich history of Hong Kong. From the full size fishing junks in the Ming Dynasty display to the cobblestone streets and reconstructions of old shops and schools that existed during British occupation in the 1800s, this museum was truly mesmerizing. The opium war exhibit demonstrated to me the shamefulness of Chinese history and the illegitimacy of western trade methods. Especially since many so-called Hong Kong natives (a misnomer since the Punti people are true locals, but nowadays, they live in the walled sectors of Kowloon) are so fond of the British, I personally believe that if it were not for the comparably more awful experience under Japanese occupation, the entire perspective on history would be different, leading to a completely different museum tone. We spent more than three hours here…the museum truly was spectacular. In particular, I remember the last exhibit documenting reunification with China. Ah, that’s where the propaganda got particularly heavy.

2.      Jade Market – Featuring more than 450 stalls selling jade of all types, shapes, sizes, and prices, the Jade Market was quite a sight to see! Neither Grace nor I had any intention to buy, but the displays of jade jewelry, pendants, sculptures, and handcrafts were spectacular. In particular, I liked a very intricate dark jade carving of three large dragons, twisted together, and a long knotted string of the 12 zodiac animals, carved from the palest jade. The aggressiveness of the vendors was a bit taxing on one’s psyche, however. They seem to latch on to you if you make any eye contact with their goods. Haggling is a must…Grace is awfully good at it, while unfortunately, I get a bit too embarrassed to do it properly, although in retrospect, I suppose my rather unconventional method is somewhat effective because the vendor gets fed up with my lack of clarity. Grace ended buying this beautiful jade string bracelet for 20 Honkies (the fond name for Hong Kong dollars here) and four necklace pendants. I bought this rare jade dolphin from an old friendly man – rare because the dolphin is a less popular animal here in Asia and hence, the carving was available in only one stand – and a mythical lion figurine. Jade comes in such a variety of colors and tones! I am curious as to why in China, Jade is considered the most noble gem – the incarnation of cosmic principle, embodying the five essential virtues of Chinese philosophy: compassion, modesty, courage, justice, and wisdom. In fact when a disciple of Confucius asked him why men valued jade, Confucius replied that it was not because of its rarity, but rather, “its gentle, smooth, glossy appearance suggests charity of heart; its fine close texture and hardness suggests wisdom; it is firm and yet does not wound, suggesting duty to one’s neighbor; it hangs down as though sinking, suggesting ceremony; struck, it gives a clear note, long drawn out, dying gradually away and suggesting music; its flaws do not hide its excellences, nor do its excellences hide its flaws, suggesting loyalty; it gains our confidence, suggesting truth; its spirituality is like the bright rainbow, suggesting the heavens above; its energy is manifested in hill and stream, suggesting the earth below; as articles of regalia it suggests the exemplification of that than which there is nothing in the world of equal value, and thereby is Tao itself.”

*As an observation, in Hong Kong, similar stores tend to cluster together, many with almost exactly the same wares. Prices are almost never listed, though, so arbitrage opportunities exist. As outsiders, I’m pretty sure we get ripped off wherever we go, but honestly, I’d rather not engage in a heated bargaining argument…I’ll gladly pay that extra difference for peace of mind.

3.      Temple Street Market – Knock-off goods abloom here in this busy street market. Grace, dad, and I, however, were more interested in the sheer energy of the place than the wares. Steering clear of the fake goods (I strongly believe in IP rights as a principle, though I was very much tempted by a bag of Naruto key chains), we wandered the jammed streets, fascinated by the unique handicrafts from all over Asia. Mao paraphernalia…perhaps I’ll consider going back and buying a few to burn in a future political demonstration. (Ah, an unnamed perpetrator should be ashamed of inviting me to join a facebook group lauding Mao…)

4.      Star Ferry – 1.2 Honkies (approximately a quarter in US terms) gets you a ride from Central to Kowloon on a large, open window ferry. A beautiful skyline in view and a comfortable breeze secured, the ride constitutes a highly relaxing, yet thrilling experience of the harbor. Despite the movement of the sea, I managed to take quite a few good pictures!

5.      Hong Kong Cultural Center – As the main performing arts venue of Hong Kong, the cultural center is now hosting the Phantom of the Opera, along with more traditional Cantonese operas and plays and a plethora of the most acclaimed theatrical performances of Asia. Since Grace will be staying a few more days, I intend to book a performance so that she can experience Hong Kong’s unique cultural blend. After looking through the tourist brochures, I realized that there are quite a few free cultural classes that one can take, from cake making at a famous bakery to Cantonese opera appreciation at the Heritage Museum, which I intend to go to next week!

6.      Avenue of Stars – Since Hong Kong is the third largest movie-producing area in the world (after Bollywood and Hollywood), it is quite fitting for the Avenue of Stars to exist. Stretching along the pier, the Avenue of Stars boasts handprints and signatures of some of the most famous directors, producers, and actors in Hong Kong movie industry history. As we walked along, my father regaled my sister and me with stories of the actors and actresses he knew as he was growing up. It seems to me that back then, actors and actresses were very concerned with politics and some even sacrificed their lives for their political beliefs. Nowadays, it doesn’t seem that way, though Jackie Chan was banned from Taiwan for a period as a result of his criticism of President Chen and the Taiwanese elections. In my opinion, that makes Jackie Chan an even more worthwhile actor! Consequently, I took quite a few pictures of his signature and handprint!

7.      Yuen Po Bird Garden – Avian flu concerns dismissed haphazardly, the three of us went to the charming traditional Chinese garden on Yuen Po Street that includes more than 70 songbird stalls as well as courtyards and moon gates. I’ve never seen such as astounding number of birds, all neatly trapped in ornate cages, piled one on top of each other! One cannot even possibly imagine the number of birds sold there! In my opinion, the treatment does not meet the minimal requirement of humaneness, considering how tiny the cages are. Nevertheless, it was quite an amazing experience due to the delightful chatter of the birds and the sheer novelty of the garden design. My father told me that taking a bird and bird cage to a park was part of southern Chinese traditional culture – the epitome of a true gentlemanly endeavor…though honestly, a somewhat cruel one.

8.      Flower Market – I must go back! This was perhaps the longest market street of all the ones I’ve frequented with a seemingly endless number of shops devoted to the most exotic, fragrant, and beautiful flowers and greenery imaginable! From mosquito eating plants to the most intricate orchids I’ve ever seen (unfortunately, all the names were given in Chinese and in scientific format, so I cannot enumerate what I exactly saw), the flower market was a true delight! In particular, I found the long twisted bamboo shoots very intriguing, especially when shaped into an exquisite sculpture. My father, however, did not like how crowded the streets were, teeming with flowers, vendors, and browsers just like us. As a result, we sped quickly by. (My father’s taste is rather odd…his favorite plant was one which looked like a furry tree stump. Go figure. My sister, on the other hand, was fascinated by this beautiful flower that resembled a shimmering purple crystal ball in size, shape, and color.)

*As an observation, Hong Kong is a very cosmopolitan city, especially in the Central District where at least one-third of the population is non-Asian. In these more exotic areas of Kowloon, however, the population is almost exclusively Asian.

9.      Goldfish Market – So we got a bit lost and never found the full-blown Goldfish Market, but we did find Goldfish Street, where exotic fish hung in numerous bags all over the stores! Also not particularly humane, the sight still inspired wonder. Ah, one day, I must return to Hong Kong with the intent of liberating the entrapped wildlife.

10.  Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple (Wong Tai Sin) – The most popular of the temples in Hong Kong, all three main religions of China (Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism) are practiced here. Elaborate in construction and decadent in design, the temple is named after Wong Chuping, who at the age of 15, began to follow Taoism. Forty years later, he achieved enlightenment and became immortal, punishing evils, healing the wounded, and rescuing the dying. With his mercy and his power, he is believed by many to grant whatever is requested. The architecture is truly spectacular – I took quite a few photos, though I felt a bit awkward considering that my rather touristy action strongly clashed with the intentions of the pious. The rampant fortune telling trade along the temple, however, reminds me of the ubiquitous profiteering of this city. Many people who visit the temple come to have their fortunes told, entreating their fate for the year. They light worship sticks, kneel before the main altar, make a wish, and shake a bamboo cylinder containing fortune sticks until one falls out. The stick is then exchanged for a piece of paper bearing the same number, and the soothsayer then interprets the fortune on the paper for the worshipper. In my opinion and in that of my dad, the practice is ludicrous. To trust something as silly and unreliable as a stick with a very vague, cryptic message when one can just look within!

11.  Lei Yue Mun Seafood Bazaar – A peek into the fishing village heritage of Hong Kong, the Lei Yue Mun fishing pier was almost a step back into time. There were so many fresh seafood stalls with live, exotic specimens from all over the Pacific! Most of the seafood stalls were connected with a restaurant – the pushy vendors and restaurateurs quite adamantly badgered innocent tourists like us into choosing what we would like to eat for dinner, often charging exorbitant fees for every possible expense occurred. To me, it is a rather odd concept to physically see the live animal that I would later be consuming. It just reminds me that I must be cognizant that habits of consumption are inevitably tied with cruelty that is so easily ignored given the removal of the consumer and the consumed in this world. This episode highlights the logic behind the austerity of the Buddhist way of life. Well, as one can imagine, the sheer freshness of the seafood made the meal absolutely mouth-watering even for a non-fish eater for me, especially the tender steamed grouper with scallion and ginger. Objectively speaking, we were quite ripped off, partially because we did not bargain the price of the specimens we would be eating, because we misunderstood something the vendor said (he said 10 honkies per gram…we understood 10 honkies for the entire specimen, which looked like a cross between a lobster, a shrimp, and a centipede, approximately 10 inches. It turned out to be an exotic crayfish from New Zealand – ah, the indulgence of novelty in this city! I would have been happy with just a very simple shrimp!), and because the restaurant basically charged us for everything, save for breathing. Nevertheless, since I’m earning money this summer, I want to treat my father and sister to the best imaginable. It makes me feel wonderful to have them eat, experience, and live the best.

There is still so much I want to see! After consulting tourist guides, I realize that there is still so much left, especially in the New Territories and Lantau Island. I’m pretty much done with everything notable on Hong Kong and Kowloon Islands, but the truly exotic and interesting sites have yet to be seen. In particular, I want to visit:

  1. The Hong Kong Heritage Center – Covering art, culture, and history (including Cantonese opera), this interactive museum is huge and has over 12 open internal courtyards. I must go, especially for the free Cantonese opera appreciation class held on Saturdays.
  1. Kowloon Walled City – One a semi-lawless, high-rise slum, this attracted was transformed into an award-winning park in 1995, featuring a Wing dynasty almshouse, the Old South Gate, pavilions, sculptures, and a flower garden.
  1. Ching Chung Koon – A peaceful Taoist temple oasis that features pavilions, lotus ponds, and bonsai trees.
  1. Hiking the Ping Shan Heritage Trail and Lung Yeuk Tau Heritage Trail A peek into the foundation of Hong Kong life from a hundred years back when hard working peasants tilled their smallholdings. This trail goes through the home of the Tang Clan that established themselves in the New Territories almost 1,000 years ago.
  1. Mai Po Wetlands Park – With more than 300 species of birds, this site is listed as a Wetland of International Importance in 1995. I must go!
  1. Giant Buddha / Po Lin Monastery/ The Wisdom Path – The world’s largest and tallest outdoor seated bronze Buddha is here on this Island. Enough to justify a visit!
  1. Ocean Park – Supposedly this is the best zoological amusement park in all of Asia with the longest cable car that gives one a view of the entire Hong Kong area. For that alone, I must go.  

How can people spend their days in a mall, fighting over brand names, when there is so much to be enjoyed nearby! The museums and heritage trails are nearly empty, but it seems that Burberry stores attract large riots! What has this world become? Even if I have to go to these attractions by myself, I’m going to make sure that before I return home, I see all that has to be seen!

Thursday July 13, 2006

July 13, 2006 - 12:57 pm 1 Comment

Ah, Hong Kong is not so lonely anymore! I very much like the people who I work with at Credit Suisse – there’s a certain quirkiness and authenticity that I find highly refreshing. The work is interesting too; everyday, I get to do something just a little bit differently. As a result, those 3 AM nights don’t feel like a bother. Too many industry cocktail events, though I have to admit, the keynote speaker at Goldman Sachs was very good. Although I find the conversation topics a bit too disastefully innocuous and have yet to learn that ubiquitously emphasized skill of ‘effective networking’, I find the different firm events a great way to learn more about the culture and the priorities of the firm’s employees. I’ve come up with my own conclusions through observation – perhaps I might share some day!

On a different note, I’ve been following the tragic Mumbai bombings quite closely.

The NYT attributes the bombings to globalization/widening income gap, while the economist suggests India-Pakistan tensions.

What a huge disparity in interpretation! The world is confused right now. As much as I dislike Thomas Friedman for his extreme over simplification, I must admit, his coined phrase of the “super angry empowered man” is quite true. With the current level of technology and sophistication in communication, one man has the ability to wreak extroardinary havoc. No longer is there a “state target’ – a defined enemy – everyone…everything…is suspect.

Monday July 3, 2006

July 3, 2006 - 11:08 am 1 Comment

Ah, Mexico’s elections. I’ve been following the candidates since Lopez Obrador announced his candidacy. Certainly, the United States is quite worried that Obrador would favor the path taken by Morales and Chavez, but in my opinion, there is little to fear, considering the pragmatic course of action he’s taken in Mexico City, including balancing the budget by raising taxes of the rich and providing more social services to the poor. Nevertheless, Mexico City is still in shambles due to demographic consequences and just plain poor urban planning that can no longer be reconciled.

Populism in Latin American politics has plagued the efficacy of the system – each caudillo breeds corruption, none more famous than the oft vilified Porfirio Diaz (though the criticism is merited, he was instrumental in Mexican modernization. I’ll try and find a mural by Diego Rivieraz capturing the decadence of the elite of the time and post here in my xanga sometimes). The bloody revolutionary history of Latin America and Mexico stem from collective disillusionment with colonial rule fraught with compelling rhetoric, yet an inability to create a lasting bureaucracy. Such is the fate of a colony, too dependent on external rule and inexperienced with its own government administration.

The election results were probably skewed in favor of Calderon as a result of Vicente Fox’s success in charging Luis Echeverria Alvarez of the Tlateloco Massacre of 1968, in which right before the Olympics, 300 student protesters were killed. (It’s quite odd how we hear about Tiananmen square so much, but this student rights massacre is less known.) Alvarez is 80+, completely debilitated…the charge was pure symbolic gesture. Certainly, the gesture was quite potent.

I keep thinking back to the famous quote. “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States!”

Which candidate do you hope will gain political power? (Leave a comment here)

Mexico prepares to vote on Sunday July 2nd, but the presidential race remains too close to call, while Congress is likely to be divided in thirds (ECONOMIST)

A CAMPAIGN rally is a bad place to decide who is likely to win an election. But standing in the middle of the Zocalo, Mexico City’s central square, it seems most likely that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the city’s former mayor, will win. The square, one the world’s largest, is filled with his supporters attending his last campaign rally. His image is everywhere, in picture and caricature. The crowd seems to be unstoppable.

Nonetheless, his principal opponent, Felipe Calderón, also draws tens of thousands to his last rally in Mexico City, held at a sports stadium. Mr López Obrador held the slightest lead in the last polls to be published, more than a week before the election. But the two go into Sunday’s vote in what is a statistical tie. Running under an alliance of left-wing parties, pre-eminent among them the centre-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), Mr López Obrador had led in the polls for nearly three years, until a few months before the election.
Calderón ran a dogged campaign, coming from behind to establish himself as Mr López Obrador’s main challenger. He was not the first choice of President Vicente Fox’s centre-right National Action Party (PAN), which had long been trailing in third place in the polls. Mr Fox himself cannot run again, as the Mexican constitution limits him to one six-year term.

Mr Calderón made it clear that he was the “candidate of jobs”. That was a smart thing to do. The main battleground in this election has been the economy. Mexicans broadly agree on social issues and public security. But divisions exist on how to make the country less poor and, in particular, on how to raise the standard of living of the lower and middle classes.

Mr López Obrador hopes to court favour with a promise of “putting the poor first”. He specifically wishes to cut government salaries (which, for top officials are among the highest in the world) and attack the privileges of the few who benefit from what he calls a corrupt system. He proposes instituting broad-based pensions. Less helpfully he spouts catchphrases about “turning inward”, suggesting that “the best foreign policy is a good domestic policy.”
However, the ruling PAN is far from a laissez-faire rightist party. Mr Fox established Mexico’s biggest cash-transfer programme to the extreme poor. The largest differences, however, are those of style and emphasis; either party would be constrained by Mexico’s institutions and by the fact that Congress is likely to be divided roughly into thirds between PAN, PRD and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Last place (among the credible candidates) is now taken by Roberto Madrazo of the PRI which had ruled Mexico for seven decades before Mr Fox’s 2000 victory. Mr Madrazo tried to renovate his image as a corrupt dinosaur of the old PRI by dropping his last name and adopting the slogan “Roberto can do it!” But voters disagreed: few even knew what he stood for in the campaign.

Now eyes are focused on the mechanics of Sunday’s elections. Many among Mexico’s rich, who have a near-irrational fear of what Mr López Obrador might do as president also fear that he might stage mass demonstrations if he loses by a thin margin. International election observers are confident that Mexico’s independent election commission will do a decent job, but most agree that the Commission is weaker now than it was in 2000, in part because the commissioners are all taken from the PAN and PRI-there is no PRD representation. But, in all likelihood, in two days, Mexico will have chosen its next president