Car parks in congested Hong Kong

May 15th, 2015 atam Posted in Building, Climate change, Peak oil | No Comments »

The Hong Kong government is building new offices for civil servants in West Kowloon and, laudably, has included just 92 parking spaces for a complex designed to accommodate more than 10,000 civil servants.

How do you force people to take public transport rather than clog up the roads with private cars? By not providing parking spaces of course. Motorists will complain, but in a city short of housing but plagued by roadside pollution and congestion, it makes more sense to build a few extra flats than parking spaces. What the government plans to do with West Kowloon Government Offices is what the MTR has been doing with their residential properties for a while: restrict the number of parking spaces to encourage people to take public transport instead.

It’s such a sensible approach one wonders why it’s not adopted for the West Kowloon Cultural District, where billions are to be spent on a huge underground car park. Is it because it’s designed to cater to the tastes of wealthy, car-owning culture vultures? Well, respected cultural venues like the Tate Modern in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York don’t provide parking spaces, and they’re not exactly short of patrons.

But judging by one legislator’s reaction to the shortage of parking spaces at the proposed government offices, it’s clear that the concept of sustainability has yet to reach those who should know better, never mind the wider public. No wonder we’re only seeing a ‘consultation’ on electronic road pricing now, when it’s already been successfully implemented elsewhere for years.

Top Gear man vs climate change?!

April 1st, 2015 atam Posted in Climate change | No Comments »

Stranger things have happened I guess.  Days after Jeremy Clarkson got fired by the BBC for punching his producer, the former Top Gear presenter suddenly found himself, instead of driving yet another fuel-guzzling sports car to some exotic location, cycling down the road to Damascus.

Now he’s been persuaded by the Guardian to join its campaign to call on charitable foundations to divest their interests in fossil fuel companies.

“I was the poster boy for petrolheads. Now I want to become a – perhaps less gendered – poster person for the carbon-haters.”

Yup, he said that.  What next?  Status-obsessed Hong Kongers ditching their cars in favour of the MTR?





March 31st, 2015 atam Posted in Earth, General | 1 Comment »

No, not “bring your own bag”, nor “bring your own bottle”, though both are good ideas.

This BYOB stands for “bring your own backpack”. Starting 1 April 2015, Hong Kong’s plastic bag levy will be extended to cover all kinds of purchases, with some exemptions. Rather than just bringing your own shopping bag, it makes sense to bring a backpack and here are some reasons why:

  • A backpack allows you to carry your purchases while keeping your hands free
  • If you’ve got more stuff than the backpack can hold, it allows you to carry additional shopping bags with your free hands
  • A backpack also lets you conveniently bring your own bottle
  • Carried properly over both shoulders, it’s much better for your spine than bags that you usually hold in your dominant hand through the entire journey
  • A backpack gives you extra breathing space on public transport like the MTR

I don’t agree with some of the exemptions; for example, plastic is used unnecessarily by retailers to bundle goods for special offers when they can simply put up labels indicating them. Still, the levy is a good start.

Can something be done over plastic bottles next? After all, do we really need to fatten the pockets of conglomerates buying bottled water when we can bottle our own at the tap? Or ruin our teeth and health buying flavoured drinks? So there are some bottled herbal teas and juices; well, why not get them fresh from the herbal shops and juice stalls?

Finally, a nod to the Agriculture & Fisheries Department for encouraging hikers to bring their own bottles, as this poster at one country park shows.




Elis Kurniasih RIP

March 17th, 2015 atam Posted in General | No Comments »

At last, death has spared Elis further misery. Who could have worse luck than the poor Indonesian who was staying in a makeshift boarding house waiting to start a new job as a domestic helper when a chunk of concrete, not from unauthorised building works, but from an air-conditioner canopy that is part of the building’s original design, fell on her?

Who was paying the cost of her treatment, considering she was not injured while performing her job as a domestic helper? What did her agency do to help her? According to reports, the agency’s immediate reaction had been to deny culpability by saying the area was for storage only and that maids were told not to sleep there. In that case, how come there was a mattress there?

It’s always seemed inadvisable to me for foreign domestic helpers to demand an end to the live-in arrangement, which is blamed for cases of abuse such as Erwiana’s. But what are the live-out options in a city where accommodation is so expensive locals have to pay thousands of dollars to rent tiny sub-divided flats?

Perhaps this new incident will strengthen the resolve of the new Indonesian president, to stop sending Indonesian women overseas to work as maids. And that would be a tragedy for women’s rights in Indonesia, for women have been treated much better ever since they have been able to work overseas and send money home. Now they are more respected and relied upon to support their families, more so than the menfolk who continue to farm and make much less. Are there jobs for these women that offer commensurate pay in Indonesia itself? If not,why take away these women’s chance of earning money and respect?

In many cases, abuse and suffering occurs because of a system condoned by the Indonesian government, whereby agencies milk the women as much as they can get away with. Typically, this happens in the form of a ‘training’ fee equal to six months of a maid’s salary. Hong Kong laws may forbid the Hong Kong agencies from charging as much, but as we can see they have other ways of exploiting these women for their own profit. In a case I know of, a woman who’s temperamentally unsuited to domestic work was brought to Hong Kong and recommended to a household which, after an exasperating three months, was forced to terminate her. Making the most of the two weeks in which a terminated helper is allowed to remain in Hong Kong to find a new employer, she was promptly shunted to another family – and another family. Because she could not pay up her ‘training’ fee before she was terminated each time, she was made to pay more until, as it happened, she finally paid it all off, only to be fired again and was, this time, sent back home. The agency had no more use of her.

Erwiana’s case threw the spotlight on bad employers; perhaps Elis’s untimely death will draw attention to the agencies too.

Can tourism be sustainable?

March 16th, 2015 atam Posted in Climate change, Culture, Earth | No Comments »

You’ve been out all day sightseeing and you’re feeling sweaty and sticky, so what do you do as soon as you get back to the hotel? Have a hot bath/shower, right? And what a treat it is, running a bath/shower knowing you don’t have to pay for the water, which is expensive back home.

Never mind the freshwater shortage that threatens the entire globe due to climate change. Never mind even the drought that may be afflicting the very place you’re visiting, because even while locals may be forced to cut back on their water use, tourists staying at hotels can always get away with it.

Tourism is big business and funny business. In the past, it was mostly developing countries without other established industries that relied on tourism for revenue. The locals quickly learnt to consider tourists cash cows and any kind of scams and overcharging were fair game. Now, in the post-financial tsunami world, for many developed countries that have supposedly moved up the development curve by shedding dependence on factory production to become service economies, tourism has suddenly become a big thing.

It has become such a big thing that the tourists who used to dutifully visit historical sites and other ‘places of interest’ are spilling over into regular places where locals live and work, creating tension where their numbers have become overwhelming.

Do you not find it funny that all these visitors are forever being herded to must-see places to have their pictures taken with the same backdrops so they have the bragging rights when they get home? I’m always reminded of the film “Up in the Air”, in which George Clooney’s character carries a cardboard cutout of his sister and her fiancé with him wherever he goes to fire people – that being his job – so they can create a photo album that looks as though they’ve been to so many places. We’ve got so many photo-touching software these days, can’t we just cut and paste the Eiffel Tower and other landmarks on pictures of ourselves and save the money, the fuel, the aggro at the airport and the germs on the flights, particularly since we never come away with the slightest clue about the local culture given the shortness of our stay?

If you read enough articles about travel, you’ll find not a few descriptions of nice, still-pristine places where few tourists have tread, and always there’ll be the qualifier: “Get there before everybody else does.” So what happens when everybody who reads that article takes that advice? Hey, go see those Stone Age cave paintings before the oxygen from the breaths of so many tourists obliterates them. Visit that beautiful island before the locals are corrupted into manipulating tourists for profit. Stay at a nice hotel where the chambermaids don’t get paid the minimum wage.

Ever wonder why we are wasting so much water, burning so much greenhouse gas-emitting fuel and losing so much time checking in/out, packing/unpacking, flying/landing, etc, to sate a restlessness in our minds that we don’t understand?

Forget the global head hunt

February 12th, 2015 atam Posted in Culture, General | No Comments »

When will Hong Kong stop kidding itself that it is a ‘world city’ that calls for a global head hunt whenever a top position becomes vacant?

Following the third departure from the top post at the West Kowloon District Authority, some headhunter is going to make a tidy sum again looking around the world for a suitable replacement. But let’s face it: Hong Kong is a petty, parochial and deeply political place where no international candidate can hope to survive with their health and sanity intact.

It’s a different matter for those who are born with their nervous system already wired to take on the obfuscation, self preservation and back-stabbing that are essential parts of the job.

I have criticised the greenwashing of the sustainability concept by the business world, but I’ll grant you this: only a few of the Hong Kong corporations that bother to compile sustainability reports display a level of openness and straight dealing that is in line with international best practice. Most of the rest, whether from the public (or ‘quasi-public’) or private sector only dress up to appear international in outlook, but really remain hierarchical, bureaucratic and dependent on patronage. Suck up to the wrong party or make the wrong move, and you can kiss your career goodbye.

International recruitment is a waste of taxpayers’ money because foreign recruits don’t know how to play the Hong Kong game. One who had previously worked for foreign corporations in Hong Kong and was recruited to fill a poisoned post, having taken a quick look around him, very quickly bailed out. That leaves a small number of highly-skilled Machiavellis capable of getting to and staying at the top, but when so much energy is devoted to staying in place, how much energy is left to deliver what’s required of the job properly?

That medicine cabinet

February 2nd, 2015 atam Posted in Earth, General | No Comments »

What do you do with your expired medicine? Let it sit in the medicine cabinet, pretending not to see it? Flush it down the toilet? Chuck it in the bin?

I thought I was doing the responsible thing when I took some expired medicine back to the hospital whose pharmacy issued it, for safe disposal. What happened next was ten minutes of confusion as one nurse mumbled about there not being a policy for taking such medicine for disposal, followed by a summons to a superior to repeat the same message.

Hospitals in Hong Kong are required to collect all medical waste for safe disposal at the chemical waste treatment facility in Tsing Yi. Surely it’s not all that difficult to set up collection boxes to take back expired medicine returned by patients for removal at the same time?

We worry about air pollution in Hong Kong because we can see the smog, but what about other kinds of pollution? We don’t want the landfills extended so more and more people have some awareness of the issue of solid waste. Wastewater came into our consciousness when it was discovered that the water in Victoria Harbour was too foul to swim in, back in the days when large-scale sewage treatment wasn’t in place.

No one, however, appears concerned about what should be a major issue, here and everywhere. Over ten years ago, tests on drinking water in the UK discovered an amount of the anti-depressant Prozac, which water treatment plants aren’t supposed to remove, sufficient to cause concern. More recent research indicated that fish exposed to human medicine display adverse behaviour. That’s from medicine we discharge after our bodies have processed it; what’s the consequence of exposing the environment to much more powerful, unprocessed medicine?

The problem worries the US Environmental Protection Agency enough for it to issue the National Hazardous Waste Management Plan in June 2014, which stated that, “Given their potential for environmental pollution, a take-back scheme for expired household medicine is needed.”

If we can set up collection boxes for compact fluorescent lamps so they can be taken back and the mercury in them safely removed, surely we can do the same for expired medicine?

Food for thought

January 29th, 2015 atam Posted in General | No Comments »

As mentioned in the last post, the amount Cheung Kong and Hutchison Whampoa plan to raise from bankers – HK$55 billion – to fund their restructuring is more than the amount – HK$50 billion – that the Hong Kong government has proposed to set aside to help the old and needy.

Now comes more news that offers food for thought: Apple is sitting on US$178 billion of cash, which has been estimated as enough for running the UK’s National Health Service. One SCMP columnist is of the opinion that it doesn’t matter how big the wealth gap is because the poor are getting less poor as the world develops. How does this work? Think about all the iWatches that are about to hit Apple stores – are they really necessary? How much of Earth’s resources go into making them? How much are the workers paid for making them?

OK, so the workers make more in the sub-contractor’s factory than they would toiling on their farms in the countryside. But what if the countryside hasn’t been spoiled by open-cut mines or pollution from manufacturing concerns? What if farmers are taught to farm sustainably and only surplus labour go to factories to make essential goods?

Oxfam recently showed up at the rich men’s club in Davos to present a world inequality report, prompting another SCMP columnist to criticise them for taking up advocacy work and not sticking to charity work. To some extent I actually agree with Philip Bowring’s stance because all non-governmental organisations, in order to get heard over issues that affect humanity and this planet, are usually able to do so only after allowing themselves to be co-opted by corporations keen to burnish their image.

But does it mean inequality isn’t a problem? Is there a problem when the rich use their clout to bully governments into cutting tax so they can hoard more while governments have to be tight-fisted with social welfare items made necessary by the multitudes who can’t make enough however hard they work? Inequality, as the authors of the book The Spirit Level have pointed out, impacts on health, lifespan and our general sense of well-being. Here in Hong Kong we seem relatively healthy and long-lived, but the healthcare system is creaking at the seams and people aren’t at all happy. Then again, to the government, only economic growth matters, right?

Oh to be a rentier

January 16th, 2015 atam Posted in General | No Comments »

Can I make a confession? I aspire to be a rentier. After all, isn’t that what the government’s encouraging us all to do?

Think about it: the government’s warning of the burden of setting aside HK$50 billion to help “the elderly and needy”, whereas Hong Kong’s Superman can just click his fingers and banks will fall over each other to loan him the HK$55 billion he wants to make him even wealthier by restructuring his conglomerates. And how did he get so fabulously rich? By being a rentier, of course, making clever use of capital instruments and property transactions.

Despite the recent talk of measures to help young people become entrepreneurs, it’s obvious that the best way to survive in Hong Kong is to become unproductive members of society, deriving income, not from hard work, but from playing the stock market and buying property. After all, whether these young entrepreneurs will succeed or fail will depend on the extent to which they can shoulder high rent.

That’s how a former clerical worker I know made her decision on being forced to take early retirement. With limited opportunities for older workers and not wishing to claim CSSA, start a loss-making business or sell cardboard to make ends meet, she gathered the little savings she had and took a gamble in the stock market. She’s lost it all a couple of times, but overall she’s managed to make enough to cover her daily expenses.

Alas, for those without the stomach for that kind of risk or who may not be so fortunate, the search for decent work continues. What is ‘decent work’? Well, how ’bout cold-calling; cold-callers have the protection of the Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development no less. Or various jobs to help the rich get richer… like organising a mega loan for two huge conglomerates; which, by the way, pays nicely too.

But truly, nothing beats being a rentier. When there is little meaningful work that gives us a sense of purpose and is spiritually rewarding, all we can do is try to join the rentier class in order to do things that are meaningful to us but which doesn’t pay, like growing vegetables or doing voluntary work. Of course, there is no shortage of those who simply want to be rentiers so they can play mahjong all day. Hence the overseas property advertisements on every other page of the newspaper and the stock market surges. No, Hong Kongers are not planning to emigrate en masse (though many are contemplating it given the political climate); they just want to own an overseas property because of the assumption that the only way to go for London property, for instance, is up. And despite dire economic fundamentals around the world, the local stock market is doing well because, well, what do you do when you can make more subscribing to IPOs and quickly selling for a profit, than working nine to nine doing your boss’s bidding?

The crunch

January 8th, 2015 atam Posted in General | 1 Comment »

The sweet, sad smell of pine tells me that another Christmas is over. The pine needles are everywhere, in the lift lobby, all over the building entrance, driveway and pavement as the trees from which they came are discarded.

So that people can get into “the festive spirit” for two weeks of every year, enormous amounts of land and water are devoted to growing Christmas trees that are then shipped out around the world and transported to homes and shopping malls, burning fuel that is best left unused. And while there are families who can afford thousands of dollars to get their Christmas trees from some temperate land to sub-tropical Hong Kong, there are others who are shivering under flyovers and pushing carts of discarded paper and cardboard boxes on the street even though they’re 70 or even 80 years old.

Inequality has reached truly unsustainable levels and is set to get worse. A survey no doubt commissioned to help banks make lots of money out of “high net worth individuals” has shown that, in Hong Kong, the number of those with total assets worth more than US$30 million is 20 times more concentrated than the global average. Another survey showed that a typical young couple in the city would have to save for 14.4 years to get enough for a downpayment for a home at today’s prices. Hence all the bright ideas for helping young people set up their businesses, get on the housing ladder, etc, while dancing around the issue of wealth accumulation by landlords and developers who will make sure many of these entrepreneurs will fail while others will have to lose a good chunk of their hard-earned income, not to tax – which would, in a place with better governance, benefit society – but rent and expensive homes.

Older people who criticise young people for not getting on with it like they did in their day don’t understand the crunch confronting today’s working generation: the widening inequality resulting from the neoliberal agenda that is made a hundred times worse by the information revolution. The industrial revolution drove blue-collar workers out of factories, but at least better education opportunities meant their offsprings could find white-collar jobs that paid decent wages. Today, better education means, for many, student loans but not very bright prospects of decent jobs. Mark Zuckerberg’s making billions agglomerating the private data of Facebook users, but how much are many of the same Facebook users making? Jeff Bezos is also making billions from the online order giant Amazon, but how much are his warehouse workers making? For every young millionaire who makes it designing computer games, how many young people are getting by selling mobile phone plans?

The rising tide is not floating all boats; it’s only floating super-yachts that hire people to work as servants on board.