A Christmas Carol

December 21st, 2015 atam Posted in General No Comments »

Thanks to the Guardian for reprinting an old essay by the late Christopher Hitchens, on the subject of Christmas. Thus inspired, reproduced below are the lyrics from the Tom Lehrer song “A Christmas Carol”:

“Christmas time is here, by golly,
Disapproval would be folly,
Deck the halls with hunks of holly,
Fill the cup and don’t say “when.”
Kill the turkeys, ducks and chickens,

Mix the punch, drag out the dickens,
Even though the prospect sickens,
Brother, here we go again.

On christmas day you can’t get sore,
Your fellow man you must adore,
There’s time to rob him all the more
The other three hundred and sixty-four.

Relations, sparing no expense’ll
Send some useless old utensil,
Or a matching pen and pencil.
“just the thing I need! how nice!”
It doesn’t matter how sincere it
Is, nor how heartfelt the spirit,
Sentiment will not endear it,
What’s important is the price.

Hark the herald tribune sings,
Advertising wondrous things.
God rest ye merry, merchants,
May you make the yuletide pay.
Angels we have heard on high
Tell us to go out and buy!”

Trees have no money or lobbying power

November 11th, 2015 atam Posted in Building, Earth, General No Comments »

Listening to ex-Hong Kong CE Tung Chee-hwa talk about how sad he was to hear about a family having to pay HK$3 million for a 170-square feet flat and his think tank’s idea of chopping down trees to provide enough land to build housing for everyone, a tree may groan.

“Sigh, I clean the polluted air and provide a home for different species of animals that keep the environment healthy. My roots hold the soil together so it doesn’t slide away when there’s heavy rail, and I help filter the rain so what goes into the reservoirs is fairly clean. And yet, all Hong Kong people can think of is cut me down.”

The tree may have added that, right next to the country park where it stands, a sprawling village has just sprawled further with new three-storey village houses built to be sold to outsiders for a profit, or former farmland deliberately ruined as the owner awaits the knock of a developer. The tree may have one or two NGOs with no official position and zero financial clout arguing on its behalf, but they’re hardly a match for the wealth and power of village chiefs, which have successfully put a stop to all conversation about the unsustainable small house policy. So while there’s endless talk of a shortage of land to meet Hong Kong’s housing needs, no one dare suggest the land’s right there, occupied by three-storey high village houses rather than the 50-storey high housing estates that could accommodate thousands more people.

There are villages where the occupants genuinely care about maintaining their rural way of life, but those who have clamoured against any encroachment on their turf are doing so purely for profit. So while their chiefs rub shoulders with the high and mighty, the poor trees can only sigh and hope for the best. After all, the way things are going, climate change may claim them if the chairsaw doesn’t, right?

Signs of age

September 11th, 2015 atam Posted in General No Comments »

Ever wonder how a sufferer of Parkinson’s disease would cope with a smartphone? How long would it take for the sufferer to hit the right virtual buttons and successfully make a call?

Tremors are not restricted to those with Parkinson’s disease; many elderly people suffer tremors too. Even the perfectly healthy ones with a pair of steady hands often don’t know what to do with a smartphone.

Sitting at a table with friends who have elderly parents or grandparents, I heard so many tales of frustration that were amusing to us, but not at all amusing to the old people who have to put up with them. One recalled his mother gleefully replying to Whatsapp messages – without realising that they were never actually sent. Another realised why he’d been having difficulty contacting his parents after giving his mother a smartphone, when he watched her attempt to answer a call but not quite getting which virtual button to press, despite his having explained it all to her before. I once saw an elderly gentleman, stopping in the middle of his morning exercise to pull out an iPhone to make a call, then fumbling in his breast pocket for slips of paper with the names and numbers of those he wanted to call.

Aware of these pitfalls, I hunted high and low for a mobile suitable for my own aged parent, with no luck. The one and only model ever available in Hong Kong, provided by the social services to the elderly in need, was discontinued a few years ago. There are several good models available on the internet, but as they would have to be shipped from Europe or the US, they’re only available in English/Russian or English/Spanish only. That left just one option, the iNo Mobile Simple 3G from Singapore, which comes with English/Malay/simplified Chinese. Why do I have to go to such lengths to find a mobile for the elderly? Because they’re designed with the elderly’s needs in mind: big, actual buttons, a torch, an SOS button at the back and high volume for the hard of hearing.

Isn’t it funny that a place that’s constantly fretting over its ageing population should offer so little to an ever-growing demographic? The assistants in every phone shop shook their heads with disdain when I approached about a mobile with good old actual buttons; they wanted to make big money selling expensive smartphones, not cheap basic phones for the elderly. Whilst Japan has long spotted the business opportunities offered by ageing customers, in Hong Kong they’re still considered nothing more than an inconvenience, it seems.

Oh, if you have an elderly parent, hold off giving the iNo Mobile Simple 3G a try: it’s already broken down, after barely ten days’ use.

What’s Hong Kong’s transport policy?

August 25th, 2015 atam Posted in General No Comments »

When I first heard about Google’s driverless car, my heart sank: here was another example of the way technology was writing mankind out of a meaningful future. From a human behaviour point of view, it was a good idea to invent a car that would make road rage impossible; sensors would ensure the driverless vehicles maintain a safe distance from other cars. Considering people’s attachment to their own motor pods have much to do with their being able to drive their own ‘baby’, driverless vehicle could possibly also put them off the auto obsession and make public transport more attractive.

But what about the commercial drivers who rely on taking goods and passengers from A to B to make a living? Driveless vehicles would make them redundant. In an overpopulated world, isn’t it ridiculous to introduce a technology that removes an employment opportunity just when there are more and more people looking for jobs?

However, this doesn’t apply to Hong Kong. Forget about the taxi vs Uber debate; let’s have a fleet of electrically-powered, driverless taxis ASAP. No cheating, no speeding, no roadside pollution, no prolonged queueing during shift changes. People can simply log a call and the nearest available taxi will be automatically assigned to pick them up.

All the commercial establishments, from printers to food suppliers who are now short of drivers to deliver their products because the filthy rich are paying them top dollars to be their chauffeurs will then be able recruit the younger members of the taxi trade. Meanwhile, the older drivers who now have passengers fearing for their health and eyesight can switch to safer occupations as building caretakers or restaurant staff. Unemployment may be a concern in many places, but here in Hong Kong, the job market is so tight many a construction worker is well over 50 and still in high demand.

If the taxi fleet is automated, the roads will be much clearer because there won’t be empty taxis constantly cruising for customers, wasting loads of energy in the process. The current problem, of course, is not so much a new service competing against the taxi trade, but the government’s unwillingness to lose the support of the many cast-iron votes it gets from the taxi component of the transport constituency.

Hong Kong has no sensible transport policy because it is under the pressure of cast-iron votes to protect their interests. Hence the construction of more new roads and the failure to introduce electronic road pricing. The push to extend the MTR network is all well and good, but officials who are chauffeured around town have no idea of the human congestion on MTR trains and don’t appreciate urban planning that will disperse employment opportunities so half the population aren’t jammed in train carriages at peak hours heading in the same direction.

If there were a sensible transport policy, there wouldn’t be any need to fret over spending billions of dollars to build an underground car park at West Kowloon Cultural District. Instead, we have a former government planner who thinks it’s better to scrap the low-carbon trams so more space would be available for gas-guzzling, polluting cars.

Said planner now heads a ‘think tank’. What does that say about Hong Kong?

The assault on trees

August 11th, 2015 atam Posted in Climate change, Earth, General No Comments »

Have you ever seen trees walk? No, not like those in “Lord of the Rings”, wading through a flood, but real ones that, over years, even decades, grow new branches and drop new roots into the ground.

I’ve seen one such, on a slope. Over time it has ‘walked’ as it grows, supporting new branches with new roots so no typhoon can topple it. Whenever its branches overhangs nearby buildings, they get trimmed off, so over time it has learned which way it can ‘walk’, and has kept within the slope. The authorities did a good job here, using wire mesh and retaining walls to stabilise the slope without strangling the trees, so now the trees help stabilise the slope with their roots too.

Many of Hong Kong’s oldest retaining walls would have collapsed long ago but for the extensive roots of old trees holding them together. Now the West Island Line’s open, go take a look at the one on Forbes Street in Kennedy Town. Or the one in …. oh, I’d better not tell you where the others are in case the government’s ‘Tree Management Office’ takes a saw to them as well. RIP, Sai Ying Pun tree wall.

The safety of pedestrians is important, yes, but does that justify chopping down trees whose stability has been compromised by a comprehensive failure to take them into account in a city’s development? At a time when the urban heat island effect has exacerbated climate change to such an extent that Hong Kong experienced the hottest day in 130 years, we can ill afford the callous approach towards ‘tree management’, which, basically, is to chop down any tree that might give the government bad press should they topple during bouts of heavy rain or a typhoon.

Trim them, fine, but how ’bout allowing them room to grow healthily too? What’s the point of all the so-called greening when saplings are literally imprisoned in railings over tiny patches of soil? Go take a look at the pavement outside the Jockey Club’s headquarters on Morrison Hill Road (considering the power that institution wields, maybe those trees are safe). Yes, they’re confined to their little holes, but they’ve also been allowed to grow under the brick pavement, which has now become wavy terrain as the roots push up from underneath. Those trees are now providing healthy cover for passers-by.

You can have concrete solutions to clearing heavy rain, by shotcreting slopes and diverting runoff into huge drainage tunnels, but these solutions don’t give you the oxygen this city badly needs.

Ah, but why all this moaning? Perhaps the latest episode of tree slaughter is just a warning from the government: criticise us for letting trees topple in heavy rain, and we’ll chop them all down to shut you up.


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.

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?