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?

A fast fast

April 14th, 2014 atam Posted in Climate change, Culture, General No Comments »

How often are charitable campaigns just opportunities for us to feel good about ourselves rather than genuinely helping others?

World Vision just concluded a successful fundraising at Aberdeen sports ground, where about 2,000 took part in a 30-hour fast to raise funds and awareness of poverty.

Apparently a mother found the idea so meaningful she drove her son all the way from Guangzhou to take part. When she’s not happily feeling smug about having made a contribution, perhaps she can reflect on the practical good she could have done by simply not making the trip, thereby saving a significant amount of carbon emissions from burning non-renewable fossil fuels. And how many people will they be able to feed if they simply sell the car and give that money to the poor?

The gambling capital of the world

March 19th, 2014 atam Posted in Culture, General No Comments »

Think this is an article about Macau? Wrong.

You may think that, given the betting turnover at the casinos, Macau must qualify for that title hands down. You would be wrong though, because Hong Kong beats its neighbour without the need for any casinos at all.

Now you may wonder: am I referring to the amount Hong Kong people bet on horse races and football matches? Sorry, wrong again.

Hong Kong folks are in fact betting on stocks and properties, but of course the usual euphemism for that is ‘investing’. The ordinary people I know don’t look at it that way though; they are well aware that they are gambling – out of necessity.

This came to me when a friend, a former clerical worker forced to retire early some years ago, revealed that she actively plays the stock market in order to make ends meet. She doesn’t play the market because she is greedy, so she hasn’t been lured into any disastrous get-rich-quick funds. She is basically forced to play the stock market in order to beat inflation and put food on the table. The little money she was able to save as a clerk would never have lasted very long had she not taken a gamble with it by putting some in dividend-yielding shares and some in volatile stocks that can yield a quick profit if she gets the swing right.

So there you have it: our stock market is buoyant thanks to desperate Hong Kongers who have no other way to keep going. They’re not mired in poverty, but they have to risk losing their shirts to get by. The fruit seller just told me bananas have gone up by HK$3 per pound; with this kind of inflation, who can afford to rely on a little savings parked in the bank with next-to-no interest?

Another revelation came when another friend said she came by her leisurely life through property trading. She’s not greedy either, and is not speculating to make big bucks out of the property market while edging out the long queue of prospective homeowners. She’s just astutely trading her way up the property market, accumulating enough spare cash along the way to live a comfortable life without working. This has enabled her to spend time on charitable work, which surely is more rewarding than the false productivity that contributes to a nice GDP figure but not personal growth or health.

In a place where homes are affordable and there is fulfilling work on offer, people wouldn’t have to gamble as a way of life. And if this is the kind of economic activity that keeps Hong Kong ticking, do you think this city has all that bright a future?

What does tourism do for Hong Kong?

February 27th, 2014 atam Posted in Culture, General 1 Comment »

Have you ever wondered how it’s come to pass that a developed economy has to rely on an industry that low-income economies typically exploit to generate revenue?

There are places in the world where the people have few skills but there is plenty of white sand, archaeological relics or beautiful scenery, so tourism becomes the national income generator of choice. The irony in Hong Kong is that, for a place that prizes education so highly, there aren’t many skills here either.

In Germany and Japan, workers who work in hi-tech, ultra-clean manufacturing plants are regarded as, not “blue collar” workers, but part of the middle class. They undergo vigorous training and are respected for their skills. They are also paid accordingly. Here in Hong Kong, even though we don’t know how to fix anything that breaks down, we look down on the technicians who come to our rescue as “manual workers”. Such is the perception of any job that calls for manual skills that parents all want their offsprings to get a degree, or two, and sit in a nice office pushing paper. It’s a real cultural problem.

What happens when the universities only train up youngsters to push paper and the thousands whose intelligence is not geared for office work have only one option, in the form of the Institute of Vocational Education, to turn to?

Jobs that call for skills go begging. Those with the skills are getting on and there are few successors in sight. With employers unwilling to pay a wage that recognises the skills involved, young people are even less inclined to train up. That leaves only jobs that don’t require many skills – like tour guides, salespeople, theme park attendants, etc.

When a government chooses to milk the tourism sector for revenue rather than invest in its people, the result is a widening wealth gap and worsening prospects for the future sustainability of an economy. Here’s what happens:

  • Capital assets such as hotels and so-called tourist attractions funnel money into the hands of the rich. Where the corporations involved are foreign-owned, that money leaks straight out of Hong Kong
  • Shops catering to tourists funnel money into the hands of landlords while small shopkeepers who’d make up the lower rungs of the middle class are driven out by high rent
  • Tension rises as locals whose needs, which were catered to by the small shopkeepers, find it increasingly tough to afford the inflated prices of everything
  • Luxury shops split their hefty income between the landlords and the overseas headquarters of the luxury brands; all Hong Kong gets are the income of the salespeople, who don’t acquire any long-term skills that would enable them to earn a better, more stable income

Every government announcement of new projects these days comes with an estimate of the number of job opportunities created, but not all jobs are created equal. Yes, there are a handful of people making nice money out of tourism, but they’re not the low-skilled, poorly paid people employed by the sector.

Waste not, want not

December 7th, 2012 atam Posted in Climate change, Culture, Earth, General No Comments »

Hong Kongers are now prepared for waste charging, according to the latest reports.

We don’t want a smelly extension to the landfill nor do we want a polluting incinerator – which may still be pushed through by the government – so we’ll take the lesser evil and accept being charged for our waste instead.

We are deeply concerned about the issue of waste because it’s so close to home, literally: we generate it and can see it and smell it.

But what about what we can’t see or smell? Like, for instance, the wasteland created in Canada by our desperate need for oil. These National Geographic photos show how tar sands are mined to extract oil – a hugely polluting and inefficient operation that would not be cost-effective if the world still has plenty of the easily recoverable oil available.

At the “Ecology and Economics” workshop organised by Kadoorie Farm on December 4, speaker Chandran Nair described Hong Kong as Disneyland compared with some other places in the world where even basic sanitation was lacking.

Those living in rundown subdivided flats in Sham Shui Po would beg to differ, but there’s no denying that Hong Kong as a whole provides a better standard of living than many other parts of the world. And he’s sadly right in more ways than one. Look at how the stock market’s jumped in response to news that China’s economic growth is picking up again. But is this really cause for celebration?

Take a look at the charts on China’s energy use from Business Insider. The data comes from Goldman Sachs, which no doubt compiled it with a view towards identifying opportunities for making lots of money, whether they’re predicated on good news or disaster.

What the charts show is a country that accounts for a huge chunk of the world’s energy use. It is a chunk that is getting bigger but, alarmingly, it owes its size not only to the determination to push economic growth, but also to push it however inefficient the efforts may be. The country now accounts for almost half of worldwide coal consumption – the dirtiest fossil fuel there is.

With this level of energy use, demand is bound to rise and rise – and you know what that means for fuel prices. So how should the government act when the electricity companies apply for tariff increases? If we’re prepared to pay for waste disposal, why aren’t we prepared to pay more for electricity usage, particularly when much can be done to reduce it? Similarly, rather than bang on about the oil companies profiteering, why don’t we ask ourselves whether we really need to drive everywhere? Lam Chiu Ying, who also spoke at the workshop, talked about how he was brainwashed by our materialistic society when he was young and, as soon as the family grew, decided to buy a car. Now he leads a much simpler life.

Which is what Dr Satish Kumar, who headlined the workshop, wants all of us to do. Spend a little less time working in the office; spend a little bit of time growing something, be it a tree or a herb. And he set an example for us all: while the rest of us went straight back to the lecture room to continue with the workshop after lunch, he went off for a nap.

The beauty treatment

November 28th, 2012 atam Posted in Culture, General No Comments »

Some years ago an elderly lady went to a plastic surgeon to have fat deposits removed from her eyelids, because they were obstructing her vision.

After the procedure, the plastic surgeon pointed at the wrinkles on her forehead and showed her half a tube of Botox. It was left over from a procedure with another patient, he said, and if she was happy to have it injected into her forehead, he’d do it for half the usual price.

The elderly lady is so appalled by his ethics deficit that she’s never tired of repeating the story to her friends since, particularly those who’ve been persuaded that they need some kind of beauty treatment to improve/restore their looks.

The value society places on appearances has caused many a tragedy, as the stories concerning DR Beauty and other mishaps at beauty salons show. What is rarely appreciated is the tragedy that lies behind the value society also places on superficial symbols of success, which is why the confession of a plastic surgeon, which you can watch here, is so interesting. His voice in the video isn’t very clear, so parts of the transcript are reproduced below.

Richard is a plastic surgeon who is “a typical product of today’s society… From young… I was told by the media… and people around me that happiness is about success. And that success is about being wealthy. With this mind-set, I’ve always be extremely competitive, since I was young…”

To be successful is to be a professional, so Richard went to medical school. Although he won two patents through his medical research, he wasn’t happy, because he wasn’t making any money; he decided he needed to become a private doctor, and that the plastic surgery industry offered the biggest opportunity for making lots of it.

“You know the irony is that people do not make heroes out of average GP (general practitioner), family physicians. They don’t. They make heroes out of people who are rich and famous. People who are not happy to pay $20 to see a GP, the same person have no qualms paying ten thousand dollars for a liposuction, 15 thousand dollars for a breast augmentation, and so on and so forth. So it’s a no brainer isn’t? Why do you want to be a GP? Become an aesthetic physician. So instead of healing the sick and ill, I decided that I’ll become a glorified beautician. So, business was good, very good. …

“So what do I do with the spare cash. How do I spend my weekends? Typically, I’ll have car club gatherings… I get myself a Ferrari… So what do I do after getting a car? It’s time to buy a house, to build our own bungalows. So we go around looking for a land to build our own bungalows, we went around hunting. So how do i live my life? Well, we all think we have to mix around with the rich and famous. This is one of the Miss Universe. So we hang around with the beautiful, rich and famous. This by the way is an internet founder. So this is how we spend our lives, with dining and all the restaurants and Michelin Chefs you know…

“So I reach a point in life that I got everything for my life. I was at the pinnacle of my career and all.”

And then, still barely 40 years ago, Richard discovered he had Stage 4 lung cancer – and suddenly saw the light.

“When I start to accumulate, the more I have, the more I want. The more I wanted, the more obsessed I became. Like what I showed you earlier on, all I can was basically to get more possessions, to reach the pinnacle of what society did to us, of what society wants us to be. I became so obsessed that nothing else really mattered to me. Patients were just a source of income, and I tried to squeeze every single cent out of these patients.

“A lot of times we forget, whom we are supposed to be serving. We become so lost that we serve nobody else but just ourselves. That was what happened to me. Whether it is in the medical, the dental fraternity, I can tell you, right now in the private practice, sometimes we just advise patients on treatment that is not indicated. Grey areas. And even though it is not necessary, we kind of advocate it… We kind of lose our moral compass along the way. Because we just want to make money.”

Sounds familiar? Richard ended his talk with this advice:

“Don’t let society tell you how to live. Don’t let the media tell you what you’re supposed to do. Those things happened to me. And I led this life thinking that these are going to bring me happiness. I hope that you will think about it and decide for yourself how you want to live your own life. Not according to what other people tell you to do, and you have to decide whether you want to serve yourself, whether you are going to make a difference in somebody else’s life. Because true happiness doesn’t come from serving yourself. I thought it was but it didn’t turn out that way. With that I thank you, if you have any questions you have for me, please feel free. Thank you.”

Green park – not

August 3rd, 2012 atam Posted in Building, Culture, Greenwash No Comments »

Oh big wok (大鑊) indeed: Michael Lynch, the chief executive of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, who’s dubbed the district “WoK”, wants to spend HK$4 billion of taxpayers’ money on a “green park” – to cover up a car park.

If you’re looking for an example of the kind of environmental hypocrisy that afflicts Hong Kong, you can’t find a better one than this. The car park will be kept out of sight so the cultural district will have the appearance of a “green” project.

It is to be built underground, on top of the West Kowloon Terminus, which will bring mainland tourists travelling on the high-speed rail directly to the district. Non-car-owning locals though will have to trek over after taking the train to the MTR Austin Station. Or cycle there; bicycle lanes have been promised, but how these will be integrated with the transport network in the rest of Kowloon, who knows.

Why is the car park necessary? People going to performances and exhibitions at the Cultural Centre, Kwai Tsing Theatre and the Academy for Performing Arts have typically gone via public transport, with just a handful taking taxis. Even at the City Hall, which has a government car park standing right next to it, performances and exhibitions are predominantly attended by those who get there by bus, train or ferry.

The elitism is explicit in the expense to accommodate a car park: those who can afford to own a car are particularly encouraged to visit the future cultural venues, even though the pollution and energy use associated with this mode of transport make a mockery of its green claims. At a time when Hong Kong is choking under a heavy smog, does it make sense to continue encouraging vehicle use? Imagine also the cost of running such a car park, in terms of lighting and ventilation.

Even assuming the amount can be covered from the return on the government-approved sum that the authority has invested, wouldn’t it be better to spend that money on something else? Hong Kong’s population is projected to age in the coming years; suppose we invest that HK$4 billion in heathcare?

What’s the point of the minimum wage consultation?

May 17th, 2012 atam Posted in Culture, Food, General 1 Comment »

Another day, another restaurant closure.

Not because the staff now cost too much because of the minimum wage but, as everyone would have guessed, because of a greedy landlord.

If the consultation on whether or not to raise the minimum wage is merely a waste of time, that’d be bad enough, but it’s worse because it skirts the fundamental cause of the wealth gap in Hong Kong.

Society has argued over the minimum wage for a long time but if we look at the people pitched against each other we’d see it’s not as simple as labour vs the capitalists. Rather, it’s low-income earners against small-to-medium-sized enterprises that can only keep costs down by squeezing workers’ wages, since they don’t have any leverage with the landlords and developers whose properties they occupy.

If the minimum wage stays at the existing level, SMEs have a better chance of survival; if it goes up, workers get a better pay packet but more SMEs will be forced to close shop. Either way, the landlords/developers make a bucket. Effectively, they leech the wealth out of society and, as they get richer and more powerful, condemn others to a struggle they blame on each other.

In many countries, local authorities have the power to approve or reject the establishment of certain businesses they deem detrimental to their communities. Thus, local councils in the UK have rejected plans by supermarket chains to take over sites occupied by local shops. In India, determined lobbying by small retailers has forced the national government to rethink plans to open itself to multinational retail giants – companies that typically have the money to meet the landlords/developers’ asking price in Hong Kong and drive mom-and-pop shops out of existence.

Why can’t Hong Kong’s communities have a say in whether or not the little shops and teahouses that have served them so well should be kicked out in favour of chain stores? To reject the idea as market intervention would be hypocrisy when district councils already have the right to turn down bus companies’ proposals to change routes. People don’t want the bus companies to raise their fares, and yet they can’t rationalise their routes to keep fares down because they can’t remove those that few passengers use. Ironies abound.

Someone’s going to argue that the bus companies provide a public service but shops and businesses are private businesses, but the minimum wage law is an acknowledgement that public interest is involved in the running of private businesses as the wage level concerns the public good. So does rent. If it isn’t regulated, the wealth gap will never be solved, whatever the incoming government does about housing.

The society of the spectacle

April 16th, 2012 atam Posted in Animal welfare, Climate change, Culture, Earth, General No Comments »

So have you managed to catch a glimpse of Lyuba?

Funny how the mummified body of a baby mammoth (which, by the way, isn’t the latest art work by Damien Hirst. How he must be kicking himself for not getting hold of it, encrusting it with diamonds then selling it on for gazillion dollars) that lived on the icy tundra of the Arctic 40,000 years ago should become entertainment for an iPhone-camera crowd jostling for a picture in the icily air-conditioned atrium of the IFC.

Funny also how the real animals in our countryside – and even in the urban areas – don’t catch our eyes; and if they do, more often than not receive complaints for getting in our way. Somehow, animals are fine as long as they’re exotic or dead, kept well away from us and don’t remind us that we share a common habitat by the name of Earth.

There’s a lesson in Lyuba’s world tour as well as an irony. The lesson is that Lyuba’s discovery was only possible because of melting ice, an effect of global warming. The irony is that while people don’t like animals that they consider to have encroached on their habitat, rather than the other way round; they will fall over each other to see one that’s long dead or those that should be left alone rather than be disturbed by coach-loads of tourists – like the real elephants in wildlife reserves. Animals don’t exist to provide entertainment for humans; they exist as vital links in our common ecosystem, and we forget at our own peril.

The excitement generated by Lyuba’s exhibition at the IFC is a perfect reflection of what French social theorist Guy Debord called “the society of the spectacle” (la société du spectacle). In his collection of aphorisms of the same name, he drew attention to the way in which everything in a consumerist society became commodified for the purpose of consumption.

“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation,” he wrote. “The images detached from every aspect of life fuse in a common stream in which the unity of this life can no longer be reestablished. Reality considered partially unfolds, in its own general unity, as a pseudo-world apart, an object of mere contemplation.”

We live our lives through the images and narratives provided by spectacles such as Lyuba, soap operas and advertisements to such an extent that the real lives that we can live, in which we interact with the world around us, weaving our own narratives, is deemed too real. We get our hands dirty; we sweat and afterwards there may not even be a nice shower awaiting us at a five-star hotel or someone to wash up the resulting laundry for us. So let’s set reality aside and settle for something thoroughly sanitised and objectified – a dead animal from some mysterious past, kept well away from us in a perspex case that can be viewed in the air-conditioned comfort of a shopping mall.