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Supermarkets

Rants Whenever I go overseas and return to HK I find it unbelievable that we do not make more of a fuss about our appalling supermarkets. In fact, super, is hardly an appropriate adjective.

UK has a range of excellent supermarkets, e.g. Sainsburys, Waitrose, Tesco, ASDA, Lidl. New Zealand has New World, Countdown, Woolworths, and there will be a similar lists of supermarket chains in other countries. We have Wellcome, where you are often not, and Park n Shop where you can't park and shopping can be a challenge. There are some smaller players but generally, the HK supermarket scene is restricted to these two. Of course, Park n Shop and Wellcome provide their premium outlets, such as International, Market Place and Fusion, but they are essentially the same shops and suffer from the same problems, they just have less blood and sawdust on the floor.

So what’s wrong with our supermarkets? Compared to overseas chains our supermarkets are too small. They may be designed so that the aisles may be wide enough for two trolleys to pass but shops pile up boxes in the aisles with products that may be on offer.

boxes

boxes

So instead of being wide enough for two trolleys the aisles become wide enough for just one trolley. I have no doubt that legislation in other countries would consider such practices as dangerous, if not illegal.

Add to that, the staff stocking the shelves seem to be of the opinion that the shop is there to give them employment rather than to serve customers and do little to make way for shoppers. Trolleys containing the goods being stacked may be left around the shop, usually in a haphazard manner so that they block the aisles. It is so tempting to shunt them to another part of the shop.

Most of our supermarkets have small stock rooms and no access other than through the front door whereas those overseas may have stock rooms half the size of the shop. Delivery trucks block the roads. Trolleys laden with new stock have to be pushed from the truck into the shop through the same door that customers are trying to enter and leave, usually by men who just want to get the job done and really aren't too interested in the customers. And what happens to the stock once inside the shop? Trolleys and boxes are piled up and customers find themselves removing boxes to get at the products hidden on the shelves behind them. Combined with the display boxes and the shelf stackers there isn't a lot of space left and the aisles that started off wide enough for two trolleys can be reduced to being wide enough for no trolleys.

deliveries

Having fought your way past the display boxes, the delivered stock and the shelf-stackers you head for the checkout. Some shops may be generously provided with six checkouts, of which three may even be open, while queues of 15-20 people tail back past the shelves providing additional obstructions for shoppers to negotiate. The staff on the tills, not surprisingly, do not give the impression that they enjoy their work. Quite often they will be holding conversations with their colleague at the neighbouring checkout or shouting to another across the far side of the shop. Eye contact and smiles are noticeably absent, and who can blame them, not a job I would want, but a bit of interaction with customers would probably improve the experience for both staff and customers. 

checkout

But do we need all these staff on the checkouts? Here, as in other areas, Hong Kong has failed to make use of technology which is widely used elsewhere. Modern supermarkets have self-checkouts with maybe 10 or more checkout stations supervised by one or two members of staff to deal with problems. With so many checkouts it is rare to have the long waits that we suffer from here.

self checkout

But people will say this is all well and good but other countries have more space to build bigger supermarkets and rents are not as high as they are here. This is undeniably true but, as with many situations in Hong Kong, problems could be solved if there was a willingness to deal with issues. But let's be realistic, our supermarkets will continue to be second-rate as they have a relative monopoly and little incentive to change.

So, let's provide that incentive to change. On our supermarket shelves, we see products from Waitrose, Carrefour and other European chains. Instead of just having their products on the shelves, how about inviting some of these major players to set up in Hong Kong? The government seems able to find sites to give away to expensive international schools so how about they offer a plot of land to Sainsburys or another overseas supermarket chain? A plot of land big enough to allow them to build a large supermarket with plenty of parking, perhaps somewhere central such as Sha Tin. Hong Kong people could then experience a proper supermarket without having to go to China or overseas.

Even those without cars might find it worthwhile to make the trip. All new towns should have similar facilities. The government could provide some incentives to encourage overseas chains to come here. What they must NOT do is to allow one of our existing supermarkets to take advantage of such an offer as we need the competition and Park n Shop and Wellcome need to see how it should be done. With serious competition, we might actually see some improvement in our local supermarkets.

Imagination

Rants Complaints about the poor standard of our taxi service and the introduction of Uber did not cause our government to shake up the taxi industry and insist that standards improve. Instead the plans are to introduce a premium service for which we will pay more.

Complaints that our hospitals A&E services are being misused led to the proposed increase in the fee from $100 to $180 for using the service plus the suggestion that more people should use private medicine.

Complaints that our landfills are being filled up too quickly did not bring about improved recycling facilities nor restrictions on the amount of packaging that manufacturers use but did result in the proposed waste management fee, which will be a great deterrent for those who choose to dump their rubbish in the streets, which they do at the moment despite there being no charge.

Complaints about the amount of illegal parking have led to a proposed increase in parking fines from $320 to $400, as if the wealthy are really going to be bothered, particularly when you compare the cost of paying parking fines to the cost of parking legally in one of our multi-storey car parks.

And to solve complaints about the so-called housing crisis the government introduces measures to make it more expensive to borrow money for a second apartment and yet people are still queuing up to add to their collection.

I think we can see a bit of a pattern here. Charging more will solve will all our problems, or at least that’s what the government would like us to think. Do we see improvement in any of these situations? Of course not. Fines are not the answer.

The government seems unable, or unwilling, to analyse the real cause of problems and lacks the imagination and the will to stand up against vested interests and the rich and powerful. In a bizarre article in this morning’s South China Morning Post, Alex Lo argues that, it is right to look at building houses in the country parks, despite there being plenty of other land on which to build, because the government is too spineless to stand up against the landowners and the Heung Yee Kuk.

With Carrie Lam’s cabinet waiting in the wings likely to deliver more of the same, the situation is not encouraging. We need strong government with initiative and imagination that is prepared to fight for what is right but people like that probably would not go down too well with Beijing.

Rubbish

Hong Kong is running out of landfill space. The government, not known for its imagination, has decided that the answer is to charge for waste disposal by introducing a system similar to other countries where we will buy garbage bags from shops, the price of which will include a levy for waste charges. They defend this action by saying it works in other countries. I don't doubt that but Hong Kong is not other countries.

Many Hong Kong residents don't show a great deal of pride in their environment. It is common to see people drop litter in the street, out of car windows, even out of the windows of flats. Take a look at popular BBQ sites on a Sunday morning, or walk along the many trails in our country parks and look at the amount of rubbish left behind. Rubbish bins in the streets are being fitted with smaller openings to discourage people from leaving large items and bins in the countryside are disappearing as we are being encouraged to take our litter home. How's that for logic. Take your litter home and dispose of it there - where you will be charged for the privilege. If people are happy to dump their litter in the street and the country parks now when rubbish disposal is free, are they more likely to leave the place tidy if they have to pay for waste disposal?

There are suggestions that the waste charge will encourage people to recycle. Well, it might if someone provided the infrastructure for recycling. Where I live there are probably half a dozen recycling points which have a container about the size of a small dustbin for paper, plastic and tins. Great for four or five families but these are to serve tens of thousands of people. Totally inadequate. And there are plenty of us who would love to know what happens to items collected from the recylcing bins. Is it really recycled?

In NZ, and I am sure other countries too, the local recycling station which served, at most, a few thousand people, consisted of a large container with slots for paper, cardboard, plastics, metals together with a number of crates for glass: brown glass, green glass, clear glass.... But I would not necessarily suggest that we should have more recycling stations, nor bigger recycling stations in HK.

If people can't be bothered putting rubbish in a bin then they aren't going to separate their rubbish and trundle off down the street to find the recycling point where they can dispose of it. All new housing developments should be required to provide easy-to-use recycling facilities, not just a few bins. It would be unreasonable to expect all older buildings to provide sophisticated facilities but there should be some provision made to assist and encourage residents to separate their rubbish at source.

A much more environmentally friendly and sustainable approach to waste reduction would be to reduce the amount of waste that can be produced. A lot of products come with excessive packaging. If governments in general, and our own in particular, were to put limits on the amount of packaging allowed then it would go a long way to reducing the overall waste produced.

If the waste charge is just part of a plan to reduce waste then I'm all for it, but on its own it looks like another half-baked idea that may prove to be less than successful.



Police thugs

One night, the police get a call about a man being beaten up. They arrive to find the victim with his hands tied behind his back being kicked and beaten by a gang of seven men. The police intervene, interview the gang and find that they have been under a lot of pressure at work and that the victim had provoked them. The police show sympathy, tell the gang it’s understandable and that it’s ok to give the man a beating.

I would hope that everyone would read this and say how ridiculous, this would never happen in Hong Kong, and yet 33000 police officers and their supporters seem to think it is acceptable behaviour. By condoning the actions of the seven police officers who have just been jailed, and by insulting the judiciary, it seems the police and their supporters are calling for us to accept Duterte style vigilante policing.

I do not hear any of the police supporters saying that what the seven did was outrageous and completely unacceptable, just that they were acting under stress and have been treated harshly. Had the policemen lashed out when Mr Tsang, for whom I have no sympathy whatsoever, poured liquid over them it might be possible to use that argument but, instead, collectively, they took him to one side and beat him. That isn’t heat-of-the-moment cracking under pressure, it is deliberate thuggery. They even did it on camera, giving the impression that they did not think what they were doing was wrong.

Rather than complain about the sentencing the police and the public should be happy that, thanks to the judiciary, we have seen that neither the police nor ex CEOs are above the law.

Think outside the box

Rants This week, our respected leader, CY Leung, made his parting speech as Hong Kong's CEO and one of his statements setting out what the future may hold in store, was to address Hong Kong's housing problem. Hong Kong has a population of almost 7.5 million people stuffed into an area of 1100 sq km, of which 25% is developed and 40% is designated country park. The result is that the developed areas have a stacking system for storing people in little boxes while a lot of great countryside remains to provide an escape from the crowds and which fights a losing battle filtering out the pollution that we shove into the atmosphere on a daily basis.

In the past, children were content to live with their parents until the old folk keeled over but these days people want their own space, which adds to the growing demand for housing. And as demand grows, so do prices so that the average person needs to save for 150 years before they will have enough for the deposit on a flat. Now, our dear leader said that the space for building more houses is so limited that we need to "think outside the box" in order to come up with a solution. And what was his great, out-of-the-box, brain wave? To build on the edges of the country parks. I can only think that, if that is out-of-the-box thinking then CY must live in a very small box which is certainly not the case when you look at his mansion on the Peak.

In the same week, a new development of flats was put on sale in Tsuen Wan and all 400 flats were snapped up on the first day of sales. Clearly there is a high demand for housing. But let's analyse the demographics of these purchasers. Of course, I do not have the figures but that never stopped anyone from putting their case forward. So, if we were to round up these 400 buyers it would be nice to know how many:
- different purchasers there were
- were buying a home to live in themselves
- were buying a flat as an investment to rent out
- were buying a flat as a speculative investment
- were buying a flat through a company
And I am sure you can think of a few more categories.

Almost certainly, some of the buyers will be adding yet another to their portfolio of rental flats. Now, don't get me wrong, it is a very sensible way to invest your money and is something that people do all over the world. Some wouid say that there is a high demand for rental property, or is that because prices are too high for ordinary people to buy because of the demand from investors? But at least these flats are being used as opposed to the estimated tens of thousands of unoccupied flats waiting for prices to rise enough to make resale worthwhile.

So, my first point is that house prices are pushed up because a significant number of buyers are not buying homes but investments. Now, Hong Kong is a free market economy and no government is going to enact legislation that will restrict people's ability to invest their money any way they want but it is hard to ignore that if people were only able to buy one flat and they had to live in it then the property market, and the demand for new housing, would cool down rapidly. And it also brings into question the extent of the housing shortage.

As many people point out, there are plenty of brownfield sites that could be cleaned up and reused but often seem to be ignored. The Wang Chau development was an interesting case in point where phase 1 ate up land occupied by villagers and phases 2 and 3 were to be built on a brownfield site, a large part of which is controlled by a rural leader for the operation of a car park and open storage business. Phase 1 got the go ahead but phases 2 and 3 were deferred.

With most of Hong Kong's manufacturing industries having headed north over the border to China, Hong Kong now has a large supply of empty warehouses and factories. These could be renovated or rebuilt to provide housing.

And then we have the small house policy which allows an indigenous male villager who is 18 years old and is descended through the male line from a resident in 1898 of a recognized village in the New Territories, an entitlement to one concessionary grant during his lifetime to build one small house. In some areas, these small houses, each with three floors, fill every available space. Many of these indigenous villagers do not even live in Hong Kong and are just as likely to reside permanently in Manchester, but why miss out on an investment opportunity. So land is eaten up by this ludicrous rule which no one has the courage to overturn. Hong Kong is not short of tall buildings and tall buildings have the advantage of stacking more people into the available space. If this free for all of three story houses was stopped and replaced with some planned development of, say, 10 stories, the same number of people could be housed in a much smaller space.

Many Chinese have a strange attitude towards nature. Bears are kept in terrible conditions in order to farm bile for medicines, although there are no proven benefits. The same goes for tiger penis and then elephants are killed to provide ivory. Both tigers and elephants are struggling for survival. In the same way, land is a commodity. For many the country parks are wasted space and should be fair game for developers like any other land in Hong Kong but once we start building in the country parks they will be lost forever.

So CY's out-of-the-box thinking seems to benefit property developers and investors but probably not many others. Let's put him back in the box and hope that our next CEO shows more imagination...but just look at what we have to choose from, not that we get to choose.

One China

Rants This year we have seen China kidnap booksellers from Hong Kong, a story that strangely disappeared from the news, locked up protesters in Wukan, jailed lawyers defending dissidents, continue to develop islands in the South China Sea, ignoring international rulings, and generally shown itself to be paranoid in its fear of criticism. It also continues to take the primary school playground attitude of "If you are friends with them then we won't be friends with you," regarding the likes of Taiwan and the Dalia Lama.

Do the people of Hong Kong wish to be associated with that sort of behaviour? Does it give them credit to kowtow to Beijing and go along with everything they say and do? Wouldn't it be nice if someone in the Hong Kong government had the guts to stand up and suggest that we may be one country but their system is not the way civilised nations behave? But none of our legislators have the backbone to do that.

On the other hand, president-elect Trump has and suggests that USA need not be bound by the one-China policy. I am not a fan of Mr. Trump, nor of American foreign policy, but this is one of his better tweets. China is a bully, just as other nations in the past have been bullies. The best way to deal with bullies is for everyone to stand up to them. If governments stood up to Beijing and told them what they can do with their one-China policy the world would be a better place and China could worry about more important issues. Unfortunately, governments want the money China offers and so Mr. Trump will probably find himself alone on this one.

Disabled encounters

A couple of disabled encounters this weekend. On Saturday I was sitting on the waterfront at Sai Kung. Sai Kung is probably the jewel in Hong Kong's crown when it comes to urban settings with the most glorious harbour filled with tree covered islands or, in one case, tee covered islands, as one has been filled with holes to provide a publically accessible golf course which, each weekend, attracts thousands looking for an escape from their cage homes in Sham Shui Po.

For those not engaged in putting balls in holes, on a sunny day, the waterfront is a great place to spend some time at the weekend. Apart from the wonderful views of the sea and the islands, there are numerous other attractions. The boat hire companies offering tours of the harbour, ferries to beaches and, for those who can't be bothered with the walk to Tai Long Wan, there are boats out to the remoter beaches. Pulled into the harbour wall are small boats selling seafood to those on the promenade above, hauling the catch up in small buckets. Cool guys in shades and speedboats cruise up to the harbour steps to pick up expensive looking couples looking for faster and more private routes to the beaches.

When I arrived at the waterfront I noticed a lot of paddles leaning against a wall. Some hours later, after a hair cut and a walk around the inner harbour, I saw the paddles were still there but, shortly afterwards, watched a group of 16-20 young, fit looking people picking up the paddles, descending the steps and paddling off in a dragon boat. I use this as an example of what a safe and trusting society this is that you can safely leave a pile of paddles leaning against a wall without the risk of some idiots walking off with them 'for a laugh'. Later, I thought I may have just witnessed twenty boat thieves running off with a dragon boat but I prefer to retain my positive view of human nature. As an aside, I was hiking today when I passed a small digger on Lamma Island that had been left on a building site for the weekend. Hanging off the cab were a yellow hard hat, a straw sun hat and a number of other miscellaneous items that the workmen had left and knew they would still be there when they returned to work.

Back on dry land, a guitarist was playing a very passable rhythm track, which went on for some time until his mates joined in with vocals. This was clearly a mistake and it was noticeable that they did not attract a crowd but still seemed to be enjoying themselves. I could hear a variety of hallelujahs, which were either from a very poor cover of Leonard Cohen's famous song, or evidence that they were an imitation gospel band.

Every weekend a man takes his place on the waterfront and sets up a variety of percussion instruments that he encourages young children to come along and hit, rhythmically or otherwise. I assume he must make some money by doing this and he is almost as popular as the Mister Softee van.

In addition to the gospel band, I could hear the strains of Canto-pop, not my favourite brand of music but acceptable, although the singing wasn't a huge improvement on the hallelujahs. On further investigation, I came across a session run by a group called Stewards (http://www.stewards.org.hk/) who want to encourage a simpler lifestyle. The singers encouraged people to come up and join them, as did the dancers. Around the stage were a number of games: a giant Jenga set, metre long pick-up-sticks and a section with coloured buckets that children had to arrange in specified orders as fast as possible. By the number of people queuing to have a go at the games it looked as though the organisers were in for a late night. Great fun.

Back on the waterfront, I watched the numerous doggy people parading their dogs, the occasional, bare-chested, sweaty athlete, beautiful people stopping to take photos of themselves, some really ugly people stopping to take photos of themselves and then a couple came towards me. The man in a wheelchair with an uncertain number of limbs accompanied by a young woman struggling along on a pair of crutches. Progress was clearly a great effort and I couldn't help notice her T-shirt which bore the inscription "What doesn't kill you...." and nothing else. A wonderful piece of irony.

And then, today, I was hiking on Lamma Island. Being a sunny public holiday the crowds were out, but all were heading south towards Lamma's beaches so I headed north to Pak Kok Tsuen, where few tourists seem to venture. A nice walk with a lot of steps at the start and a number of short climbs up a well-kept concrete path leads the way to Pak Kok Tsuen (village) which is very well kept and very pretty, with a store where you can purchase food and drinks. Further along the path, on the way back towards Yung Shue Wan, I encountered a public toilet which, considering this was a fairly remote spot, was well-appointed with railings around the urinal so that the disabled, and those the worse for drink, could gain support while relieving themselves. Very commendable, but then I considered the various routes by which one could arrive at this public toilet. The village has a ferry pier with a steep walk up from the pier through the village. The route back to Yung Shue Wan involved further hills and steps and so there seemed little possibility that toilet's clientelle were likely to consist of a large number of disabled people requiring support railings at the urinal. Therefore, I could only conclude that the railings were for the benefit of the village inebbriates.

Are bankers necessary?

Rants Banks used to be places with big vaults where they stored lots of shoe boxes, each with the name of a customer and containing the customers' hard-earned money. Incredibly clever bankers would wave their magic wands over the shoe boxes each year and magically make the money increase by 5% or more. The way they did was to 'borrow' money from their customers' accounts and lend this money to other customers who would pay large amounts of interest to the bank for this privilege.

In those days, there were many branches where customers could go in and have a nice chat with the bank manager, who would actually know their customers. The current infatuation with identification checks wasn't really necessary as the staff knew who you were.

In digitally advanced countries, such as New Zealand, you don't need any cash as almost everything can be purchased with a debit card, including buying a halibut from the back of a travelling fishmonger's van. It can't be too long before cash is no longer required. Even in less digital countries, most transactions can be carried out online, with the result that the number of branches where you can go and chat with staff who know you is reducing rapidly.

The back-room-wizards who used to increase our bank accounts by 5-10% each year seem to have lost their magic powers and yet bankers still require trucks to carry home their annual bonus. But what if we should pop along to the remaining bank branches not staffed by robots and demand our money? This is referred to as a run on the bank and would cause the banks to crash because the money we put in our shoe boxes is not longer there as it has been invested in other projects but, unlike in earlier days, these projects no longer seem to make any money, or at least they don't make money for the customers, only for the bankers.

So the main reason we put money into banks would appear to be to pay the inflated salaries of the bankers as there appear to be few benefits to the customer. In fact, are banks just big Ponzi schemes? According to Wikipedia, a Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment operation where the operator, an individual or organisation, pays returns to its investors from new capital paid to the operators by new investors, rather than from profit earned through legitimate sources.

If we can do everything digitally and the bankers are unable to pay us interest do we really need banks or bankers? Could bankers be released into the world to go and do something useful with their lives and, if so, what could they do?

Hong Kong West

For those of you familiar with Hong Kong, Tuen Mun would not be among your top-ten places to hang out and look cool. For many years it was a remote new town with a big power station in the north-west New Territories. In recent years it has been linked to civilisation by the West Rail MTR extension. Half an hour on the train and I was at Tuen Mun station. At Tuen Mun station you can transfer to the LRT (Light Rail Transit) which is north-west Hong Kong's answer to Hong Kong island's trams. Considering full sized trains, granted only one or two carriages, travel through the streets there are surprisingly few fatalities. The LRT is an extensive rail system providing a convenient network linking a lot of places that most people would not think of going to. I travelled one stop on the LRT and got off at the Town Hall, not that I wanted to go to the Town Hall but the station is adjacent to Tuen Mun Park.

Tuen Mun park reptile house

At 9am on a Saturday morning, the park was a very pleasant escape. Quiet paths wandering through gardens, past lakes and water features. Groups of, mainly old, people performing morning exercise. A group of men crowded around a table to watch a game of chess. At another two men were playing a serious game of Go with chess style stop clocks to time their moves. A modern building set tastefully within the gardens turned out to be a reptile house. Open at 9am and free admission to a well-presented set of snakes and lizards. For those with a fear of such creatures, it was reassuring to see that none of them was venomous.

But I had not come to Tuen Mun to look at the park, I was after a ferry that I had never used so it was back on the LRT to go down to Tuen Mun pier. I bought a ticket for the Tai O ferry but had almost an hour to kill so went for a stroll along Tuen Mun promenade. The promenade is very pleasant; a wide path with the sea on one side, with views across to the mountains of Lantau island, and shops on the other. At the far end you come to Butterfly Beach which, when I first came to Hong Kong, was almost always closed due to pollution.

Tuen Mun promenade

Walking back to the ferry pier I noticed a very small beach which could have been an attractive feature had it not been covered in plastic bottles and other rubbish washed up by the sea. Meanwhile, a council worker was sweeping up leaves from the promenade. Some 50 metres further on was another worker sweeping up leaves and a further 50 metres I came across another worker hosing down the path. I couldn't help thinking that these workers could have spared half an hour to clean up the beach as, to me, plastic bottles are far more offensive than fallen leaves.

At last it was time to board the ferry. First stop was Tung Chung on Lantau Island, which is another new town that grew up as a result of Hong Kong airport moving out of the city centre. New towns take time to mature and blend into their surroundings. The design of Tung Chung suggests it will be a long time before it blends into its surroundings. Armies of high rise dominate the landscape and stare out across the sea to Tuen Mun. Opposite Tung Chung is the island that was built to house the airport and the ferry proceeded down the channel between the two to Sha Lo Wan and then on to Tai O.

Tung Chung

Tai O provides a wonderful contrast to other parts of Hong Kong with most of its houses being built above the water, largely from aluminium sheeting. It was not too long ago that visitors to Tai O had to cross the river into the main village on a small boat powered by old ladies who pulled on ropes to move it. They have been replaced by a bridge, which is just as well as Tai O attracts a lot more visitors these days.

Tai O

From Tai O I set out on the main event of the day, which was to walk back up the coast to Tung Chung. It is not a particularly difficult walk as the hills are not excessive but it was 34 degrees that day and when walking on exposed sections across rocks that had already been baked in the sun I would think the temperatures were more like 38. However, unlike walks in previous weeks, the humidity was mercifully low so that it was possible to sit still and not sweat. The narrow path out of Tai O offers great views along the coast and across to Tuen Mun.

Tai O - Sham Wat path

But the coast is now dominated by the new bridge to Zhuhai which is under construction.

Bridge to Zhuhai

This section of the path keeps to the coast but does not keep to the contours so that every time you go round a headland you have to climb a bit. It seemed like a bad decision on the part of the path makers but I think the need to go over rather than round is dicated by the electricity poles that prefer to take the shortest rather than easiest route. After an hour I reached Sham Wat, a sleepy little village with a few restaurants catering for those hiking along the path. It is also a point of no return for those heading towards Tung Chung as it provides the last place with road access that would allow the weary to escape. I must admit to being weary and struggling a bit in the heat and was considering calling for a taxi. Not surprisingly there were no Ubers in the vicinity and I sat down at one of the open air restaurants looking out across the bay. Relaxing with a hot coffee and a bowl of daofu fa, which is a sort of blancmange made from tofu and served with ginger sugar, I felt revived and ready to proceed towards Tung Chung.

Sham Wat

The next place of note was Sha Lo Wan. The last time I was there it was a quiet village cut off from the modern world with no road access and views across the Pearl River Estuary. How things have changed. The village seems to have fewer residents and it still has no road access but the runway for new airport ends opposite the village. While I was there the constant noise of planes taking off wrecked any possibility of peace and tranqulity despite its tranquil setting which was not improved by the construction work being carried out on the Zhuhai bridge. The only consolation the villagers have is that they now have ferry access to the facilities of Tung Chung but other than that is hard to see that they have gained any benefits from the new airport.

The next village, San Tau, had numerous banners up expressing opposition to the building of a third runway which is likely to inflict more noise pollution both during its construction and on completion. Unfortunately for the villagers, it is unlikely that their few voices are likely to bother those with power and big ideas. Not far from San Tau, the merry sight of tower blocks announced that I was closing in on Tung Chung.

Tung Chung

The gondolas heading up to the giant Buddha on Lantau Peak passed overhead and I headed for Tung Chung fort. Despite all the development the fort has survived and provides a quiet spot to sit and consider Hong Kong's history well before the Brits arrived and planted their flag.

Tung Chung fort

But progress can't be stopped so the historic fort is now a mere speck amongst the high rise.

Tung Chung fort

And so into Tung Chung, a somewhat soulless place but it did have a very welcome MTR station. Before getting on the train I thought I would have a wash and change my clothes but, like most MTR stations, it didn't provide toilets where such acts could be performed in private so I was reduced to sitting on the floor and wiping myself down with wet wipes before slipping on a new shirt. Signs in country parks often say 'take your litter home' and the MTR seem to have a similar way of thinking. At least more recent stations now offer toilet facilities.

Religion

I have always tried hard to understand religion. My parents were traditional British Christians in that they adhered to the traditions of Christianity but made little pretence at being practising Christians, so we were spared church on Sundays but were able to enjoy other traditions of Christianity such as Easter Eggs and Christmas presents. The crunch came when I came of age to be confirmed as my brother and sister had been before me, but I put my foot down on the basis of not believing in god. There were some tense discussions but eventually my argument that it would be hypocrisy to go through the ceremony was accepted and the matter was not discussed again. People don't seem to have a problem with going along with hypocrisy, still choosing to get married in church and having religious funeral services. But then the churches go along with it too as it keeps them in business.

I can accept that matter is made up of atoms even though I can't see them but I can't believe in a deity. But you can believe in a deity without needing a religion. Religions appear to be more about providing a set of rules to live by than they are about deities, heaven, hell and eternal damnation help motivate the masses to adhere to the rules.

Wong Tai Sin temple

I visited the bedlam that is Wong Tai Sin temple. It is a great experience and one I would thoroughly recommend. Huge quantities of joss sticks being purchased and lit to the point that the smoke stings the eyes; photographs do not convey the atmosphere. There are large numbers of people praying in front of the temple and putting joss sticks into the sand boxes provided but what are they praying for and who are they praying to? Do people believe in these gods or is it like my 'Christian' upbringing and has more to do with tradition or superstition?

As a committed atheist, it is a joy to live in a truly secular country. Countries like NZ and UK are ostensibly secular but still have many references to Christianity btu there is none of that living in Hong Kong or China, so it is quite surprising to see just how many people involve themselves in religious practices. One of my friends is a church goer but will pop into varieties of temples to pray to some god or other, no doubt on the principle that if you pray to enough gods one of them may make you rich.

Tung Lung Chau

One of the factors that makes Hong Kong such a great place to live is the accessibility of wild countryside, islands, beaches and a way of life that takes you back to a much simpler world free of Pokemons.

Yesterday I took the ferry from Sai Wan Ho on Hong Kong island to Sam Ka Tsuen on Kowloon side and then immediately got on the 9am ferry to Tung Lung Chau. Contrary to the transport department's website which indicates there is a return ferry at 2pm the earliest return was at 3.40pm, which was to be a problem later in the day.

The 30 minute ferry ride through the eastern part of HK harbour is interesting as most of the ferry routes head west. Starting from Lei Yue Mun, past Tsueng Kwan O and onto the Clearwater Bay peninsula. I had not realised how big Tung Lung island was, basically a mountain with a path round the coast.

Although the major paths are well kept Tung Lung does not provide the facilities to be found on other islands in Hong Kong, such as toilets but there are a few places to eat. Not having had breakfast I thought a nourishing bowl of noodles would set me up for the day as there was a lot of time to fill. Climbing the steps from the pier I came across a restaurant that was just opening up, went inside and took a seat. A little old lady of indeterminate age but bent double was in charge of getting the place ready for business and shuffled painfully from table to table putting out chopsticks, menus, etc. I felt obliged to help and so found myself setting the tables myself. The view through the trees to HK island and the sound of birds made for a pleasant environment to catch up with the day's Sudoku problem.

Nice though the environment the old lady didn't seem to be terribly interested in taking my order but eventually things began to happen and it was worth waiting for. I then headed north to the site of Tung Lung fort. Similar to Roman remains it consisted of a series of low walls.

Tung Lung fort

Nearby is an information centre in a nicely renovated cottage but without an aircon 2 mnutes was about as much as I could take before having to outside to cool off. I mentioned that public toilets are not a major feature of the island but there is a toliet at the fort to service the campsite. While it may be one of the cleaner toilets in HK it requires a strong stomach consisting of a hole and a short drop. Nearby is the island's north pier with a pretty beach looking across to the Clearwater Bay peninsula.

beach

I retraced my steps, wondering whether I should try climbing to the top of the hill but didn't see a clear path and being a very hot day thought better of it and went in search of Tung Lung's rock carvings. I've been to rock carvings before but clearly hadn't learnt my lesson. A flight of steps led down to the carvings, which always seem to be just above sea level but my starting point was well above that. I counted 478 steps but may well have been a few out. The rock carvings were much the same as others I have seen. Great that HK wants to preserve a bit of history having knocked down so much of it but rock carvings don't figure high on my list of things I must see before I die. Each of the 478 steps climbing back up reinforced my view that, in future, signposts to rock carvings should be ignored.

Now I consider myself to be reasonably fit but time spent in the gym and thrashing out the metres on the treadmill is no preparation for climbing in temperatures around 33+ when the sun was out and unbearably humid when it isn't. Progress back up the steps was slow and by the time I reached the top I was exhausted and staggered back to the restaurant by the pier and settled down to rest and replenish a few liquids. The time was around 12.30 and I had had enough and would happily have gone home to sleep off the morning's excesses. Unfortunately, I still had more than 3 hours to wait for the ferry. Having exhausted myself on the rock carving steps further exploration of the island was out of the question for fear of dying so I idled my time away around the restaurant and the beach.

Sitting on a rock on the beach I was suddenly aware of movement to my left and looked down to see a brief but brutal struggle between a large solitary wasp and a small crab. It was over very quickly with the little crab standing no chance and soon it lay paralysed. I wondered what would happen next as this would not be a good place for the wasp to hatch out its eggs as we were below the hide tide mark. After resting for a few minutes the wasp burst into action. Bear in mind that the wasp was considerably smaller than the crab I was amazed to see it take a firm grasp on the crab and then drag it at high speed back up the beach, over rocks and across the sand until it eventually disappeared into some large dark rocks having traversed four or five metres. Hard to imagine the amount of energy required to drag the crab that distance but clearly the wasp worked out. While the incident only lasted a few minutes it was a good reminder of how much life goes on around us without us realising and that most of it survives without the use of technology.

As the time neared for the arrival of the ferry a large crowd built up, one gentleman carrying a huge fish which had all the cameras snapping away but I never saw what happened to it. No idea where all the people appeared from as I saw very few where I walked so maybe I missed the most interesting bits. Maybe another visit is required but not for a while.

Parking fines

Rants I have rabbited on about fines before but on the 12th June 2016 the editorial in Hong Kong's Sunday Morning Post called for the raising of parking fines as a means to relieve some of our traffic problems as the current level of fine is too low and does not act as a deterrent. This was in response to a week long crackdown on parking offenders in Central. Of course, once the week was over it was unlikely that the problem would be fixed.

So this is why we need to make a penalty that has some impact. To someone on $20,000 per month a fine of $1500 is a deterrent, to someone on $200,000 per month it is merely an irritation. With the high cost of parking there are plenty of people who consider it is actually more economical to pay the occasional parking fine than to put the car in car park.

The problem with flat rate fines is that they penalise the poor much more than they penalise the rich. This is both unreasonable as well as being ineffective. In Scandinavia fines are means tested, as they are in a number of European countries. An example that gained publicity in 2015 was of a man in Finland travelling at 65mph in a 50mph zone who was fined 54,000 Euros, about HK$470,000. He had an income of 6.5 million euros and was fined accordingly.

If a means tested fine is too complicated, and you can imagine how many 'rich' people actually have very low declared incomes, we may consider alternative penalties that are fair, or equally unfair, to all sections of society. Even driving bans are unfair as the rich can just hire a driver. We need a bit of imagination but, unfortunately, the laws and those who enforce them in the courts are not exactly short of a bob or two.

It is time that we looked for alternative ways to penalise wrongdoers than to issue fines as our current systems offers freedom to flout the law to those who can afford it.

Yantian

Just had an accidental trip into China. Last week I got a multiple entry China visa and I thought I should make the most of it. Many people may be unaware that Hong Kong has a restricted zone, a bit like a demilitarised zone but people live in it. In fact there is a sizeable town in it called Sha Tau Kok. The restricted zone is a buffer area between Hong Kong and mainland China and to go there you need a permit. I foolishly thought my China visa would be enough.

Going by public transport from Hong Kong island to Sha Tau Kok is a bit of a trial as it is quite a long way involving a number of changes of transport. I walked down to the Happy Valley bus terminus to get on the tunnel bus as it cuts out a few changes of train but it was Tuen Ng festival, a public holiday, and the bus I needed didn't run on public holidays. So I would have to use the MTR (underground/metro) but first a trip to Wan Chai station on the wonderful old trams. Getting off at Wan Chai I changed to the MTR, then changed at Admiralty, got off at Tsim Sha Tsui, walked 10 minutes through to Tsim Sha Tsui East station, took a train to Hung Hom and changed trains to the Lo Wu line. Starting at the terminus I was able to splash out on first class, which means a nice comfortable seat instead of a solid metal one or having to stand for an hour and all for just over HK$20.

At Shueng Shui I found the bus to Sha Tau Kok. The bus station at Sheung Shui is divided into numbered areas, the signboard telling you where to find your bus cunningly indicates the area to go to with a letter but I cracked the code and found the bus. At the gateway to the restricted zone, and it is a gateway with high fences, a policeman got on the bus to check everyone had the correct papers. It seems a China visa is not the correct paper and I had to leave the bus. So as a permanent HK resident I am deemed safe to enter China but not to visit parts of HK. What do they think people are going to get up to in Sha Tau Kok but anyway those are the rules and that's fine. The policeman pointed to where I could get a bus to cross the border into China and I bought a ticket to Shenzhen.

As a HK permanent resident crossing the border to leave HK is quick and easy requiring an ID card and a thumb, which I conveniently had with me. No problem there and everyone got back on the bus and drove over to Chinese immigration. Now I was the only 'gweilo' (white ghost/foreigner) on the bus so crossing the border into China requires me to fill in a departure card and show my passport, which was examined in extreme detail but eventually I got through the border. As soon as I emerged the other side the touts were there, "Taxi?" "No, bus," I replied. But I hung around for a while and realised the bus had left without me!

Great, so there I am in Yantian, of which I know nothing and because I had not set out to go to China. I have no roaming on my phone, so no messaging, no phone calls and no Internet to get a map of the area. I could buy a SIM card in China but that would have restrictions as anything Googly is banned. It is best to buy a card in HK just in case as the cards there work in China and do not restrict access.

I like to explore new places so thought I would take a walk round Yantian. Yantian is hemmed in by mountains, which should have made it attractive. Like most Chinese cities the main streets are wide and lined with wide pavements and trees. The fairly standard Chinese city gave way to industrial estates interspersed with the odd shopping mall and docks. After an hour walking by the side of a major highway with the footpath occasionally wandering through pleasant green areas and passing a smart public toilet which, to my surprise, only announced its purpose in English, I came to Yantian food street with views of the sea, the docks and a chaotic parking area. Relatively pleasant but not too exciting and I also realised that I was nowhere near Shenzhen from where there is an easy way back to HK.

So, extremely hot sweaty and smelly from walking in the heat and humidity I headed back the way I came looking out for a taxi and it wasn't too long before one arrived. A nice, well kept Toyota and very clean inside and no frayed seat belts. The driver wore a blue shirt and newish looking blue jeans and looked pretty smart. Not only that but he drove smoothly. No frantic acceleration and deceleration, no pumping of the throttle, no cursing at other drivers, no aggressive pushing in. This was completely alien after experiencing Hong Kong taxi drivers. Very chatty, very helpful. Don't think Uber could offer anything better than Mr Chan, well I think he was Mr Chan, his name was only in Chinese characters and with my eyesight these days it could well have said something completely different, Chan being one of the few names I recognise.

The trip from Yantian was much longer than expected and went through tunnels, past wild mountains and waterfalls before emerging into the huge metropolis of Shenzhen. This also proved a bit of a surprise. Everything looked clean and orderly with a reasonable amount of greenery. Cars drove at sensible speeds and eventually we came to Lowu. Unlike the pleasant streets of Shenzhen Lowu is a bit of a dump but it is the site of Shenzhen station and the Lowu border crossing where you can get onto the HK MTR system. It has a rather shady looking shopping centre selling lots of things that I could never feel a need for and after hunting round for the departure cards it was over the border and back to the familiarity of HK.

Gorillas

Rants Can someone tell me the last recorded human death caused by a gorilla? Someone....someone....? No, I thought not. All those David Attenborough wildlife programmes with gorillas, how many times has a silverback shown actual physical violence even to another gorilla? A lot of posing and bluster but have any serious blows been delivered? I once heard that if faced with an angry gorilla you should back away slowly and gracefully as turning and running could well result in you being chased and receiving a hefty thump in the back. Chimps, ok, I accept that chimps are aggressive and dangerous, rather like humans really, but gorillas?

If Cincinnati was in Europe, New Zealand, Japan, in fact almost any civilised country rather than in the USA, would the gun have been the method of first resort in rescuing the little brat who trespassed on Harambe's territory? The experts say that a tranquiliser dart wasn't an option as the gorilla 'may' have reacted badly to it. 'May' have indeed but you don't know until you have tried and the gun would have remained a pretty instantaneous way to sort things out if the poor chap had taken exception to being darted. Not even a warning shot.

But were any other approaches considered or is our imagination restricted to the use of firearms? It is interesting to watch the similar incident from 30 years ago at the Durrell Wildlife Park in Jersey where everything was very calm and Jambo the gorilla was clearly protecting the injured boy. In this week's case Harambe showed concern but looked undecided as to what he should do but clearly lacked the evil Goldfinger leer one associates with those considering dismemberment.

One has to accept that the gentle giant would have had no trouble in despatching the brat had he wished but surely he deserved more of a chance than he was given. I didn't notice the keepers popping into the enclosure to divert his attention or have a man-to-man chat to reason with him. Maybe he could have been distracted with a bubble machine or an impromptu performance of the death scene from Camille. Anything but the gun. But if the gun was the correct approach surely they hit the wrong target.

Lots of questions to be asked here. Many people argue that zoos have no place in the modern world and that animals should be allowed to live in their own protected habitat. Sounds like a reasonable argument until you look at all the other animals desperately trying to cling onto life in their protected natural habitats, like the rhinos and elephants in Africa and orang-utans in Asia. Fat lot of use the protection is there. Unfortunately money will always come first so if it is a choice between protecting an animal's habitat or protecting the lifestyle and wealth of human beings the habitat is always going to come second, just as the choice between the life of a magnificent, gentle endangered silverback comes second to a child of which there is no shortage. I know which I'd rather have in my house.

No one seems to have thought of sending a message of condolence or apology to the family of the bereaved. I can only hope that the negligent mother and wandering child may one day be repentant enough to make a genuine contribution to protecting what is left of the world's dwindling population of wonderful gorillas. As for the zoo, they really need to have serious look at their responsibilities. The only party that appears to have done nothing wrong is Harambe. He must be wondering how he could have handled things differently to have achieved a better outcome.

Karaoke

On Sunday I had my first experience of Hong Kong karaoke. Held at the evocatively named !Bridal House Tea Room Hotel in Yai Ma Tei. After hunting around for awhile I was guided up a small flight of stairs and entered a narrow room. On my right was a long table displaying an extensive assortment of raw meats and on my left an open BBQ fire on which to cook it. Another first, I found a lethal looking BBQ fork and spent the next five minutes trying to skewer a hunk of chicken on the end. I only dropped it on the floor once and considered that, as I was about to stick it in an open fire, any bugs it may have collected would soon be dealt with.

Next to the fire to turn the ugly lump of flesh on the end of my fork into something edible. But I am in a small room with about 50 other people, each brandishing a sharp, 80cm weapon. South American Indians coat the tips of their weapons with curare to ensure their wounded prey do not escape, these weapons were tipped with raw flesh harbouring untold numbers of bacteria. I managed to find a spot, or at least my sympathetic fellow guests offered me a seat close the BBQ from where I could start cooking my hunk of meat. People came and went but I sat there with my fork in the fire still clutching a piece of apparently raw meat. I was given helpful advice; your meat is too close to the fire, you need to hold it higher; your meat is too far from the fire, you need to hold it closer; and there was the polite derision at my incompetence in skewering the beast which was considered a major factor in it failing to cook.

As i continued to sit there a woman who was clearly used to feeding the poor donated a piece of lamb that she cooked earlier and assured me that she had enough. If a Hong Kong Chinese person says they have had enough they are lying. The capacity for continually eating yet not putting on an ounce of weight is uncanny. I had had enough by now and I withdrew my chicken announcing that I was off to eat it. "Not a good idea," said one, "that bit's still raw." Hmmmm, eventually I had held it in the fire long enough to cook a bison and I headed for a table with my chicken, the donated lamb and another piece of donated pork which gave me at least half a dozen mouthfuls of relatively tasty food but having a virtually vegetarian diet the rest of the time this glut of meat was not particularly attractive. My cooking failure was made all the more apparent as plate after plate of well cooked meat landed on the table I shared with at least another ten people, each plateful greeted by cheers and applause although, thankfully, not with the usual flurry of photographs one comes to expect when eating out in HK.

Having eaten my fill of dead animals I headed upstairs to see what was happening in the karaoke room. Many westerners think of karaoke is being a bizarre oriental ritual and there is some truth in this. There were about ten people in the room, which had a few tables, chairs, a big TV screen and speakers. Songs came up on the screen, all Cantonese and with the lyrics coming up on the screen in Chinese characters. My ability to read Chinese characters is limited to spotting one or two characters on each screen which I think I know but by the time I have worked out what they are we are onto the next line of the song. This, of course, is a blessing as it meant that no one was going to be able get me to sing that night. Without electronic gadgetry my singing is best confined to a vacuum chamber and even with electronic gadgetry I am no Justin Bieber but, as it turned out, no one could sing. No one could sing in tune, nor in time. What could be worse than one person singing out of tune than two people trying to sing a duet, each in their own out of tune. At times the noise was painful to listen to, not in terms of decibels but in terms of finger nails on blackboards. How can this be entertainment?

But then a song I actually recognised started, so it would be safe to assume this song was much older than the others, in Mandarin rather than Cantonese. A striking looking young woman picked up a microphone. She was tall, slim and elegant and then she started to sing. And could she sing! Pitch perfect, timing impeccable, vocal range impressive, breath control, volume, tone, emotion, this woman had it all. Everyone stopped chatting and listened. This was not what they were used to hearing. And then a message came upstairs that another calf had been slaughtered or there was a group photo or something, I didn't quite catch what was said but the room emptied. So there was wonderful singer left alone in the room. Fortunately, whatever had caused the flock to scatter was soon sorted and the room began to fill up again. As the young woman finished she put down the microphone and sat down to some warm applause.

She sang a couple more before putting down the microphone and returning to her table to a polite round of applause and some encouraging words. At this point I would have assumed that others would have felt a little shy about stepping up to the microphone again but not a bit of it. The duets continued with moments when I thought that a cat impaled on my BBQ fork and toasted on the fire downstairs might have made a similar noise. I am sure none of these people had any illusions that they could sing and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves but can people really enjoy listening to this?

So why has karaoke managed to remain a popular pastime for so long? It was not until this evening I realised that people do not go to karaoke to listen to other people sing. When you sing you are not trying to entertain other people you are trying to enjoy yourself, you are there to have fun and everyone did. If you can't sing it doesn't matter as no one is really listening so no one is embarrassed. Now it makes sense.

Even the strange BBQ practices started to make sense. In NZ a BBQ consists of a large man wearing an apron and a lot of tattoos slaving over the BBQ which could range from a simple griddle to something the size of Jamie Oliver's kitchen who would grill half a yak while drinking copious quantities of Speights, Tui or some other NZ beer, while the guests sit around drinking copious quantities of Speights, Tui or bottles of NZ wine and chatting with friends. In HK the process of cooking on the BBQ is a social event, it's part of the entertainment. And therein lies another difference at the HK BBQ. I was there for about 3 and a half hours and in all that time not one drop of alcohol was consumed and yet everyone clearly had a great time. Many westerners might wonder how this is possible but I can assure you it is.