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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.

Wealth gap

Rants Denmark is the happiest country in the world. Reasons given for this suggest that having a welfare state providing free health care, and other benefits, and a relatively small wealth gap compared to other countries are significant factors. This made me think about the values society puts on the work that people do.

My first thought would be that we would reward those who are most useful to society and possibly give credit to those who put themselves at risk on behalf of others. But a moment's thought makes you realise that this is far from the case. This was made very clear to me when I was living in New Zealand at the time of the Christchurch earthquake in 2011. I imagine myself trapped in the rubble of a collapsed building and after three days in darkness without food and drink I heard a voice calling to me, "Hi, my name's Clive, I'm a stockbroker." This would not fill me with confidence and neither would a host of other highly paid professions nor, to be fair, would I raise my hopes too high on hearing the voice of Barry the hairdresser.

And once everyone has been extricated from the rubble and we look round at the devastation, what do we need? Do we need bankers and lawyers or do we need people who can saw a plank of wood in half and wire a plug? I categorise myself amongst the useless as, living on a farm in Otago at that time, I was surrounded by loads of practical people who could provide food for themselves and others while making a mobile phone out of a piece of number 8 wire.

Disasters are extreme cases but let's look at everyday life. Does the average accountant put themselves or the general public at risk on a daily basis? Not the accountants I know but your average bus driver does. So we are quite happy to put someone who may not even have a university degree behind the wheel of a 9 tonne bus and send him careering round the streets. Each year there will be accidents involving buses knocking down nuns carrying babies who later die from their hideous injuries and the driver is jailed for manslaughter. On a daily basis the bus driver is paid a pittance, risks killing and maiming the general public and losing their freedom while the accountant only risks lead poisoning from chewing their pencil.

Occasionally the poor downtrodden workers take exception to being poor and downtrodden and take strike action. When the garbage disposal workers, or public hygiene executives as they are probably referred to these day, stop work it's not long before the streets pile up with refuse and the public gets annoyed and demands action. If all the auditors decide to go on strike how long will it be before the public are out on the streets protesting?

We feel the need to reward those who study hard at school and go on to take up one of the professions. If people have studied hard, spent three or four years at university then gone through the junior ranks to really learn what they are doing it is right to reward them with a hefty pay cheque. Most people would consider it unfair if the guy cleaning the public toilets was paid as much as a barrister. There are exceptions of course and the fattest cats are likely to be business people rather than professional people anyway, with or without an MBA.

Where the wealth gap causes most resentment is not so much in the different lifestyle that money can buy but in the injustice that money can buy. At the simplest level, let's look at parking fines. Here in Hong Kong we have a problem with cars parked illegally in the streets of Central. If the police catch you and give you a ticket you need to pay a fine. With manpower shortages many people think that the risk of being caught is acceptable so that paying the parking fines works out cheaper than trying to park in a multi-storey. Some suggest that the way to deter people is to double the fine. But what would that do? Many of the cars causing the problem are company cars and fines probably go down as a business expense and doubling the fine is hardly likely to be a deterrent.

People also suggest a congestion charge to cut down the number of cars in Central. That might deter those with less money but it would not deter the fat cats even if they had to pay out of their own pockets. Fines, particularly fixed ones, are an unfair punishment, be it for traffic or any other offence as they hurt the poor offender much more than the rich. Or at least they do in most countries. In Finland, and, I believe, other Scandinavian countries, fines are means tested. A story from March 12, 2015 tells of a businessman fined 54000 euros for travelling 30% above the speed limit . Now that's a deterrent.

In order to try to reduce the wealth gap some countries have tried to put a cap on salaries so that a CEO would be limited to, say, no more than 12 times the salary of the lowest paid worker. Switzerland held a referendum with exactly that proposal but the idea was heavily defeated. One argument often rolled out when discussing excessive executive pay is that if companies were restricted in what they could offer it would reduce their competitiveness. However, such a cap would not prevent the companies from paying their top executives more as long as they increased the pay of their work force.

And then there's bonuses and golden handshakes. A CEO joins a company on a huge salary and in addition receives huge annual bonuses that amount to more than the people at the bottom of the food chain earn in a lifetime. And when the CEO fails to increase the company profits by 10% per month they are given severance pay amounting to many more millions. The story of Dan Price, the CEO who cut his salary so that he could pay a minimum salary of US$70K to his staff is a rare positive. He questions which is more important, the boss or the workforce. Can one exist without the other - which would you rather lose, your head or your body? Good man, let's hope he sets a trend.

The public sector argues that it needs to pay salaries comparable to the private sector or risk losing their most talented people. Sounds like a reasonable argument until you see the constant public dissatisfaction with the performance of these highly paid people. In New Zealand, for example, NZ$100,000 (about US$67000) would be considered by most to be a reasonable amount of money and would provide a decent standard of living. So when you see public sector employees earning $300,000, $400,000 or more and still not appearing to do a great job you have to ask if you could have hired someone equally incompetent for $200,000.

Each of these instances may not be the end of the world but it is the combination of so many factors that make the wealth gap grow and develops further dissatisfaction. I am sure others can offer some imaginative solutions and there will be those who would argue that the wealth gap is not important so long as everyone has somewhere to live and enough to eat. I don't think many would argue that we should all be paid the same, that was tried in Communist states and did not prove to be a resounding success, but in 1965 CEOs in USA earned around 20 times that of their workers, now they earn around 300 times more. I find it hard to see how that can be justified. Even if economists argue that it is economically justifiable it is not morally justifiable and I would hope that still matters to a lot of people.

Nice try, shame about the mess

As I will point out repeatedly, Hong Kong is blessed with a spectacular setting among sea, sand and mountains. Unfortunately far too many people don't seem to care too much about it. Yesterday I took a trip to Ap Lei Chau, an island just off the south coast of Hong Kong island linked by a short road bridge to Aberdeen and shortly to be linked to the amazing MTR rail system. Ap Lei Chau was a fishing village then became a centre for boat building but more recently has, like many other areas of Hong Kong, become a densely populated high-rise development. The old part of the town has become run down but recently the waterfront has been developed into something that the district council can be proud of.

Exploration of the promenade began at the Hung Shing temple with origins dating back hundreds of years. These temples as they have a great atmosphere laden with the scent from hundreds of joss sticks and huge incense coils that constantly fill the air with aromatic smoke. It always seems a bit odd to see the sign on the wall asking visitors not to smoke.

hung shing temple

Aberdeen harbour must be one of the busiest in the world with sampans rushing around ferrying people across the narrow but crowded stretch of water. These small, wide-berthed boats may not look like the jet-setter's dream but they are remarkably manoeuvrable and there is no sign of them being replaced by more modern designs.

sampans

At the end of the promenade is the 'Wind Tower'. It is a strange, metal-framed construction that has rows of LEDs that glow in different colours according to the strength of the wind. It also gives great views across to Aberdeen and Hong Kong island.

ap lei chau

Along the promenade is an exhibition centre showing the history of boat building in Ap Lei Chau. Not the most exciting exhibition but interesting enough and the building is attractive. The washroom next door shows that a real effort has gone into making this a world class facility with the wash basins set amongst pot plants. Very attractive, until you see the discarded paper towels that no one has bothered to clean up. But then, as far as I could see, there were no paper towels, nor other hand drying facilities available and the only bin for disposing of rubbish I could see was outside. So a good effort but could be better.

wash room

Back outside I finished my stroll leaning against the wall, taking in the view and reflecting on life. But then I looked down. The water was a mix of rubbish, plastic bags, bottles, dead fish, jellyfish, polystyrene boxes and countless other items that should not be in the sea anywhere and certainly not in an area that has clearly been developed with tourists and locals in mind. How can you develop such an attractive waterfront and yet allow the water it is fronting to be so disgusting? How much effort would it take to clean it up?

rubbish

Po Toi

Hong Kong is made up of more than 200 islands although few are inhabited. Po Toi is an island of just over 3.69 sq km, south of Hong Kong island with a very small population of permanent residents. While the larger, more popular islands can be accessed by ferries from the central ferry pier to get to Po Toi you need to take a ferry from Aberdeen or Stanley. Aberdeen is an entertainment in itself with its busy harbour full of fishing boats, luxury yachts, kaidos, junks and sampans shuffling people across to Ap Lei Chau, a densely populated island a few hundred metres from Aberdeen. The local authority has done a lot to make Aberdeen more attractive to visit and the waterfront area is a lively place to visit.

Abderdeen harbour

Apart from Sundays there is one ferry a day from Aberdeen to Po Toi, which also helps to make it less well known than the bigger islands but any thoughts that my day would be a quiet getaway were dashed as the queue for the ferry grew longer and a sizeable ferry boat appeared and I boarded along with around 300 other people.

The ferry heads south east, taking it along the south coast of Hong Kong island before leaving the Stanley peninsula, passing Beaufort island and arriving at Tai Wan, an attractive bay where the ferry disgorged its passengers.

Po Toi map

Hong Kong people enjoy going to the many country parks at the weekend to escape from the city. But they do not come to enjoy the peace and quiet of the country while communing with nature. On a quiet path it is not uncommon to come across a large and noisy group scaring off the wildlife and picking the few remaining wild flowers.

So a small island, few footpaths, a lot of people and the prospect of following everyone round for a few hours was not inviting. When you disembark you have the choice of turning left to the village of Tai Wan, going straight ahead up the hill or turning right. I turned left towards the village which has a few houses, an attractive beach and a large restaurant, the Ming Kee. Beyond that is a Tin Hau temple. By the time I reached the temple I had left the crowds behind and had a few minutes of silence looking back towards Hong Kong island before my fellow travellers started to arrive.

rocks

Back in the village I enjoyed a quiet lunch of noodles, at a small establishment behind the Ming Kee restaurant. Noodles, what a great invention, quick, versatile and nourishing. Some instant noodles, boiling water, fried egg, luncheon meat and, in this case, a generous helping of seaweed. That set me up for the day, or so I thought. While I had plenty of fuel on board I didn't realise at this point that I had failed to take on enough fluids.

This was the first really hot day of the year with blue skies and temperatures into the low thirties. I walked back through the village back to the ferry pier and then started a gentle climb up a hill through the trees past one of the many small establishments selling drinks and snacks. Back down towards the shore the trees disappeared and views of the bay and the Ngong Ching peninsula opened up. Po Toi is famous for its rock carvings and a short walk down from the main path takes you to the view points to look at them. With no shelter it is amazing they have not eroded more than they have.

The path continued to the peninsula and up a hill to a viewing point. I found it surprisingly hard to climb the steps and considering I am in reasonably good shape I realised I hadn't drunk enough water and the heat was getting to me. I still climbed to the top of the hill where the views are great and, if only we could have some really clear days, would have been spectacular with mountainous islands, calm seas and views south to China's Lema islands. Unfortunately these days it is very rare to have the clarity to see all this other than in hazy outline.

hill

Then came the descent and return to the ferry pier. But no shade. What to do. With energy levels low do you walk slowly to conserve energy but spend longer in the sun or walk quickly to reach shade as soon as possible but risk burning yourself out. Eventually I got back to some partial shade in the trees and sat down at a wayside stall under the cover of some large trees and enjoyed a long cold drink, and another one, and another one.

drinks

At this point large numbers of wetern people appears from the ferry pier. Until this point it had not occurred to me why the Ming Kee retaurant was so large. The bay was now home to a collection of smart cruisers and junks, hiring a junk is a popular activity, particularly amongst expats, and a succession f boatloads with each person clutching a bottle of wine ensured that a merry time would be had by all at the restaurant.

Boat show

Today I went to the boat show at Hong Kong's Gold Coast. With the weather as it has been recently with impending downpours never far away it would have been more aptly termed the Grey Coast but no matter. The boat show was excellent. Most of the exhibitors knew that most of the visitors were tyre kickers, or whatever the equivalent term is for people looking at multimillion dollar yachts with an income less than the monthly mooring fee, but everyone was very friendly and welcoming.

Boat show

Some of these boats are works of art and masterpieces of internal design. Having got used to living in a small flat in the city rather than a spacious farm house in the country I was still impressed with how they managed to have three bedrooms, two quite spacious, bathrooms, including en-suites, slaves' quarters and lots of storage space. Compared to the average HK flat pretty spacious but for those of you who like to play a bit of indoor cricket with the kids you could find the space a bit restrictive and having to charge downstairs to retrieve the ball could result in serious injuries.

So, amazing boats and a well-organised, laid back show. Very enjoyable.

Having had my fill of boats, and without a tinge of envy in my heart, I headed down the road towards the Gold Coast Hotel and walked along the beach. I will give it its due, the sands were golden and the beach was well used, mainly by maids enjoying the Maid Day holiday. HK beaches can sometimes get a bit crowded but the atmosphere is always relaxed and no one is going to kick sand in your face. You can watch a great variety of activities with Philippinas working on a dance routine or singing songs, the Indian guys playing football, the Chinese 20 somethings playing volleyball and some fit young men trying their hands at an energetic 2-a-side beach volleyball. Lots of children digging holes, what else are you supposed to do with sand apart from use it to dam up streams that wander too close to the beach? I particularly liked the group at Cafeteria beach where the children played in the sand by the edge of the water and every now and then dad would arrive with a skewer from the BBQ and torture the children by stuffing hot sausages in their mouths.

After that it was into Tuen Mun, a fairly unattractive town, fairly perhaps being a tad generous, but the large MTR station was quite impressive, and before too long I was back home where I ventured into Park n Shop, or Fusion as it is called in Happy Valley. Heading for the fruit section in search of New Zealand apples I found Royal Galas at 5 for $10, not bad; or I could buy a big bag for $17 but when I counted the big bag contained 8, so you are being charged an extra dollar for the bag. I bought 5 loose ones.

I noticed that they have gone back to showing the price of an item alongside a price that has been crossed out, implying that it has been reduced. The one I noticed in particular was Nescafe Alta Rica coffee at $69 reduced from $84. At some stage in the past it has been $84 but it has been $69 for some months now, so how far back into history are they allowed to go in order to give the impression that prices have been cut?

The final annoyance was seeing so many items showing the price of two items so you have to peer at the small print to find the price for one. I live on my own, most of the time I don't want two. No harm in advertising the price of two but at least make the price for one more, or equally prominent. What made this more irritating today was at the boat show the signs outside those lovely big boats displaying the prices didn't say $65 million for 2 and then in small print say $35 million for 1, no, they just gave the price for one so that people aren't encouraged to buy more than they need. If it's good enough for a luxury yacht it's good enough for Park n Shop.

Tai Long Wan

Tai Long Wan



Tai Long Wan must be the jewel in Hong Kong's crown when it comes to scenery. The fact that it takes a bit of effort to get to it only adds to the fun.

Under construction

Ma Wan

I've lived in Hong Kong for many years but until now have never been to Ma Wan. For those of you not familiar with HK Ma Wan is 1 sq km of island between Hong Kong and the island of Lantau. For most its history it remained completely undisturbed and probably changed little after the British arrived to plant their flag. It was Saturday of the May Day holiday weekend and I needed to get out so I headed to the central ferry piers. Being a holiday weekend everyone else was clearly of a similar mind and the queues for all the popular destinations were too long to make the destinations attractive and so I moved along the ferries looking for one that was not so popular. And this is why I ended up on Ma Wan.

Lantau also remained a relatively undisturbed diamond in Hong Kong's back yard until, firstly the Discovery Bay Company arrived to turn one corner of it into a green yet sterile housing estate overlooking a fine beach; an area popular with expats. While the housing estate may be sterile the inhabitants clearly are not as defined by the number of baby buggies, babies, toddlers and expectant mothers that seem to appear from every leafy apartment block.

The next blow to strike the countryside and wildlife of Lantau island was the building of Hong Kong airport. This led to the demolition of a few islands, the building of another attractive new town and all the other signs of impending doom. Being an island was a bit of a handicap for an airport site so infrastructure had to be built in order to get from the airport back into Hong Kong. A bridge tends to be one of the first solutions that people look towards in such circumstances but there is quite a bit of water between Hong Kong and Lantau. And this is where Ma Wan comes into its own being strategically placed between the two. So the planners decided that Ma Wan should no longer be a little visited back water but should actually become the base for the Lantau bridge to rest on on its way to the airport.

ma wan

At the same time as making the island a bridge support Ma Wan became a shiny new housing development called Park Island. On arriving my overall impression of Ma Wan was that it was much the same as Discovery Bay but with Chinese people.

ma wan

The developers have clearly tried very hard to turn Ma Wan into a pleasant environment for the many thousands of inhabitants. Apart from attractions such as Noah's Ark, which I did not visit, there are plenty of areas of greenery with an extensive nature garden. Typically for Hong Kong the nature garden has been planted with plenty of lush green plants but in order to do this it must have been necessary to tear out quite a lot of natural lush green vegetation. But worse is the fact that no matter how attractive the walk through the garden may appear you cannot escape the noise of traffic rushing over the island on the airport bridge.

ma wan

And if we go back to the first photo try zooming in with your browser and you will see a far too common sight, rubbish. It is staggering that we can live in a potentially spectacular landscape with superb beaches and yet for every visitor to Ma Wan one of the first sights to greet them is this litter strewn beach. And it certainly isn't the only beach like that in Hong Kong. Granted when there is heavy rain or the wind is in the wrong direction it is hard to keep some rubbish from being washed ashore but you would expect people to take sufficient pride in their home to get the place cleaned up on a regular basis. But unless there is money to be made who cares?

Noise

Rants When you live in a city of the size and population density of Hong Kong you can expect a bit of noise. What I don't like is all the unnecessary noise which people either accept as part of life or have grown so accustomed to it that they seem oblivious to the bedlam that surrounds them. Despite having been here almost 30 years I still can't switch off to these irritations. I wish I could. So what sort of noise am I referring to?

Last Saturday I took the bus out to Pak Tam Chung which is on the edge of Sai Kung Country Park, when of the most scenic parts of Hong Kong. PTC has hills, trees, rivers, a few houses, a car park and a kiosk where you can buy food from a very pleasant couple who are consistently friendly and helpful. I like to go out there and unwind whenever I can. I buy a coffee and some very tasty instant noodles, set up a table and chair and sit down to enjoy the peaceful environment and knock off the daily Sudoku puzzle.

Unfortunately PTC is a convenient destination for coach tours. So there I was, happy as could be with noodles dribbling down my chin when the onslaught began. At least two coach loads of travellers from who knows where disgorged themselves into the area outside the kiosk, formed queues for the toilets and spoke very loudly, either amongst themselves or on their mobile phones. But while it destroyed my tranquility that was not the main problem. What really makes me cringe are the tour guides who wander round marshalling their troops, yelling instructions through portable amplifiers. Why? I don't understand why they can't give out instructions before the passengers get off and do they really need to say so much? You can see a similar effect whenever you give someone a microphone. Once they have the microphone they feel the need to say something - at length - as can be heard at many sporting events these days where every nanosecond gap in play has to be filled with shrill voices cajoling the crowd to be excited.

Another pet noise hate is construction work. I am sure other tools are available but my ears tell me there are only two tools, regardless of the size of job and they are the pneumatic drill and the metal hammer. I get home from a hard day's work and just want to relax for a while and someone in an indeterminate number of floors above me gets their pneumatic drill out of the bedside cupboard and starts to redesign their flat. I emphasised the metalness of the hammer. Whenever anyone hammers anything here it always seems to require a metal hammer to thump bits of metal with the accompanying high decibel results. In other places people might think of making efforts to deaden the sound using any of the obvious methods that could be employed but clearly that is not the way of doing things here.

Hong Kong building sites amaze visitors with their total reliance on bamboo scaffolding. The builders then clamber all over the scaffolding and peer inside your flat. Unlike the tour guides the builders are not wired up to amplfiers or other electronic devices and so communication up and down the scaffolding is carried out by a more traditional method - shouting.

Thinking of shouting, I had a pleasant trip to Lamma island a few weeks ago and on the return ferry I was able to enjoy sitting outside at the back of the ferry. Near to me was a group comprising of two or three families from the mainland and the group contained three children. The eldest was probably 8 or 9, a big lad who seemed to be the epitome of the little emperor syndrome that has come about in China partly as a result of the one child policy. The parents were keen to relax a bit and chat amongst themselves while the children watched the sea go by but while they did so they kept up a barrage of commentary with the eldest lad having outbursts of shouting which were ignored by the mothers. To give them their due they did start to notice the looks that other passengers were giving them and we were then able to observe the cringeworthy performance of mother trying to point out the error of the lad's ways only for the boy to shout even louder. For some parents the one child policy was far too generous.

But the noise irritation that is most prevalent and noticeable on a daily basis is the car horn. No laws here about not sounding your horn after 10pm or when there's an R in the month. No, you can sound your horn as often as you like and for as long as you like. If a car waiting at traffic lights hesitates for a second when the lights go green you can guarantee they will be honked. A delay of more than a few seconds will result in extended blasts with drivers leaning on their horns for minutes at a time. But what does it achieve? Are traffic jams cleared more quickly if people sound their horns. And who hears these rude toots, is it just the offending people who are causing delays? Of course not. As a resident of a flat on the main road through Happy Valley I can inform drivers that the noise they make in the street below carries very well up to my flat.

I can't expect everyone to be quiet to keep me happy but I can expect people to behave a little less selfishly and to spare a moment to think what effect your behaviour has on other people.

Jeremy Rossmann

Recently I have had the good fortune to hear Jeremy Rossmann speak on two occasions. If Jeremy Rossmann is not currently a household name I am sure he will be before long; the Mark Zuckerberg of education. I won't go into his full story but he's a clever guy, studied Computer Science at MIT but dropped out as it wasn't meeting his needs. Set up a school to teach coding to high school students in his own living room and rapidly expanded to the point of setting up an alternative to university called Make School. Google him to find out more Jeremy Rossmann on LinkedIn. Mr Rossmann is an excellent speaker who paints an interesting, positive and very encouraging view of the future of education and the fact that his views seem to correspond more or less directly with my own makes him all the more credible. He points out that if we did not have taxis and a think tank sat down together to come up with an idea for how we could utilise cars to move people around would we take a large number of cars, paint them the same colour, put TAXI on the side and send them off round the streets and expect people to wave at them in the hope they will stop and take them where they want to go or would we come up with an idea that would allow you to press a few buttons on your smartphone that would magically bring a car to you. The same can be argued about education. If we were to design an education system from scratch now would we come up with the monolithic structure that we now have which does little to encourage students to be inquisitive and to want to acquire knowledge and be life long learners which so many institutions claim to be among their aims. Not that it is easy to come up with the designs for the Uber alternative to our current system. He argues that teaching students to write computer programs is essential. Even the New York Times advertises for more programmers than journalists; programmers are needed everywhere. We can't expect everyone to be a programmer but we insist that everyone learns mathematics and don't expect them all to become mathematicians. Mr Rossmann argues that despite the mammoth credential factory that is our higher education system the world will become less reliant on credentials, university degrees, A levels, IB points, SATs, etc, and will be far more interested in what people can actually do. Some of us have been advocating this approach in schools for years but progress has been stymied as universities tend to be very traditional and only want traditional qualifications. But these days companies such as Google and Facebook are leading the way in wanting to employee people who can show they have the skills they need rather than just bits of paper saying how wonderful they are. So maybe you are a straight A student but if you apply to somewhere like Make School they will be far more interested in what you have actually done, the programs you have developed, apps you have uploaded to iStore, websites you have created, etc. And what else have you done, have you shown your ability to work with other people, have you shown initiative in setting up a club or helping other people. Hopefully this will move us away from situations where, hypothetically, one medical student may achieve an average score of 89 while another achieves 88.9 so the first one qualifies as a doctor and the second does not. You would hope that the major factor is how capable they are of doing the job. Some may argue that this approach may be fine for software engineering but it does not apply to other areas, but why not? Why shouldn't we expect our doctors, lawyers, politicians, explorers, magicians to demonstrate their abilities and their enthusiasm for their chosen career? Seems very sensible even if asking our potential medical students to demonstrate surgical procedures they may have carried out while at school might be asking a bit much!

Teaching environment

Last week I took part in a 'hackathon'. Never been to one before and despite writing software for a living I have always steered clear of events where I need to mix with a bunch of geeks. Fortunately, as Jeremy Rossmann has pointed out (see earlier post), the modern software engineer needs to be a people person and the group of people I worked with at the hackathon were easy to get on with and certainly wouldn't be tarred with the geek brush. There was a good mix of adults and school students, experienced and inexperienced.

The hackathon took place in an old industrial building in one of the less celebrated parts of Hong Kong at an establishment called Maker Bay. This is divided into a number of smaller rooms and spaces and, while set up for design technology, it shows how we might design schools in the future, assuming we need to design schools in the future.

Go to any modern school and it is likely you will find that the rows of desks facing the front of the classroom where the teacher will spout forth have been replaced with a much more relaxed environment. Even so, it's still a classroom and it's still in a school. Good work can be done but can we do better.

Back at Maker Bay you have have an environment where adults and students can go along, take classes, work on their own projects, work with others, make a coffee, sit down on a sofa and chat with friends about whatever. A relaxed environment where everyone can feel some ownership of their environment and which encourages creativity.

Hong Kong housing

HK harbour

In a recent article in the SCMP Alex Lo drew attention to the fact that there are civil servants earning $300,000 per month whose responsibilities seem to be somewhat less than a traffic warden. We also read numerous letters referring to the acute housing shortage. The proposed solution offered by our overpaid leaders is generally to suggest we should build more houses. This exemplifies the lack of creativity stemming from our education system as the average $10,000 a month worker could have come up with the same answer.

So let’s look at the housing problem in a different way. I am sure we can all agree that the main aim is to reduce the demand for houses but the problem is not that we have too few houses but that we have too many people. When park managers have a glut of animals that are upsetting the balance of nature they carry out a cull. We could adopt a similar approach to provide a swift solution to the housing shortage; the main problem being how to decide on who to cull.

An obvious starting point would be the homeless but for a longer term solution we could slaughter the democrats or anyone who votes DAB. This arbitrary selection might be considered unfair by some, depending on your political leanings, so the government could hold a referendum or setup an elimination committee of 1200 who could decide on our behalf. While some might consider this as draconian and undemocratic it would provide an environmentally friendly solution to the housing shortage, particularly if we recycle the results of the cull in the form of animal feed or to help fuel the power stations to keep all the Teslas running.

So there you can see the benefit of a liberal western education, a solution to today’s problems that is cheap, fast and effective and would leave the country parks unscathed. Can our leaders come up with a better idea?