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Car horns

Rants I live on the high street in a part of Hong Kong called Happy Valley. On numerous occasions every day someone sounds their car horn, often for extended periods. For some reason drivers seem to think that traffic jams will clear faster the longer they sound the car horn but do they think that the only ones who will hear their horn are the ones who are blocking the road?

I was aware that, in other developed countries such as UK and NZ, sounding the horn is illegal except in an emergency so I was surprised to find that regulations in Hong Kong say exactly the same thing: Under regulation 43, a driver shall not use any audible warning device on a vehicle on a road except to warn any person on or near a road of danger. A traffic jam hardly meets this definition.

Sounding the car horn is illegal and selfish but for some reason we tolerate it on a daily basis. I know the police have plenty of more important things to worry about but I wonder when the last prosecution for honking took place. I don't expect a police crackdown but it would be nice to think that drivers could give a little thought to others before they honk.

Lai Chi Wo

There are some parts of Hong Kong which are very inaccessible. The north east corner is particularly remote. There is a group of islands which most Hong Kongers will never see and which can only be accessed by ferries from Sha Tau Kok which, although part of Hong Kong is actually out of bounds and only accessible with the appropriate permit.

Lai Chi Wo is a village in the north east which is only accessible by a long trip to the north east countryside and then a walk of up to two hours or a once-a-week ferry ride which only runs at 9am on Sunday or by bus to one of the remotest parts of Hong Kong and then a 2 hour hike.

I got up early and took the train to University Station. I was a bit concerned when I found thousands of people at the station marching off on the same route as myself to Ma Liu Shui pier. Fortunately, they were all heading off on a walk while I got on the ferry, although that too was packed. The journey to Lai Chi Wo takes 90 minutes and travels the full length of Tolo Harbour. This starts opposite Ma On Shan new town...

ma on shan

...and quickly moves into very remote, inaccessible parts of the territory.

ma on shan

At the end of Tolo Harbour the ferry takes a sharp left and then slows down dramatically to pass through the narrow channel between Double Island and the mainland.

ma on shan

Past a water sports centre on Double Island onto a view of a small community on Crooked Island and then to the pier at Lai Chi Wo.

ma on shan

Lai Chi Wo is another remote village from which almost all the occupants have left in search of a better life elsewhere. But in a moment of inspiration someone in the government decided that the village should not be allowed to die. The village has been preserved and a geoheritage centre and nature trail have been added so that it is now a popular tourist attraction on Sundays. The village itself is backed by a large fung shui wood and is surrounded by a fung shui wall which has brought the village its share of good luck over the years.

fung shui wall

Outside the walled village is a large open area in front of a temple where the villagers set up stalls selling food to the visitors.

open space

While the villagers must enjoy the money that the visitors bring I am sure they aren't so impressed by the crassness of some of the visitors. While I was there a large party from a Hong Kong school arrived, marshalled by a teacher with loud hailer who organised the group photo with the huge banner advertising the school. Personally, I would have thought that with displays of such insensitivity it would be better not to advertise.

Having gorged myself on snacks and the inevitable tofu fa, a soy bean blancmange with ginger syrup I started the walk back, deciding not to make use of the return ferry. Foolishly, I thought the path would be a gentle walk around the coast but there were a number of uphill slogs, usually involving a flight of steps. Along the way I passed through a number of deserted villages.

yung shue au

In Yung Shue Au, there were a number of men with chain stores, cutting down and burning off vegetation. A man, with a very English accent, told me that he had grown up in the village, gone away to UK and now worked in Hong Kong. He hoped to renovate enough of the village to be able to spend some time there each year. But the problem was that everything was overgrown, a tree grew out of one house, and there were no services, no water, no electricity, no sewerage, no telephone, no road so not a great prospect.

Over the hill and back down to the coast with views across to Sha Tau Kok which, although part of Hong Kong, is out of bounds unless you have an appropriate permit. I have yet to work out why this is the case.

sha tau kok

This eventually leads back to Luk Keng, a village which most people know for a collection of restaurants and a minibus back to civilisation.

luk keng

I don't care where you live but I think it would be hard to have a comparable day out anywhere in the world. Hong Kong offers so much variety, culture and friendly, interesting people in such a small area. Despite its small size, the vistas offered in some of the more remote parts are extensive and spectacular and, for a government that only seems interested in the annual surplus, it is fantastic that, at least some parts of the territory are deemed worth preserving.

Yim Tin Tsai

Last Saturday was one of those perfect Hong Kong days. Not a cloud in the sky, temperature in the low twenties, humidity relatively low and pollution low enough to make the sky look blue. I have been working hard recently and needed a break and Sai Kung is one of my favourite places to escape to. Sai Kung is a seaside town on the shore of a fabulous, island studded bay. Along the water front are numerous stalls selling tickets for ferries to various islands and beaches. I bought a ticket to Yim Tin Tsai.


The ferry ride to the island turned out to be more of an eco-cruise as, at one point, the boat slowed down to a crawl and the captain pointed out the shoal of small jellyfish floating past like a party of jolly condoms.

Yim Tin Tsai is a small island not too far from Sai Kung. In the 90s most of the inhabitants left the island for the work in the city or overseas, in search of a better lifestyle. In recent years, a Roman Catholic community has returned to the island in search of a better lifestyle. One of the main projects was to refurbish St Joseph's Chapel.


Most of the houses are derelict...


...but some of the houses have been renovated and money is raised by manufacturing salt from salt ponds.


But I was particularly taken by the water front cafe. Outside was a small garden and some smart garden furniture while inside felt very country cottage like. Drinking coffee, looking out across the bay towards Sai Kung was so relaxing and idyllic with the sun shining down I could have stayed there for hours - and did.


I was ready to go home and various boats arrived but not from the right company, hence my extended stay at the cafe. Eventually my ferry arrived and, instead of going straight back to Sai Kung it went off on a trip south round the tip of Sharp Island, again with the captain stopping the boat to explain the rock formations.


Eventually, I arrived back at Sai Kung having enjoyed a cruise and a few hours escape on one of Hong Kong's many islands.


Rants Not everyone in Hong Kong is terribly keen on being part of China and China has done many things in recent years to make people less than happy to be taken into the fold of our brothers north of the border. One way in which people have made their dislike of the mainland government felt is by booing the national anthem at football matches. This has not gone down well and the Chinese government has introduced legislation regarding the use and performance of the national anthem. People can't just play the national anthem whenever they want, only on special occasions. You also have to stand up straight and adopt a solemn attitude. Despite one-country, two-systems, Hong Kong will have to enact its own version of this law. Most of us will chuckle at the idea of being told how to perform the national anthem but them up north are a bit sensitive.

In recent weeks I have ben watching the Four Nations rugby championship from the southern hemisphere. As with most sporting events these matches start with the performance of the national anthems of the two teams. These days, the anthems are all part of the entertainment. Argentina is one of the teams and their national anthem is more like an act from an opera, with a very long introduction and a melody that defeats all but a few. In Argentina this was performed a cappella by half a dozen opera singers, providing the orchestral introduction and then breaking into song. The crowd joined in, each in their own key, time and probably their own words. It was great fun, chaotic, full of passion and a number of players had tears in their eyes by the end.

Argentinian Anthem

The other national anthems were performed with equal passion. It should be pointed out that the singers perform live. The Chinese national anthem seems to consist of one standard recording that is played every time. Lacks a bit of feeling. There is no way that you could describe the renditions of the anthems at the rugby as being solemn and I'm pretty sure there was more than one person in a rabbit costume roaring away at the top of their voice.

No one tells the people in Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa how to sing their anthems, nor when they can be performed. People are happy to take part and are proud to support their countries. If you have to tell people to show respect then there is something very wrong, which is the case with China. Any teacher or parent will know that, these days, you cannot demand respect just because of your position. Respect has to be earned and respect is not the same as fear. Unfortunately the Chinese government thinks that stamping its feet and having a temper tantrum will result in everyone suddenly falling in love with the motherland. I think not!


Rants The housing problem won't go away. Every week there is some reference to the housing shortage and how to solve it. The government is going to offer starter homes for the middle classes and has said it will not destroy the country parks in order to build more houses, much to the delight of many and the chagrin of a considerable number. No, they plan to reclaim more land from the sea.

Now, Beijing has its problems too but they have recently announced that 23 million people is enough and have announced a population cap, there's no more room. In Hong Kong we can keep building more houses, and making smaller and smaller flats for a long time yet, but perhaps we should take Beijing's lead on this one. You can argue that if people do not have anywhere to live then their quality of life is compromised but the destruction of the environment also reduces the quality of people's lives. At some point, you have to draw a line.

In the 28 years I have been in HK, the country parks have become more widely used. Some will say that there are plenty of areas of the country parks that are not used, so why not develop them. Just having the bits you use is not enough. If people use a path but do not venture off to the sides does it mean it is reasonable to develop the bits alongside the path? Of course it isn't.

I have just returned from a trip to Macau which has a few bits of remaining woodland and hillside but these are just tiny islands in a sea of huge casinos. While any bit of greenery is nice it doesn't give the Macanese much chance from the metropolis which is Macau and Zhuhai. Hong Kong is a pleasant place to live because it has such wonderful countryside in which to escape.

There are areas of farmland in HK that are no longer used and there are calls to develop those but the same argument applies, they do provide a bit of greenery and we need a few plants to absorb a bit of pollution. There are other sites in HK which are referred to as brownfield, which are sites that may have been used for some form of industry and may be polluted in some way. These sites could be looked at, as could all the old, rotting factory buildings which are emptying as HK is no longer a base for manufacturing.

Despite the housing shortage the government is looking to import people from overseas to care for our ageing population. You would have thought that, out of 7.5 million people, we could find one or two who could take this on. The trouble is, it is not glamorous and is not well-paid. We would rather reward hedge-fund managers, bankers, lawyers, accountants, etc. with ludicrous amounts of cash while people who care for the elderly earn very little so we have to look overseas. That will help the housing shortage.

Is there a housing shortage? Let me rephrase the question, is there a home shortage? How many people have multiple houses but they are mainly for investment. Many, I believe, are unoccupied. I was looking to buy something for myself recently and visited two nice flats that had been empty since they were built 10 years ago. Prices here are astronomical so it is very difficult to save enough money for a deposit so, to some extent, building more houses is in the hope that more people will be able to afford to buy their own.

Destroying the environment, be it reclaiming land from the sea or clearing areas of country park is irreversible. Is there any form of long-term plan or are we just going to keep building?


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.



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.


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. 


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.


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.


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 ( 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.


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.