Wednesday, 31 January 2007

Jargon of the Month (Part 2)

I can't agree more with Stephen Vines that it is never too late to save our heritage, even though what remains on the preservation list is embarrassingly limited.

Having been a very un-Hong Kong Hong Kong girl who treasures intangible things such as history and culture rather than material temptations for many years, I am pleased and somewhat surprised to realise that I am not alone - finally. Inadvertently, the Star Ferry Pier episode has groomed an awakening that, as Sir Donald aptly put in his Letter to Hong Kong, no one can afford to ignore.

What concerns me now is the approach to tackle the issue of heritage conservation. We have had too many terrible blunders all these years and can no longer waste our time and efforts to learn from mistakes again. It is important for us to think things through before hastening to take actions that may ultimately prove to be futile, if disastrous.

I use the word "conservation" instead of "preservation" here because conservation means much more than just maintaining the original form of our history and culture. Conservation requires thinking a step further about how to revitalise our heritage as part of our dynamic community instead of a piece of dead wood that no longer mean anything to the living neighbourhood. This is by no means easy and requires input from everyone.

Unfortunately Sir Donald's administration is appallingly insensitive to the rapid changes of Hong Kong. For one thing, he is still convinced that the "traditional consultative machinery" works well even though the Star Ferry Pier episode has proved that the authorities have neglected those "people who are not represented by any well-established group or political party". Isn't it clear enough that the traditional consultative machinery has failed to catch up with the rapid social changes of Hong Kong? When people enjoy the freedom to express themselves and to organise spontaneous but vigorous activities on a relatively equal footing, thanks to the internet boom, why should they bother to be consulted by the authorities? Even if these people actively support the consultative process, how far will their outrageous ideas and views be tolerated?

These questions popped up my mind when I read that Sir Donald wasted no time to limit the discussion of our heritage conservation policy to "strike a balance between development and conservation". While he realises that "times have changed and people today are more attuned to heritage preservation", he then insists that "Hong Kong's development is in danger of being hampered by insufficient and slow public investment... The community must understand that investment in infrastructure is vital if Hong Kong is to remain a dynamic and thriving world city."

I'm not sure if I have misread Sir Donald's statement but the flow of his letter makes me feel that he has a strong inclination towards the existing mode of economic development of Hong Kong rather than a sincere invitation to fresh ideas and perspectives not only on heritage conservation but also new values that are set to define the future of Hong Kong.

This is why I think his call to "strike a balance between [economic] development and conservation" is nothing more than a piece of politically correct lip service. He said this because this is the right thing to say but he is not convinced by what flows out of his lips.

Just as Chan Koon-chung confessed in his bestseller People of Hong Kong of My Generation, Sir Donald is far too obsessed with economic development as the only benchmark of success - both at personal and social levels. Apparently he fails to comprehend that the recent outcry of my generation and younger ones is a fundamental challenge to the money-minded philosophy that has dominated the discourse of Hong Kong's history all these years.

Our message is loud and clear: Economic success is not the only thing to make Hong Kong a better place to live. There are many other factors that may possibly be more important than economic success, of which the majority's access has been severely limited in recent years anyway. We want to explore and identify other values that will make Hong Kong a better home for everyone in the years to come.

It is equally awkward to me that Sir Donald pointed his accusing finger at "a serious misunderstanding that development and conservation are mutually exclusive". My experience is that it has always been the rich and powerful who are adamant in maintaining this wrongful position. As we can see from the haughty commentaries in pro-Government media, the protesters were accused of standing in the way for absolutely no reason as Hong Kong needs more roads to accommodate more vehicles as it develops.

To me, this is a sheer dirty trick of Sir Donald to shift the blame from himself and his peers to those who were brave enough to stand up and challenge the authorities until the last minute. It is wrong to blame the protesters for their last-ditch efforts because they, just like you and me, were excluded from the "traditional consultative machinery" all through the years. It is understandable that they want to participate more actively in the decision-making process rather than just being a group of nameless people to provide ideas and opinions to the rich and powerful that will not achieve anything.

This is also why I found it unacceptable that the next three rounds of public consultative forum on Hong Kong's heritage conservation policy are all held in late afternoon of weekdays and will close at 7:30 in the evening. This means most working people like me will be excluded from participating in the discussion.

If Sir Donald is serious about the consultation process to help the administration's policy formulation and decision-making, why does the Government spare us from participating in such kind of public consultative forums? What concerns, fears or hidden agenda does it have? Not surprisingly, the forums are held whenever and wherever venues are available without any second thought about who will participate and when and where is the best for these people.

Indeed, this is also a very effective way of managing any possible heated debate that may drag on for more than two hours - the prescribed duration of the public consultative forums.

Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Jargon of the Month (Part 1)

Sir Donald Tsang's Letter to Hong Kong broadcast last Sunday yet again provided another proof to the saying that when a buzzword is uttered by senior government officials, it is doomed to become a cliche that people frown upon with weariness.

Yes, you got it. The Jargon of the Month goes to "collective memory".

Before anything else, I really wonder why so many people out there began picking up the jargon so comfortably and eloquently when, to be honest man, most of us don't really have a clue what it actually means.

Pardon me if I sound repetitive, but I'm really fed up with this rhetoric brought about by the herding instinct.

Herds are everywhere, but fellows here seem to be particularly good at being one. And they seem to be proud of their excellence in this profession.

Having read Sir Donald's letter quite carefully, I couldn't help raising a whole bunch of questions:

What is collective memory? How do we define the concept if it should become one of the criteria in evaluating the merit of whether to conserve a building or not? If a precise dictionary definition is not available, as Sir Donald aptly put it in his letter, is it still appropriate to take collective memory into account? If yes, how? If not, why not?

There are also questions about who owns or identifies himself/herself with the so-called collective memory. Who is eligible to be considered as part of the "collective" and who is not? What are the qualifications? Who define the qualifications? Why should we adopt these rules?

Take the Star Ferry Pier episode as an example. Apparently someone like me who lived in Central when I was a child, who commuted back and forth across the harbour on ferry every day and who was a frequent visitor to the City Hall library, will have a strong emotional attachment to the Star Ferry Pier, the tolling bell and everything around that area. But how about an old lady who has been living in the New Territories for more than 50 years and has never visited Hong Kong Island? She will have no idea what the clock tower looks like and how the bell strikes every 15 minutes.

Therefore, I think Sir Donald was respectfully brave when he mentioned the complicated issue of cultural identity and made a very brief attempt to explain what he thinks it is:

"The result is a growing sense of history, rooted in locality and focused on a sense of place. Perhaps it's a feeling that has been momentum since our Reunification in 1997, as people seek to identify with the place they were brought up and where they work and live."

Unfortunately, sir, I'm afraid you are terribly late in keeping pace with what the local people think. The strong emotional attachment to the city where we are born are bred didn't emerge just a decade ago, but as early as the 1970s when Hong Kong's cultural links with the Mainland were more or less eradicated after the turmoil in late 1960s. The economic takeoff and social stability in the following decades provided a fertile grooming ground for a strong sense of pride and self-confidence not only in our capabilities but also in our identity as the people of Hong Kong, not the people of China (in terms of a state rather than a nation).

Drilling down on this, there will probably be an endless list of questions on the ownership and implications of collective memory of Hong Kong: What does it mean for Hong Kong as home to more than six million people with a diverse portfolio of family roots and cultural backgrounds? What does it mean for Hong Kong if it wants to sustain its position of Asia's world city? How about those citizens who have non-Chinese roots? How about the millions of visitors who choose to spend some time in Hong Kong for business and leisure purposes every year? Do they have a voice in constructing Hong Kong's collective memory?

None of these questions was raised, let alone addressed. This is where I think Sir Donald's courage came in. Obviously he didn't really understand what he was talking about. I bet he didn't have time to bother about reading Maurice Halbwachs and Pierre Nora, not even checking out Wikipedia to get a sense of the buzzword.

Saturday, 27 January 2007

What Are You Guys Doing?

To begin with, I must say that I have been indifferent to the ongoing but tasteless drama of the so-called election of the next chief executive of Hong Kong.

While Civic Party legislator Alan Leong's candidacy is by all means respectable, I remain to be convinced why I should vote for him if I were eligible to cast my ballot.

To me, the senior counsel has adopted a surprisingly pathetic strategy that will ultimately lead him to nowhere. Why he should waste his time smearing at a coward that dares to exploit every single bit of his official entitlements for his own benefit but dares not to admit it through his lips when everybody has already seen what happened with his/her eyes?

In my opinion, Mr Leong should have really focused on soliciting the sufficient number of nominations from the 800-member Election Committee that would substantiate his "mission impossible" to challenge the arrogant Sir Donald. It is good for Mr Leong to keep the Hong Kong citizens informed of what he has been doing, but he seems to have wasted considerable time and energy on something that he shouldn't have given a damn.

Let me also vent my growing resentment against Sir Donald, who proclaimed that he is fed on water of Hong Kong and therefore the blood of Hong Kong flows inside his body on the day of his appointment as the chief interim executive of Hong Kong. Even though I was born and bred here with a strong sense of belonging to Hong Kong and can kind of share his feelings, I couldn't help having an icy shiver down my spine upon hearing his speech. What a shamelessly disgusting propaganda! There are a million ways to confess one's passion but Sir Donald's was sheer affectation that has made him nothing but a laughing stock.

His recent visit to his election office during working hours has again revived my anger and frustration. Of course I believe that he won't get himself into trouble by abiding all the laws and regulations related to his mute running for a second term, he made a very common but stupid mistake to offend the emotions of the people of Hong Kong. We are all human beings with strong emotions but Sir Donald seems to be too busy and complacent to bother with what we really think about him. As a person or an organisation that is always perceived as the strong and powerful, just being compliant with the law is far from enough to build and sustain a positive image and relationship with the community. Humans are all animals of emotions. But for some reasons the senior officials and billionaires in town often overlook the importance of addressing people's concerns and emotions before anything else.

Li Ka-shing and his supermarket chain PARKnSHOP's disinterested and defensive remarks on the oil fish scandal yet provide another perfect example of their heartless egotism.

Worse still, those crooks seem to be supported by a whole bunch of people from all walks of life, for whatever reasons that I can't be bothered less. Perhaps they have been working so closely and their interests have been interwoven so tightly that they have made it even more difficult for Hong Kong to take bold reforms for the benefit of our next generations.

For example, former radio host Albert Cheng who was elected into the Legislative Council for his aggressive and populist style on air, published a shameless defence for Sir Donald in his column on today's South China Morning Post.

He began his column with the following statements:

"While hosting a radio phone-in programme, I made frequent scathing criticisms of former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa. That was because under Mr Tung's incompetent rule, Hong Kong people suffered severe hardship, collusion between the government and business was commonplace; and the gap between the rich and the poor kept widening.

"Donald Tsang Yam-kuen brought great changes when he replaced Mr Tung in 2005. Not only has the economy recovered, but the unemployment rate has dropped substantially. Share prices have reached new highs and the property market has become stable."

I could hardly believe my eyes when I read these. The local economy did not pick up as a result of the marvellous policies made by the chief executive and his cabinet but a combination of factors. Attributing the economic success to the great leadership of one single person is just unacceptable. In what era does Mr Cheng think we are? The dynastic times when everyone looks up to a benevolent and capable monarch who treats his subjects as his children?

Moreover, collusion between the Government and business and the widening wealth gap remain burning issues that must be addressed urgently. The problems will not go away by themselves when the head of government changes.

By the way, Mr Cheng, do you remember when Sir Donald told the legislators two weeks ago that Gini Coefficient, the globally recognised measure of inequality of wealth, does not necessarily apply to Hong Kong? Oh, of course you don't, I beg your pardon. You probably were too busy to attend that question-and-answer session at the Legislative Council.

I really wonder why the local media and political commentators often jump on the bandwagon to make stupid and trivial criticisms of whoever happens to have stuck out his/her head. Perhaps it is my fault to have expected them to keep an eye on the honourable legislators who have been wasting taxpayers' time money on their distasteful and long-winded quarrels in the meeting hall.

Sunday, 14 January 2007










A Day of Retreat

Eight years have passed since I first visited Kuala Lumpur for a reason that was very different from the current one who brought me here again. I can't remember what the city looked like during my last visit, which was somewhat in a hurry but delightful.

However, I was grateful that I had a chance to sit alone in the cabin reading and listening to music. For some reason, I found almost each and every Canto pop song that I listened to on the in-flight channel stirring up some sort of emotions inside me.

Even though those emotions were so strong that almost prompted me to switch on my computer and write something, I knew too well that it was not going to work. Those emotions were simply too random and complicated to be written in a comprehensible way.

Things just came up in the split of a second that it would have taken some efforts to think through and jot them down. But the next question is, whether the feelings are still in their original form after going through all the logical process.

A few friends would have said, "Why bother? Just write as they are and don't bother about making sense, as long as you can understand." But this is precisely where my biggest blind spot is. I just can't do it for myself. And more importantly, my brain seems to have run out of sense and words these days to put things clear enough for me to understand.

In any event, it was certainly rewarding to have a chance to get away from home at a time when I really need a mental break. Too strong of an emotional turmoil has happened inside me and it is time to sort things out a bit before they go too far to intervene with my day-to-day obligations.

There is still a long way for me to go to meet the challenges this year.

Monday, 1 January 2007

Reflections on the Communication Blackout

Everyone was caught by surprise that the earthquake in Taiwan on Boxing Day has caused an unprecedented chaos to online communication not only in Hong Kong, but almost everywhere in East Asia.

It was reported that up to six major undersea cables have been damaged by the earthquake, thus causing serious internet disruptions in Hong Kong, Mainland China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan. The financial and logistics sectors that rely heavily on electronic communication are the worst hit of all. Currency transactions in Korea were also reportedly suspended on 28 December due to the disruptions.

Routine office work like mine was no exception either. I could not send or receive any emails in the office since 27 December. Overseas calls and faxes could not get through as the lines were heavily jammed. Like many others in Hong Kong and the rest of the world, I work on emails every day on both business and personal fronts, and the disruptions flung me into a dark isolation that was neither splendid nor brilliant.

While we should thank God that the Taiwan earthquake last Tuesday did not claim as many lives as the devastating tsunami did two years ago, which I did, I think we should take the disconnections more seriously than just a costly lesson about the lack of backup systems and alternative means of communication.

Let the multinationals, international banks and financial institutions worry about the economic losses caused by the disruptions. What seems more interesting to me is how people may possibly think and react to the unexpected communication blackout when too many of us have taken this form of convenience for granted.

Not surprisingly, many heartless people in Hong Kong complained about the inconvenience and loss of business over the last couple of days. They don't seem to care about life and death in Taiwan as much as they did for millions of people hit by the tsunami two years ago, when the local media was flooded with disgusting pictures of rubble and dead bodies.

This gives a vivid explanation of what the Cantonese saying means, "He only sheds a tear until he sees the coffin." And this is actually a common state of mind among the people of Hong Kong, if the mankind as a whole.

I wonder if anyone would be interested to adapt Oscar Wilde's The Model Millionaire for film or television series as part of the moral or civil education programmes that we desperately need. For those who have absorbed into their bones the obsession with short-term, tangible benefits, the money incentive is by all means the right approach.

The opening lines of The Model Millionaire said, "Romance is the privilege of the rich, not the profession of the poor." So does morality.

The communication blackout after Christmas also reminds us of the limitations of technology, in which we have taken for granted for many years.

While we enjoy the convenience of technology, it would be dangerous to assume that the basics can be completely replaced and wiped out as a result of technological advances. This is especially true when technology always runs on electricity, which is expensive to produce and limited and unreliable in supply. When the plug is pulled off, everything is gone.

Isn't the internet disruption a timely reminder of this old wisdom just one week after Time magazine hailed the cyberspace for bringing about revolutionary and irresistible changes to all parts of the world?

I really wonder how many business firms and organisations in this part of the world have ever thought of the worst scenario of losing all communication by telephone, fax and email. When everything breaks down, the most basic and primitive form of face-to-face interaction will still be the only thing that works and matters.

A 22-year-old university student from Portland of the United States told the last issue of Time magazine in a proud and complacent voice that, "If anything, my friends and I are more in touch than was ever possible before. Older people had written letters or called each other or whatever. I mean, really, we have a much more convenient way of doing things."

This is very true. Even though I may be considered one of the "older people" who used to write letters and call people on the phone, I also enjoy the privilege and convenience of keeping in contact on the boundless cyberspace. However, unlike the student who prefers doing everything on the internet, I am still convinced that face-to-face interaction is something that the cyberspace can never fully substitute. Internet gets people closer together despite their physical distances, but I believe human relationships can only last if people have a chance to meet and talk to each other. Imagine if the web-based communication breakdown would last for months, I wonder how many relationships would evaporate quietly as a result. But if you know someone in person, the relationship is likely to survive despite the technology failure.

Needless to mention are the straightforward and real-time emotional and body-language reactions you receive when you get along with people. Even ugly scribbles on a hand-written letter deliver a sense of warmth and intimacy that neatly designed email templates can hardly achieve. This is also why I still insist to write letters to those I love and respect most unless they prefer receiving emails.

Pardon me for dragging along but I just want to make a final note before closing: Commentaries in the local press in Hong Kong have so far focused on two issues – reduce the risk of relying on one route of transmission and review the notification system of the Office of Telecommunication Authority.

Again, they missed the point terribly. The superficiality of the media and the fact that nobody seems to care about this short-sightedness is but a shame. How can a city like this ever possibly become a knowledge-based economy?

Stop day-dreaming, mate.