Friday, October 20, 2006

Curbing Australia's "free" press

Imagine that your nation's press was controlled by a foreign corporation, led by a ruthless businessman who traded political support for government handouts to his businesses. Then consider how you would feel if the electronic media alternative was being simultaneously muzzled!
That's the prospect Australia faced this week, as a direct result of media restructuring approved by by the radical right wing Howard government. In true Orwellian style, Australian government ministers praised the new media deal as offering the Australian public more media choices, even as media control narrowed. In practice, the new media legisation sparked a frenzy of de-regulated share trading as the really big media players moved to digest their smaller competitors.
The US based News Corporation already owned two thirds of Australia's major newspapers. Thanks to Rupert Murdoch's management, they sing from the same hymnbooks praising globalisation, privatisation, de-unionisation, and you may have guessed it, de-regulation. News Corporation took a share of the more liberal Fairfax newspaper group, which offers News competition in Sydney and Melbourne.
In spite of the internet, newspapers continue to provide most of Australia's informed reporting. They do so because they continue to employ the largest assemblies of journalists who still do most of the media's fact checking.
In Australia, the papers' only serious competition comes from the state owned, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). ABC broadcasters have been struggling to maintain their independence as the Australian government progressively stacked the ABC Board with its partisans. These include Ron Brunton, a former employee of the mining company front group, the Institute of Public Affairs and Keith Windschuttle, a fringe historian who made his name by denying colonial massacres of aboriginal people.

But perhaps the most extreme of these appointments was News Corporation columnist, Janet Albrechtsen. Albrechtsen had previously attacked the ABC for what she called “left wing bias”, even claiming that the staff elected member of the Board was “a remnant of the Soviet-style workers' collective”. (Australian 26.5.2004)

Bias is in the sight of the beholder, and Albrechtsen is stridently and unashamedly one-eyed. Analysis of her newspaper columns showed that she was anti union, anti feminist, anti homosexual, pro-George Bush who she called "a man of action", and devotedly pro-Australian Prime Minister, John Howard. She saw international media coverage of torture at Iraq's Abu Graib prison as examples of media bias. “With photos in hand and under the seductive theme of the public’s right to know, many of the media showed the images again and again. …it is less enthused about addressing its own culpability for the violence that publishing these images may generate”. (Australian 19.5.2004) Albrechtsen said that eliminating what she percieved as bias at the ABC, would be her main priority on the ABC Board.
This week the ABC's new managing Director, Mark Scott, announced new Editorial policies which for the first time allowed the Board to intervene against general programs. "The revised editorial policies are the most significant statement of values the ABC has made in over twenty years, giving greater emphasis to the need for impartiality in the ABC’s coverage of contentious matters.", he said in a media release.
The new policies were announced to a cheering crowd at a dinner organised by the Sydney Institute, a right wing think tank run by veteran cold war warrior, Gerard Henderson. ABC staff subsequently went on strike, protesting against political interference.

Is News Corporation thinking of introducing similar editorial policies, to ensure that its columnists like Albrechtsen write impartially and fairly?
Strangely such an attempt at balance does not seem to be on the agenda.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Hong Kong stinks

"What's wrong with the sky?" the child of one of my Hong Kong friends asked on a recent visit to the US. She replied that outside China, the sky is usually blue.
Hong Kong on a good day is still beautiful.
But most days here are not good days any more.
Ok I admit it, Hong Kong pollution has beaten me. As much as I love the place, I can't ignore the toxic smog. Today is white grey, with the Kowloon mountains and most of the harbour hidden by fumes.
I shudder and reach for my inhaler.
I have spent more than two weeks in the last two months in a ward in a private hospital, hooked up to a slow drip. I came back from Malaysia with lungs darkened by the smoke from the forest fires across the straits in Indonesia, where criminal magnates are clearing land.
But Hong Kong's lethal mix of power station stench, motor fumes and factory stink almost finished me off. A crisp youngish pulmonary specialist, gave me the once over with a stethoscope, and packed me off to hospital for a crash course in intravenous antibiotics. At first it wasn't too bad. I was really there so they could monitor the drug impacts.
People fed me and washed my clothes. They let me out in the afternoon and evenings to walk around the Peak . In between, I could lounge in my own room watching CNN or using broadband. I asked one of the nurses whether this was what being married was like.
She said not.
After a week, even the novelty of having Nuns pray for me started to wear off.
They let me out for indifferent behaviour. But within a week the condition returned and I was re-admitted. This time it was not so much fun. The drug doses were increased, building up to a twelve hour infusion. My veins started to resist and began to swell and hurt. When I was on the point of passing out from drug overload, the doctor called off the infusions.
It took me about a week to get over from the second hospital term. I am not sure whether my long suffering travel insurance company will ever recover. The good Christian hospital where I lodged, wanted cash in advance and lots of it.
I won't be back for a while. I've been offered good jobs here, some of which I have hankered after for a decade. But I won't be taking them.
A Hong Kong think tank reported recently that if the Hong Kong government acted now, air pollution would improve by 2010. It's not soon enough for me.
Next week, I leave for Australia, where the minds may be smaller, but at least the air is clean.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006


Monty Python once boasted of a "Happy Holiday Home for Pets Pie Company".
Hong Kong had a "Don't Forget Pets Crematorium Centre". Or it did until this week, when it was closed after repeated complaints from angry residents who claimed it belched foul smelling smoke into their flats. According to the South China Morning Post, six government departments had tried, and previously failed to close the centre. Apparently the Environmental Office merely suggested the company install a better filter and a longer flue. This didn't impress one local who said she didn't like the idea of inhaling "bits of dogs and cats". A letter writer to the paper subsequently claimed the crematorium owner had been "hounded" by such residents who shouldn't have been in the building anyway.
It was also reported that Hong Kong's only government run pet cremation centre ceased operations in 1999, after the building in which it was unfortunately located, the Kennedy Town Abattoir, closed.
Many Australians of course believe the stereotype, that Hong Kong people like to eat small furry animals, particularly dogs. Indeed, the then Australian Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans once caused a scandal here when he joked that one of Governor Patten's dogs, which had gone missing, may have been lunched upon by the locals. This was regarded as poor taste. The dog, called Whiskey or Soda, I can't remember which, turned up unscathed and died some years later of old age, in England.
It seems that contrary to western suspicions, many Hong Kong people dote on their furry friends. Up on the Peak, where the really rich folks live, it's often the custom to have one's Husky (yes Husky) take the Filipino maid for a walk at least once a day. Down at the mid levels, where the Hong Kong lawyers and small time merchant bankers congregate, there has been a proliferation of pet grooming centres, where one's Pekinese can be shampooed, primped and primed, JonBenet Ramsay style.
It's certainly true that in the working class areas, such as the aforementioned Kennedy Town, there aren't too many doggies to be seen on the streets. But this doesn't mean they have end up in one of the many fine nearby barbecue restuarants. It may simply reflect that low income earners just don't have the money or more importantly, the room to have a four legged lodger.

Friday, August 18, 2006

One Flick and you're gone

After recently having spilled a rather fine Australian Shiraz into my laptop, I have come to realise why journalists don't drink as much as they once did. In my youth, journalists used to file their copy from booze proof analogue telephones or pound their stories out on almost indestructible manual typewriters. A fraternal interest in booze was a hallowed foundation for creating and maintaining contacts.
I started out as a reporter in Sydney, covering unions whose operations seemed to float on a sea of beer and spirits; whose currents, I quickly learned to navigate.
To avoid unpleasantness and resulting fisticuffs, different union factions used to favour different pubs in the seventies. Members of the Australian Communist Party drank at the Criterion, an otherwise undistinguished bar just across the road from Australian Associated Press. Off Duty overnight subs (sub-editors) mingled with communists, environmentalists, the occasional giant drag queen and ageing members of the anarchist "push". People had heated arguments over ideas; a concept many computer literate whippersnappers might find novel. Reporters would learn of scoops which would be tragically forgotten after the sixth or eighth Bundaberg Rum and Coke. It was the sort of place where you went in with a fairly loving relationship and came out with a force nine hangover.

One block south, on the edge of Chinatown, right wing unionists drank at the old Trades Hall Hotel. They belonged to the Centre Unity faction, which was neither Centrist nor unified, but it didn't seem to matter as long as they had the numbers at the weekly Labor Council meetings. They seldom spoke to journalists and drank and plotted in the back bar, deciding Labor candidates' careers, rigging union elections and writing the policies of the state Labor government itself. Only one journalist, Jack Simpson from the Telegraph, cracked their system. The back bar was connected to the public bar by a service window which the Centre Unity officials had to open to get their beers. Jack sat on the public bar side, running a small but lucrative betting shop. Jack would trade tips on the horse races for inside information on the Labor Party. The system worked well, until Jack a former bare-knuckle boxer; fell off his stool under the influence of one beers or three. His stories were a bit scrambled after that, although it seemed that editors of the Telegraph, who didn't much like unions anyway, didn't seem to notice. As Jack succinctly put it, "They were so low, they could walk under a snake's belly with their umbrellas up!" I still don't know whether he was talking about the Telegraph staff or the rightwing union officials.
Across the street, what was left of the unions drank at the Star Hotel. I went there one hot Sydney Summer afternoon, after a long unwooded Chardonnay sodden long lunch with two hackettes. The bitchumen pavements may have been melting outside, but the bar was cool and dark. A solitary drinker was downing beers with the sort of intensity with which lawyers pursue money. One of the hackettes, now a sage and respected columnist, sidled up to him.
"What's your name," she asked with a giggle.
"I'm the Flick man," he replied.
It was at that moment that two things dawned on me.
The first thing was that I recognised this fellow with the deep tan and the tattoos as a member of the Painters and Dockers Union. They worked the waterfront, which in those free and easy days before containerised cargo, was a lucrative venue for organised and disorganised crime. The Painters and Dockers were the toughest blokes on the wharves.
At this point, I remembered I had a pal belonging to the Actors Union which had been trying to sign up the strippers at Kings Cross. One club's bouncers protested against organised labour by throwing a union organiser down a flight of stairs and giving him a kicking which resulted in the loss of his spleen. But the Painters and Dockers owed the Actors a favour.
I read two weeks later that the club in question had burned down, with the manager still inside. Interviewed in hospital, the club manager told the Sydney Morning Herald that he had been depressed when he set the club alight and had locked himself in. He said that when he recovered from his injuries, he planned to leave town and get out of clubbing which had lost its attractions for him.
And the girls were talking to a Painter and Docker who called himself the Flick man. He was of course referring to the Flick company, which applied pesticides. Their radio and televisions ads claimed that if you had problems with insects, cockroaches, rodents or indeed pests of any sort, all you had to do was "Call the Flick man".
"Just one flick and their gone," was their slogan.
I made myself absent.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Getting rat faced in Cambodia

I confess that over the years I have got drunk in some strange and somewhat seedy places. When I was in Cambodia, journos like myself used to hang out at the Gecko bar in USSR Boulevard. It was easy enough to find, if only because of the two metre tall concrete Gecko standing outside the bar. It had red unblinking eyes, which were not unlike my own, after a serious session there. In those days, we used to get around town on cyclos; three wheeled pushbikes with a cane armchair attached to the front, so that the passenger could travel in comfort.
The Gecko was set up on the footpath, so the cyclos could push right up to the tables. You could sit in your cyclo armchairs; drink steadily in the steaming heat, until enough was too much. You could then give the driver US$1 and be cycled seamlessly and safely home.
Or mostly safely. I remember an incident one night when we were heading back to the Cathay, a local one star much favoured by Australian freelancers, SAS hit men and the occasional drug merchant. (Intrepid Japanese and American journalists stayed at the Cambodiana, Phnom Penh's only five star which not only had a swimming pool but which also sold bacteria free bottled water!)
We were with the other cyclists streaming down the main street, passing our bottle of Quantro from cyclo to cyclo, and savouring the scent of the Frangipanis, when a fellow got popped in the street in front of us. He was lying with his shattered head in a spreading pool of blood with his nemesis standing over him, AK 47 in hand. A Japanese TV crew emerged from a restaurant, camera running, lights flicked on. Our pal with the AK 47 just turned his head towards them. They got the message. They genuflected and retreated back to their sumptuous dinner.
Our drivers wheeled about the blood pool and pedaled us home. The incident definitely took the gloss off the evening. At the Cathay, I asked the night manager, "What does the Cathay do about security?" He was a young man who appeared to have been much scarred by shrapnel at an even more tender age. He was wearing shorts and watching American wrestling on satellite TV.
"Security?" the night manager said as he pulled a cut down AK from under his desk. On the screen a wrestler with golden curls howled as a fat man in a mask pretended to jump on his stomach. I thought of the Cambodian war veterans who would gently tap their stumps on the restaurant windows, as they held out their palms

I must not have looked reassured. The night manager reached down again and produced a rocket grenade. I thought about what a weapon like that would do in the confined space of the Cathay foyer.
It didn't bear thinking about. Sometimes its better to stay drunk.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Jaguars in gilded cages

It's free to go to Hong Kong Zoo. It's run by the Hong Kong government. The cages of Lemurs, Toucans, Chinese crocodiles and Burmese Pythons are housed in immaculate architect designed cages surrounded by meticulously gardened jungle. The resident Jaguar has a mid levels pad which includes its own gym, spa bath and sun deck. It's true that his accommodation is not as big as he might have had back home in South America, but hey in Hong Kong he gets to eat prime quality, imported beef and gets to look at the city lights every night.
The Hong Kong humans drive down from their apartments to gaze at the caged Jaguar while he gazes back at them. They both breathe the same Hong Kong air, and its choking them all.
The Civil Service led Hong Kong government is doing a fine job on the small but important elements of the urban environment. The streets are swept clean. The parks are mass planted with flowering trees. Even the public toilets are spotless. This all a bit of a shock to anyone who has recently been to under developed countries like England, which used to run Hong Kong. It's hard to believe that he former colony's slick public transport and its gleaming airport were designed and built by the same folks responsible for the odd and dysfunctional bus service to the shambles at Heathrow.

But the Hong Kong civil service government hasn't the strength and perhaps the insights needed to address the larger issues. It's good at gardening but is struggling with air pollution. As an unelected body, it lacks a democratic mandate to take on the literally filthy rich...Hong Kong's government sanctioned but privately owned power stations. A Hong Kong government agreement protects these gross polluters from competition in this tiny but exclusive market, in doing so feeding them continuing profits.

China Light and Power's website has a nice green frog and it boasts of its environmental awareness. CLP even claims that by 2010 , five percent of its generation will come from renewable sources, which seems a negligible if not laughable proportion. Particularly since CLP is powering up its dirty, coal fired stations to export even more electricity to China's polluting industries. (45.7% increase last year). Hong Kong Electric meanwhile smugly says it strives to exceed its customers environmental expectations. HKE has commissioned a wind generator of Lamma Island even as it expands its conventional generation capacity. Both companies are politely resisting calls to quickly clean up their corporate acts.

Their shareholders, are after all the whos who in Hong Kong's real zoo .

Monday, July 03, 2006

Ten things to like about Tunis

Sitting on the hilltop where Hannibal planned to humble Rome.

Watching the President's security men holding hands

Meeting Taxi driver, Mohammed Ali (not the boxer he says) who found my camera when I left it on his back seat and who drove like a demon to find me.

Catching the breeze under the trees on Bourgiba Boulevarde

Having an excellent four course meal at Restaurant Carcassone for A$4.50.

Drinking ice cold mineral water at the blue and white hill top village of Sidi Bou Said.

Breaking my glasses and having a new pair delivered within two hours.

Riding the rattling, TGM tramway with Tunisians having a day at the beach.

Getting a visa at the airport and being told to leave the restricted zone to withdraw the required ten Dinars from a local bank.

Seeing the young fellow in the Souk who stopped to help a woman tourist get a wheel chair across a curb.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Venice wants your Euros!

The Venetian approach to tourism was set by a couple of ninth century, local business men who stole the rotting corpse of St Mark so that it might be brought back home for a basilica which attracts tourists to Venice to this day. At least in those days, Venice had real industries; even if it was trade with the Orient, which generated fantastic profits after Venice left its Christian business rivals in Byzantium to be exterminated by the Turks.

Venice today is a beautiful theme park, where even the locals can't afford their own prices and commute in daily from the mainland. Instead of wearing Mickey Mouse suits, they dress up as gondoliers, itinerant artists or marble statues.
They only have one thing in common. They want your Euros.

Take the case of the rather rude granddad and grand mum, who according to the guide book, run an authentic family eatery. They shout at you, "No restaurant!" which means there is no menu with set prices so that the tapas they sell you cost as much as a full meal.

Modest restaurants that do have a menu, serve even more modest meals, with entree size, main course servings. Tiny glasses of wine there, cost as much as a whole bottle of the same dubious vintage sold at a nearby store. The store meanwhile sells cans of coke which cost three times as much as at the hard to find supermarket. At least the store sells things you can consume or use, which is more than the hundreds of stalls which offer identical paper Venetian Masks and innumerable coloured glass bottles allegedly crafted on the little island of Murano.

Murano itself is a carefully sprung tourist trap. Most new visitors to Venice head straight for Saint Marco Square of saintly corpse fame. Before they have made it half way across the square they are approached by a nice man offering a free water taxi ride to Murano where, as a special, one day only tourist attraction, one can see the famous Venetian glass being made. This seems a great deal because the water taxis, driven by muscular men wearing gold chains, are far too expensive to be hired as taxis, and seem to be mostly the preserve fat Americans rubbernecking at the apparently deserted palazzos. At Murano, the newbies are ushered straight into a Fornace (furnace factory) where they can see a worker making a glass dolphin. After depositing a "tip" for the maestro, the tourists are ushered upstairs to see the unique masterpieces. Only today, (presumably today is saintly stolen corpse day) the glass can be bought at a special forty percent discount. At this point, I realised I had seen similar, unique masterpieces before... back in rural Australia for a sixth of the price! The "guide" who was wearing a very snappy, Italian linen suit, could see I was hesitating. I was thinking that a man who wore such a suit , crease free, could not be working too hard making too much glass.

"We can ship your Murano glass anywhere in the world for free!," he said. This did not seem to be particularly efficient to me, rather like flying bricks to Australia.
As I headed for the door, our new friend the "guide" was offering even more special discounts. Too late!! Outside I discovered a row of little shops selling "similar, unique masterpieces". In fact, the further one got from the Fornace, the cheaper they got. Indeed it seems that the really unique feature of Murano glass, is that the further one gets from Murano, the cheaper it gets.

The same goes for Venice. The further you get a way from it, the more you can afford being a tourist.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Don't talk about the war! (Hong is on a tour of Europe)

One is told to forget any preconceptions of war museums when it comes to the Imperial War Museum North at Manchester. "You'll never have seen anything like this before!", wrote the Newcastle Evening Chronicle.

They were right!

In fact, what there was to see was very strange indeed. Most people who went there seemed to agree. An interactive display at the museum recorded that most visitors felt it had not increased their knowledge about the war. Even fewer felt that their attitudes to war had been changed by the museum.

Why is this so?

At the Imperial War Museum North, visitors find only a few wartime artifacts on exhibit. There are hardly any attempts to explain or contextualise what has been selected. War is presented as a series of personal experiences rather than what silly, old fashioned modernists saw as a result of imperialism, colonialism, competing economic interests or just plain loony tune ideologies.

The War Museum is located what had been bombed out dockland, a place where real people died defending democracy. It is housed in a vast new European Community financed building designed by the "world renowned architect", Daniel Libeskind. Libeskind said that his work tried to "address a multidimensional problematic". "The exhilarating aspect of such a trajectory, at least for those engaged in it, is that its goals are unknown and its ends indeterminable and uncertain," he said. I interpreted this to mean that he didn't know what he was doing. This seemed to be confirmed by his Museum in Manchester.

Sadly this very strange and very, very expensive construction seems as empty as the heads of those who curate it. Inside, the building has no straight lines and innocent visitors such as my self become quickly lost. A helpful guide told me that this effect was intentional. "People get disoriented in wartime,' he said. "The building helps visitors share this experience".

"People also get killed in wartime, and some of them deserved it" I thought uncharitably. Being naieve, I thought that people went to museums to learn something but this was clearly old fashioned thinking. The guide directed me to the wartime multi media experience. On the walls bombs fell, guns banged and lights flashed, momentarily illuminating displays, which included a British 17 pounder gun, a Hussar's hat and a nurses uniform.

War had been uncoupled from history to create an entertaining show. Maybe the curators had read a post modernist cartoon book which told them that all history was opinion and all opinions should therfore be treated equally, however mis-informed, deluded or as they say here,"balmy". The museum and all it contained was a gigantic intellectual fashion statement.

When the lights came on, I found that there was an East German Trabant motor car at the centre of the room. Losing it, I remarked that "Trabants have about as much as do with Imperial war history as my left boot!". "Exactly!", replied my post modernist pommie companion, gesturing triumphantly to a large but previously unobserved window display of left boots.

At this point, I noticed that the nice men with radios and uniforms were moving closer. They helped me find the exit which thanks to Daniel Libeskind's multidimensional problematics, was well hidden. Maybe in wartime, many people cannot escape from other's silly ideas. Was this intentional?
Confused, I launched myself on a trajectory to the pub.

Monday, May 15, 2006

The expat life

You know you have been an expat in Hong Kong for too long when ;

• The smog clears and you look out your mid levels window and you see a place across the harbour, which your maid calls Kowloon
• Your children are speaking English with a Filipino accent
• You have to burn your photo albums when your Chinese ex-girlfriend is appointed as your CEO
• Your Chinese mistress dumps you for a CCP princeling, because his Ferrari is classier than your Beamer
• You stumble into a supermarket and find that some people still cook their own food
• You visit your mum at her place in Sydney at Christmas and you have an agoraphobic hissy fit when confronted by a tree
• You expect to have your underwear ironed
• You go to an Alumni dinner and learn that in Australia, people catch the bus to work
• You think that Lee Kuan Yew's ideas about democracy are really quite sensible
• You hear the term "creative industries" and think it applies to Banking and the Law

Further suggestions would be appreciated.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Golden Week shopping in Hong Kong

Hong Kong used to be a place where you would go to shop. My Dad got a very fine Japanese Transistor radio from here back in the sixties when cruise ships disgorged thousands of heat affected westerners looking for a bargain.

A host of seedy little shops flourished, stacked with the latest cameras, radios,electric shavers and later CD players, pagers and mobile phones. There were no fixed prices. Perspiring Australians could haggle, confidently believing that almost any agreed price was a good one because they didn't have to pay Australian sales tax. The salesmen, who earned less in a week than a decent meal cost in a tourist hotel, were always keen to come to a deal.

This was what Business schools call a "win-win" situation. Certain Australian tourists felt good because they thought they had saved money by browbeating an Oriental. The local salesmen felt good because they knew that these ugly foreign devils were usually willing to pay more than the fixed price in the department store around the corner. Everybody went home happy.

These days, many of the tourists come from mainland China, particularly during "Golden Week" which in Hong Kong, is curiously celebrated on May Day, as well as the National holiday in October. According to the People's Daily, "The mainland's tourism golden week has become a prime consuming week in Hong Kong, and purchasing in the so called "shopping paradise" has already become a major destination for many Chinese
mainland tourists, as visiting scenic spots has become their spare time programs."

But what would hard working mainland factory workers buy during their visit? A little less than usual it seems. According to the South China Morning Post, Golden Week went a little leaden this year with business dropping by twenty percent, as a result of high hotel prices and unscrupulous business rip offs turning mainland tourists away.

Maybe they should have shopped at Hong Kong's huge air chilled malls where you can buy anything from to HK$3,000 flourescent sneakers to shaggy Shetland Island sweaters. Such items would be unique on the assembly line!

Shoppers can meanwhile look up to gigantic wallposters of pouting, naked, sixteen year old super models, clutching Italian, crocodile skin hand bags. I could never understand why a teenager should want such an expensive accessory but then it dawned on me that just everyone needs something chic to hold one's credit cards,
particularly if one is going commando in extremis in the Orient.

Joyce Boutiques are regarded as Hong Kong's fashion leaders. The Joyce chain was founded by Joyce (get the connection) Ma with a little help from low profile, retail and property tycoon, Walter (get the connection) Ma King-wah. Adrienne (get the connection) Ma, managing director of Joyce Boutique Holdings, told China Daily that fashion was becoming much more accessible in Hong Kong. Ma Junior described the new Hong Kong consumer as "still very brand
conscious, likely to be wearing US$500 Hermes jeans and carrying a bag that could be an unusual piece rather than just big brand". This may be so but Joyce fashions seem to be designed for other than the common herd. The Joyce store in Central recently featured a window display with stick thin mannikins clinging to an upturned grand piano, suspended from the ceiling by wires.

Meanwhile, Joyce, the matriarch, never lost her common touch. She spoke movingly of her relationship with a 93 year old woman "who spends her days kneeling by the ferry pier on Lamma Island, asking disembarking boat passengers for their recyclable Coke
and beer cans". "I see her every time I travel to eat at the big restaurants on Lamma", Joyce told Timemagazine. "When we see each other, we shriek like a couple of long-lost sisters, and give each other big hugs. She calls me hergod-daughter and often takes me to her home nearby."

Maybe Joyce should have lent her a handbag and taken her to lunch some time. She could have kept the empty cans.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Marching on Filthy Lucre City

May Day has always been a great day for contradictions.

Consider the case of the Capitalist loving Communist unions who are not nearly as popular as they were in the heroic days of the Cultural Revolution when they could fill Hong Kong streets with chanting Red Guards. Many of those revolutionaries have since moved into Italian suits, flashing Swiss watches as they speculate on the stock market. Only the diehards march on May Day in Hong Kong these days. As disciplined Communists, they support the Chinese Communist party's local front group, Democratic Alliance for the Development and Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB). DAB loyally supports the Beijing appointed Hong Kong leadership; a group of senior civil servants and billionaires who believe that workers wages and conditions should be suppressed for the good of their family companies and, of course, the economy. This leaves the local communist activists in a rather tricky position when it comes to attracting oppressed members of the working class.

In fact the biggest group of May Day marchers was not local Chinese people at all, but immigrant workers...maids. In skintight jeans, platform shoes and even the odd burqa, they sashayed along Hong Kong Streets in contingents from the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, singing along with all girl band imported for the occasion. The maids want their salaries back to what they were before the now up turned economic down turn. This would give them HK$3,860 (A$655) a month; a gigantic figure which would, if granted, clearly bring ruin and discord to dinner parties right across the Pearl of the Orient.

Also marching today were disaffected employees of Hong Kong's Disneyland who want more money to wear Western designed duck and rat suits in the steamy Hong Kong summer. For the last few months, they have been threatening to strike at Disneyland, which has imported a team of high powered American spin masters to stem negative publicity, which might result from seeing a placard waving Mickey clubbed down by security guards. Disneyland is still recovering from ugly scenes at Chinese New Year, when mainland Chinese tourists tried to storm the gates of the magical kingdom. Unscrupulous travel agents had oversold Disneyland tickets and the former children of Chairman Mao wanted their money's worth.

Meanwhile, Disneyland is being blamed for a down turn in tourist numbers at Hong Kong's other premium attraction, the
giant Buddha on Lantau Island. Standing 34 meters high, the seated Buddha took ten years to complete at the Precious Lotus Monastery at Ngong Ping. According to the tourist information, " The eyes, lips, incline of the head and even the right hand raised to deliver a blessing to all, combine to lend great depth of character and dignity to this extraordinary statue, whose very glance brings calm and introspection to those who look into those seemingly all-seeing eyes." Big Buddha's been a big earner for local monks, who have been discommoded by defections to Disneyland. It seems the Abbot hopes to restore tranquility by tearing down part of the historic Tai Hung temple and constructing a sort of Buddhist theme park.

Maybe the monks should have been marching too!

Friday, April 21, 2006

A chip off the old blockhead

The Chinese woman on my television appeared to be screaming abuse at the warm and fuzzy face of Stalinism, China's Premier Hu. Hu Jintao plodded on regardless, delivering his official speech in the brilliant spring sunshine on the White House lawn. Next to him stood President George Bush, looking like he had suddenly realised he was mistakenly wearing Laura Bush's underwear again. The CNN commentary droned on. "The Chinese won't like this but they won't know about it because it won't be shown in China!" the Washington journalist said.

Wrong on two counts. Firstly, I was watching the live broadcast in China, about four hundred kilometers north west of Hong Kong. Secondly, the Chinese people don't speak with one voice, and it certainly isn't that of the senior bureaucrat of the capitalist, Communist Party. Chinese people have many different opinions just like Americans do. Even the Communist Party of China recognises this individuality, actively recruiting billionaire businessmen as well as the occasional worker to join its ideology challenged ranks.

But the party is still fighting a rearguard to censor international news. I couldn't publish this blog on the mainland because sites are usually censored there. So I am inside China writing this report on my lap top, fact checking with the BBC which streams in on broadband. Censorship isn't stopping the flow of information to Chinese citizens. Even jailing the odd blogger hasn't intimidated Chinese web users. Meanwhile the Chinese government is disrupting legitimate web traffic, hampering the modernisation Mr Hu says he wants.

The US Secret Service dragged the protester away. Mr Hu went off to have a nice lunch with Mr Bush. Did they talk about freedom of speech, do you think?

Monday, April 17, 2006

Learning and earning in Australia and Asia

A Hong Kong student asked me, "Why does the Australian government want to shut down student associations?" "Even Beijing isn't doing that!"
Maybe the answer to the question is that while Beijing seems to be becoming more pragmatic and less ideological, Australia is heading in the other direction.
In Hong Kong, students are able to learn about democracy and build networks by joining any of dozens of university backed clubs and societies. In Australia, the Howard government has legislated to effectively close down all university students
because Ministers believe they contain critics of government policies.
It's certainly true that some Australian university staff and students question government actions such as:

• the signing of a free trade agreement which has shifted the trade balance even further towards the US,
• anti union legislation which effectively makes strikes illegal
• anti terrorist legislation which allows detention without trial
• anti sedition legislation which makes Article 23 proposals look tame.

Australian government ministers are angry that their policies have not been embraced by what they dismiss as "intellectual elites". After all, they received rapturous support from the Murdoch dominated, mostly US owned Australian press! The Australian government stays ahead in opinion polls, in part thanks to an economy bouyed by booming coal sales to China, a well nourished fear of terrorism and a hopeless and helpless parliamentary opposition. But after ten years in office, the government parties gained control of both houses of parliament and they feel they can abandon restraint. So now its payback time! Perceived enemies such as conservationists, unionists, students and universities are high on the policy hate list.

But there is a snag here. Education makes big money and has become Australia's fourth largest export. Australia's Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, has been trilling about all of the money to be made in Asia, in particular China which is Australia's largest source of foreign students. But when you see how much better resourced Hong Kong Universities are than their Australian counterparts, you have to wonder how long Alexander's gold rush will last.

In Australia, ideology has won over pragmatism. Education is seen as being about profit and private gain rather than public good. The government has slashed real spending on universities, forcing them to live on domestic fees and export earnings. As a result, only the very best Australian universities have facilities comparable to nearly all of Hong Kong's universities. The worst Australian universities have campuses which are converted office blocks, provide empty libraries and employ mostly part time teaching staff. The rest of Australia's declining tertiary sector can't compare with the new Chinese institutions springing up not just in Beijing and Shanghai, but also in regional cities like Zhuhai or Shantou.

Professional Australian academics are more experienced than many in Asia, but they are getting older, with most of them in their mid fifties. With increasing political interference in teaching and research, even more funding cuts, the stacking of university councils with business people, new industrial relations restrictions and poor salaries, many of these Australian academics will be opting for early retirement. The smart ones will be seeking work in Asia.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Wildfires and Ghost Cops

Hong Kong's hillsides were ablaze this week as ceremonial Ching Ming fires predictably got out of hand. More than one hundred such wild fires were reported and extinguished by the vexed authorities. Ching Ming, or clear and bright day, allows Chinese families to visit the graves of Grandma and Grandpa and burn paper gifts which subsequently appear the nether world.
To meet this ghostly demand, shops have been doing a good holiday trade selling everything from paper suits to a paper two door refrigerator (which I thought was remarkably sensible, if Chinese Hell is anything like the Christian one). I saw one family burn a very nice terrace house, complete with two servants to work there. I don't know how the servants felt about the prospect of eternal dishwashing and cleaning, but labour laws are lax here and can be expected to be no better in Hell.
Grandpa got a paper mahjong set, presumably so he could sit around with his mates every Sunday, drinking paper beer and driving the household gods mad with the perpetual clicking of the mahjong tiles. Grandma got a very snappy Mini Cooper to cruise around the afterlife. I hope there's more parking in Hell than in Hong Kong, or she might find herself pursued forever more by Parking Police wielding ethereal tickets.

Hong Kong Police meanwhile, had a big, full dress funeral for one of their number who was gunned down in a shoot-out. The hearse of the dead "hero" was flanked by a phalanx of police motorcycles which swept through city streets clearing the way from the Universal Funeral Parlor in Hung Hom to the burial at Gallant Garden.

The official police story of shooting went like this. Bad cop has a gun used five years ago in a police shooting. He decided that he needs another gun and the best way to get it is to hold up two armed, uniformed constables. He stages the hold up in one of Hong Kong's busiest tourist areas. He times it to coincide with a major anti triad sweep involving hundreds of police only a few streets away. Good cop, the one who benefits from the Police funeral, is killed while his mate is seriously injured. The bad cop is also killed and is therefore conveniently unavailable to give his side of the story. Elected legislators, who are in a minority in the still undemocratic Legislative Council, found the official police story just a little difficult to believe. They want a public inquiry, which the police say really isn't necessary.

So I went looking for a paper Commission of Inquiry to burn on Ching Ming day. Apart from anything else, the thought of incinerating paper barristers and judges appealed to me. But I couldn't find a paper Commission on sale anywhere. I can understand that. Once these fires are lit there is no telling where it will end.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

More dirt for breakfast

The smog is so bad in Hong Kong that hundreds of runners in the recent marathon collapsed and had to be revived. One man died. The Government announced that the marathon organisers had acted properly. The smog..well er.. that is supposed to be mostly generated by mainland China, so its someone else's problem.

When I first came to Hong Kong over a decade ago, the ocean waters were already polluted but the skies were still blue. Ten years ago, I watched shoals of dead fish wash up on a deserted sandy beach at Ham Tin, near the China border. Last night, I saw a lemon coloured sun sink into a grey and gritty sea. Most days now, it's impossible to see from the island to Kowloon, a short ferry trip away. I saw some fish jumping in mid harbour recently, but I think they were just trying to get out of the chemical mix we call harbour water.
Sore throats and runny eyes are common here. People wear masks to walk to work.
Maybe much pollution does come from the mainland where environmental controls are seen to hinder the economic miracle. But if you look out the window in Pokfulam, you can see an Australian coal burning, privately owned power station spreading long noxious plumes across the sky. There is some technology, which can allow cleaner burns, but hey, that might reduce profits. Anyway Hong Kong power stations are working flat out, generating extra power sold to meet mainland demands.

Meanwhile, the streets are choked with private buses belching fumes as they try to get pass chauffer driven limos double-parked outside jewelry stores. Buses were held up for half an hour the other day in Wellington Street, by a big black Lamborghini, parked about a metre out from double yellow no-parking lines. The driver was nowhere to be seen. Two policemen looked on, apparently helplessly.
Private property wins out over public interest every time here.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Snivelling about the Avian Flu

Each morning at Guangdong's Shantou university, I awake to the sound of birdsong. Normally this would be a good thing. But I have been living in agrophobic Hong Kong where birdsong means the cry of foul avian flu carriers. After the SARS deaths caused a negative blip in the Hang Seng stock index, the vigilant Hong Kong authorities have been very concerned about the impact unspecified communicable diseases might have, especially on tourism. This view is not necessarily shared by the rugged villagers of Hong Kong's New Territories who are rather fond of our feathered friends and who , as a result, have been tucking into roast birds and rice before Confucius was a boy.

The Hong Kong Civil service are not easily discouraged by this rural intransigence. Every television bulletin seems to contain images of weeping grandmothers being led away as a strike team composed of police, vets and cultural advisors, exterminate the family's pet ducks. There are government ads on television warning that the best way to beat the avian flu is to eat plenty of vegetables and avoid sleeping with chooks. This may be sound advice but its not particularly comforting. The press can be quite alarming. Hong Kong must be the only place in the world where a picture of a dead magpie provides the centre for the front page lead story in the major daily newspaper.

Mainland China is a little more relaxed about the flu. On arrival at Shantou airport, one is asked to fill in a little, rudely printed form. One should tick the appropriate box if one is suffering from HIV/aids, psychosis or hepatitis. Howevere, one should immediately notify the authorities if one has a fever, watering eyes or, curiously, a "snivel". The last category would obviously exclude snivelling Australians although there is no indication as to what would happen if one admitted to it. Everybody just gets a stamp and goes through.

Life in China is becoming much more sophisticated. For about A$6, I bought a bottle of 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon. The label boasted that , "the wine presents a limpid and clear ruby colour". It was called "Greetwill" which I assumed was a misprint of "Great Wall", since there was a photo of the celebrated barbarian exclusion device on the label. However, having drunk a little, I have come to believe that "Greetwill" is a misprint of "Great Swill". It certainly has a lingering aftertaste, but not quite as promised. It starts with a soft burning sensation, not unlike inhaling Kowloon smog, before it explodes in the brain's central cortex like a New Year fire cracker. Mao must have drunk quite a bit of it before he declared the cultural revolution, made the professors wear dunce hats and told people that otherwise unqualified "barefoot" doctors could cure anything from tinea to african sleeping sickness.
I confess it does become more accomodating after the first glass.
But will it stop the avian flu?
Only time will tell.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

At Home in the Pearl of the Orient

We stepped out for a few beers at the Globe, a little expat pub in Hong Kong's Soho district. The place was packed with suits playing darts..a game which I have always considered a blood sport when practised in crowded, smokey and drunken conditions. Then it was down to Gunga Dinh's for a few curries. The pommy architect, we were with, kept calling the Indian head waiter "Gunga". I don't think our pommy friend knew his colonial literature all that well. The waiter did. He just smiled through his gold teeth and overcharged us. Walking down the hill afterwards, we saw a Chinese man dressed as Elvis. I said," There you are. We thought he was dead. But he's been in Hong Kong all the time!". We ended up at the Foreign Correspondent's Club where they have late night jazz on Fridays in the basement bar. The band was as they say, "smoking". The Filipino bass player looked like Bo Diddley. Maybe he's here, staying with Elvis.

We caught a A$5.00 cab ride home through the damp back streets, glittering with pink, yellow, red and purple neon.