16 November 2010

Just the Facts

Another great reformer

I realize it's been some time since my last post. A professional workshop and other matters have been eating into my time. 

Hong Kong has a love affair with tests. Tests in the terrirtory are looked upon as standardized and necessary, though this is hardly the truth. Hong Kong idolizes students who perform well on its HKCEE, an exit exam Form 5 students take in secondary school. Students who receive A grades in all subjects on the exam are paraded in front of cameras and looked upon as representing the ideal student. But the attention and adulation these students receive from the media and interested schools masks a problem with Hong Kong's education system few understand and fewer are slow to change.

Students who can't afford attending an overseas university after secondary school must rely on their HKCEE results to get them into a local university. However, competition is extremely fierce for a spot at one of Hong Kong's local universities. Their HKCEE results are the sole determiner of whether students are given the chance to experience higher education.

The main problem, as any educationalist in Hong Kong knows, is the rote learning that takes place in public classrooms. From the time a student enters primary one, they are indoctrinated into the system through rote learning, mainly by memorization of facts, and, it is assumed, these facts will be on the HKCEE. High parent expectations and very large class sizes (as many as 40 students in a single class) further exacerbate the problem.

Hong Kong public schools have been in need of urgent reform for some time. But tackling parents' perceptions and attitudes via public debate about what really constitutes learning must come first before launching any major changes.

8 November 2010

Minibuses and Their Governors

It can't be doubted by any rational man or woman that Hong Kong's transport system is, for the most part, a superbly connected network of railways, roads and motorways that even makes a trip to the distant countryside something of a convenience. However, some drivers responsible for ferrying passengers from point A to point B show precious little respect for road safety.

This past Saturday evening I took a minibus (public light bus) from Mong Kok to a small district in the New Territories. Each minibus is equipped with a large speedometer mounted to the ceiling of the vehicle which is clearly visible to all passengers. This large speedometer is supposed to make public the true speed of the minibus, and when the vehicle's speed passes 80 km/h this speedometer beeps and flashes, alerting those on board to the actions of the driver.

During my journey north the driver easily surpassed speeds of 90 km/h, but I have been in one minibus that went well over 100 km/h. Clearly these drivers prize their potential earnings over the safety of their passengers. But passengers are also culpable when they remain silent and don't voice their concerns for safety. There's no shortage of minibus accidents during a given week and speed almost always plays an important factor.

For several years now there has been talk of installing governors on minibuses in an attempt to reign in these incessant speeders, but lobbying from minibus groups and government inaction have prevented them from being implemented. While police attempt to do their part through speed traps and giving greater attention to the problem of speeding, placing governors on every minibus in the territory will greatly reduce traffic accidents and contribute to safer roads.

4 November 2010

Shark Fin Culture

Shark fin soup is an extremely popular delicacy in China, as it's also an outward expression of wealth and social status for those who can afford it. But it's interesting to note the wide difference in public opinion about the consumption of shark fin soup between citizens in mainland China and many Hong Kong residents. 

Though there is some heated debate in Hong Kong about the sale of shark fin soup, most residents are ambivalent when it comes to forming an opinion about the practice used in harvesting shark fin. I remember several years ago there was criticism aimed at Hong Kong Disneyland for including shark fin soup on its menu. Once activists discovered this it was only a matter of time before Disneyland officials bowed to pressure and completely removed the item from its menu. Nearly all large restaurants in Hong Kong still serve the delicacy.

In contrast, there is little to no fuss about the consumption of shark fin soup in mainland China. This most likely isn't a true reflection of all opinions though, but there is stark contrast in attitudes between the Chinese in the mainland and Chinese in Hong Kong. 

Though I'm a unable to remember the source, there is a saying about Chinese culinary habits to the effect that the Chinese will eat almost any kind of animal. But it's important to note that this was not communicated to me in a perjorative sense, especially as it was a local person in Hong Kong who revealed this to me. Rather, it's meant to communicate the love affair between the Chinese and food, as well as the colorful and rich culinary skills of a people keen to sample exotic cuisines, and shark fin soup is no exception.

2 November 2010

How Papers Report on Murder in Hong Kong

These past seven days have seen two foreigners in the Hong Kong news but for the wrong reasons. Kelsey Mudd, a student at California State University, was convicted of murder and sentenced to about 4 years in jail. This student possesses citizenship in 3 countries: the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia. 

Perhaps more interesting than his citizenship status was how the student was portrayed by two competing English dailies in Hong Kong. The Standard, which charges no price for their paper and offers free online content, referred to the student as an Australian. But the South China Morning Post, which offers no free paper and no free online content, referred to the student as an American. 

I couldn't help but note this rather obvious difference in reporting. But as papers are fond of feigning neutrality, I began wondering about the meaning behind it. Are hidden motives involved? Are the papers biased against a particular country?

The other foreigner in the news is Nancy Kissel, who was previously convicted of murdering her husband but now has an opportunity to overturn the conviction. Again, there are differences in how the two papers approach the story, though this time nationality is not at issue.

The Standard hasn't bothered printing a single article about a possible retrial of Ms. Kissel, but the South China Morning Post, which has shown interest in covering the trial's new developments, printed a story on 2 November 2010 in which an anonymous staff writer seems to complain about a recent court order that effectively gags media coverage of the new hearings. In regards to the Kissel case, perhaps the familiar saying applies, 'another man's trash is another man's treasure'.

1 November 2010

Physical Exercise and Parkour

From my point of view I would have to say people in China, including the elderly, are more keen on fitness than many of their western counterparts. Physical education in school and the overall mentality of the culture really seems to give some legitimacy to the importance of having an active lifestyle. I could probably walk through any park in Hong Kong or Guangzhou in the morning or afternoon and find children, parents or the elderly engaged in some form of simple exercise. 

Numerous facilities in Hong Kong offer working men and women an assortment of activities to choose from, everything from yoga, Latin dance, football (the beautiful game), badminton and the list goes on. However, interest in yoga has seen a steep decline since the beginning of the year.

But today while I was riding the MTR, I noticed an advertisement for a sport I had never witnessed in Hong Kong called parkour. I had heard of parkour before and have seen it performed gracefully by French practitioners. 

Then it got me to thinking about space restrictions here in the city and that how even pedestrians are somewhat limited in their movement, especially given the day-to-day construction. Personally I find parkour an exciting sport (if it's acceptable to call it that), but wonder if enough room exists in our urban environment to accommodate parkour enthusiasts.

31 October 2010

The Halloween Post

Nam Koo Terrace
According to many locals in Hong Kong, the pictured mansion is an authentic haunt of spirits. Just looking at the exterior of this old mansion causes the imagination to run wild. While it's true that the Chinese generally tend to lean toward belief in superstition, I have a healthy respect for any place that elevates the myth of urban legend to something more real and terrifying. 

Several years ago, a group of young students wanted to stay overnight in that mansion in an attempt to see ghosts they believed haunted the rooms. According to reports published in the local papers, events did not go as planned for the young ghost hunters. At some point in the evening, the students decided they had had enough and wanted to leave. They made their way to the gated entrance when suddenly the girls in the group began growing agitated, became emotionally distressed and appeared to lose control of their own bodies.

Two police officers patrolling Ship Street that evening saw the group and noticed the commotion. The officers investigated, offering their assistance. The reports say that when the officers attempted to restrain the girls, who by now had grown aggressive, the officers required the support of additional officers at the scene. It took the efforts of everyone assembled at the gate of the mansion to physically restrain the female students. The troubled students were finally subdued and sent to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation.

Today, the former Japanese brothel still stands on Ship Street in Wan Chai, desolate, save for the feral cats who call it home, haunted by the spirits of deceased comfort women.

True story?

The New Social Classes

The reformer
Deng Xiaoping is credited with proclaiming to the people "to be rich is glorious". Apart from the market reforms of the 70s, other meaningful reforms never materialized. While many government officials and their families have benefited immensely from the nation's expanding economy, many have been left behind to fend for themselves in a system that is highly preferential to the wealthy.The most recent example I have heard of involved several company CEOs and managers in Shanghai receiving government subsidies for private housing.

Government attempts to cool the housing market have fizzled, graft continues unabated, GDP is viewed by cadres in all provinces as the holy grail which they are to chase after at all costs and the mantra 'more, more, more' can be heard from many officials who display insatiable appetites for greater material wealth.

Though Deng's reforms have succeeded in spreading around some of the wealth flowing into the country, its overall success has been limited due to graft at the national, provincial and municipal levels. As a result, this has contributed to a growing number of instances of social injustice. One of the most recent examples is the now infamous incident at Hebei University.

This has given rise to a dichotomy that I have termed The Resented and The Resentful. These two social classes are distinctly opposed to one another. A modern illustration of these two subclasses would be a princeling and the general public. A princeling is resented for their arrogance and belief that they are above the law while the public are resentful over the perceived sense of injustice from the son or daughter of an official.

While the western version would be similar to The Haves and The Have Nots, I don't believe this western classification applies because while both rich and non-rich Americans are busy chasing after the American dream, many Chinese strive for simple justice from their courts and elected officials.

29 October 2010

Surprisingly Short Entries

Given all the resources available to him, Samuel Couling did an excellent job with his Encyclopaedia Sinica (1917). However, I couldn't help but note that some entries were surprisingly short given their importance in Chinese culture. I've listed the shorter entries that could have a been a bit more detailed (in my opinion anyway) and one omission. To Couling's credit he did include a great many articles related to missionary activity so that even the most obscure religious group is likely to have been included in his reference work.

1) Bird's Nest - interesting that Couling had more to say about bird saliva than rice gruel. But given that bird's nest is considered a delicacy, I think he could have done a bit more with this one. Perhaps commenting on the perceived health benefits or efficacy.

2) Congee - the humble dish enjoyed by Chinese all over the world, including myself when I'm sick (though I'm not Chinese). What's more, there are several shops around Hong Kong that are famous for their congee. The last time I visited Hong Kong International Airport there was a new restaurant inside that specialized in different kinds of congee. Couling doesn't seem particularly keen on it though as he only devoted 5 short lines of text to the subject.

3) Filial Piety - for such an important Confucian concept, Couling includes only a brief paragraph here. Walking the streets of Hong Kong or mainland China, it's still quite amazing to see how strong the practice is, having been passed from generation to generation all the way to the 21st century.

4) The Five Classics - the works are listed but nothing else about their use in the imperial examinations (科舉).

5) The Use of Chinese Herbs - nowadays referred to as Traditional Chinese Medicine or TCM. This omission is perplexing because Couling was certain to have heard about, and likely to have seen, the of use Chinese herbs when interacting with the local population. Couling has entries for a few varieties of tea, as well as the lychee and the longan, two fruits popular with the Chinese, but no herbs. In present day China, the use of herbs is a regular occurrence. In Hong Kong there are many medical clinics devoted solely to the dispensing of Chinese herbs for conditions such as fatigue, headache, cold, etc. Because the practice and use of Chinese herbs involves the Chinese concepts of hot, cold, wet, etc. perhaps Couling thought of this in a different way. Also of note is the absence of moxibustion, a form of treatment associated with Traditional Chinese Medicine.

28 October 2010

Unbelievable Buddhism

Buddha entering the final nirvana
While my mother-in-law and father-in-law (both Chinese) aren't what I consider religious people in a strict sense, I've always been fascinated by their individual beliefs and practices. My in-laws show a remarkable degree of tolerance for other belief systems that are quite different from their own. But it's their actual beliefs that intrigue me. 

So a little background on them first. The mother and father are both Han. Each of them adheres to the traditional Confucius beliefs of filial piety and ancestor worship. Though they don't classify themselves as Buddhists, they do align themselves with the religion simply due to the fact that most religious people in China align themselves with Buddhism (200 million is the estimated number of Buddhists in China but this figure is sure to be inaccurate). Other religions abound, but none are as acceptable to my in-laws as Chinese Buddhism.

In fact, their support for Chinese Buddhism is so firm that they refuse to accept the fact that Buddhism originated in India! The first time I heard that I could hardly believe my ears. But it appears that this view is shared among many of the elderly in China.

Generally speaking, the elderly are more inclined to believe the Buddhism practiced in China is of such a distinct variety that there is no possibility it could have come from another country. Now that really is unbelievable.

27 October 2010

Western Perceptions of China

I've read several articles recently, all by American authors, including one from The Washington Post, suggesting that China is greatly feared in the West, but especially in the United States, because of its perceived military might and growing economic clout. The authors don't really seem to be arguing a specific point, but do convey a sense of angst and fear over the motives of the largest communist nation on earth. Are their fears misplaced? Is there any basis or precedent that would justify these fears?

China is greatly misunderstood by many people in the West today. In fact, it may be the most misunderstood nation. To properly understand China one must examine the country's past, consider the historical events that shaped its thinking and then draw reasonable conclusions based on those facts.

Important events that shaped China's perception of foreigners were the Opium Wars, wars fought against Britain, the Battle of Peking, a 'rescue' effort launched by the Eight Nation Alliance that greatly humiliated the Chinese people, and the Second World War, when the Empire of Japan brought great destruction and sorrow to China. Years later, the Cultural Revolution further complicated matters by instilling a sense of mistrust and aversion for foreign ideas and practices. So from about 1839 to 1945, China was awash with conflicts and disasters perpetrated by non-Chinese peoples intent on having their own way with the Chinese nation.

It's reasonably safe to assume then that China is certainly not interested in more conflict. What country, after experiencing roughly 100 years of terrible violence, bloodshed and suffering, would then turn around and cause further anguish to its population through brash declarations of war?

China only seeks to secure its borders and live in peace. Reports in the U.S. news that paint an 'evil' China hell bent on domination and impromptu saber rattling from American hawks is entirely unwarranted. China's attempts to modernize its military is an extension of its mistrust of external influences - and nothing else.

People in the West are fond of talking about change in China, specifically democratic change. While this sentiment is admirable, it isn't possible or practical at the moment. The demands made by Western powers that China institute sweeping democratic reforms would utterly destabilize the country. For democratic change to take place, there first needs to be a majority of reform-minded politicians in power (the possible) who are willing to introduce reforms at a pace the humble people of China can understand (the practical). After all, what's the point of starting something no one can quite grasp?

Of all the troubles plaguing China, I'm convinced that her greatest challenge is overcoming graft. Corruption has been promoted, accepted and tolerated for much too long. It's a shameful practice found in every nation on earth, but China's population greatly magnifies the destructive nature of the practice. This is one area where reform is desperately needed, but instituting a mass cull on graft would only work if it began from the top.

Wen Jiabao, or Grandpa Wen as he's affectionately known, is a willing reformer I believe, but only represents a minority of the current establishment that would institute change. More than that, Premier Wen is someone who cares about the marginalized of society and understands the havoc an increasing wealth disparity creates.

Much is being spoken of Xi Jinping in the press right now. One news article even predicts him to be a mould breaker. In China politics it's much too early to tell, but as a princeling Mr. Xi is unlikely to deviate from protocol.

26 October 2010

Valueless Money

Welcome to Sino File, my blog dedicated to the discussion of sinology from a modern perspective. This site deals entirely with sinology so unless you're interested in Chinese matters you may soon become incredibly bored.

I was waiting for a more auspicious day to begin Sino File but the remainder of 2010 is fresh out of days in the Chinese calendar that would make this launch more memorable. I'll therefore have to settle for plain old today.

Hong Kong coin denominations below one dollar
I was standing in line one hot summer day in Tsuen Wan waiting to buy a cold milk tea. As the cashier rang up my order, I began digging in my coin pouch for spare change. I counted out twelve dollars in coins: 1 ten dollar coin, 1 one dollar coin and 2 fifty cent coins. After handing over my money to the cashier something strange happened. In fact, it was fantastically strange. She immediately handed me back the 2 fifty cent coins with the simple explanation that they don't accept small coins!

As I gazed into the cashier's face with what I'm sure was a dumbfound look, I couldn't help but analyze the event that had just transpired. She's not taking my money. Is there something wrong with me? Is there something wrong with my money? Being a simple man and not being able to comprehend what just happened, I inquired further about this policy. Unfortunately, all I could get from the young lady was the same apology and the repeated fact that they don't accept small coins. A bit upset that my money was worthless at the shop, the cashier returned my coins and I walked off feeling robbed.

Over the next few days, friends and colleagues related similar tales of frustration when trying to use their small coins. In fact, a lady colleague of mine told me how a mini bus driver berated her for attempting to pay the bus fare with small coins. Today, most shops in Hong Kong won't accept them.

The refusal of businesses to accept small coins is a result of banks instituting fees for handling them. This greedy practice has caused the good people of Hong Kong to question the real value of the coins they keep at home, especially the elderly who are fond of using change to pay for newspapers and fruit.

It's little surprise then that the biggest culprits are two of the biggest banks in the city: HSBC and the Bank of China. The former charges a maximum of 10% while the latter charges 5%.

Highway robbery at its finest.