Asia’s World City #1,247

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The above image is from Liar Town USA, a pretty consistently amusing web site.

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The above image is not from Liar Town, it’s a photo of a book that’s currently stocked in Hong Kong’s Public Library. Asia’s World City indeed.

Meanwhile, it’s reported that 400 of the first 492 flats put on sale in Cheung Kong’s new Mont Vert project in Tai Po sold on the first day despite a “no viewing” policy. Cheung Kong reports that they had to use a ballot system as more than 10,000 people had registered as prospective buyers, and that 150 flats were sold in the first hour.

The development has flats ranging in size from studios to three bedroom apartments. The average studio apartment is 195 square feet and selling for HK2 million, or roughly US$260,000.  An executive director at Cheung Kong said this is a “stunning low price.”  Later there will be studio apartments for sale that measure just 177 square feet.  Larger flats, a whopping 932 square feet, on higher floors, are selling for over HK$10 million. That’s US$1.3 million for a 3 bedroom shoebox in Tai Po.

This place is near the Tai Po Industrial Estate, which means a bus ride to the closest MTR station, or a bus ride into central Tai Po to get another bus to get to Kowloon or HK (pretty much what I deal with every day.) So it’s not as if they’re exactly “convenient,” except possibly if one has a job in the Industrial Estate.

They’re claiming that the majority of the sales are to people who live in the area, with 75% of the buyers getting these for “self-use”.  Apparently when one buys a three bedroom apartment, one gets a special deal on buying an adjacent studio apartment.

In vaguely related news, a few days ago the SCMP had this report:

Forty per cent of Hongkongers would consider leaving the city when they retire, believing they would be financially better off elsewhere, a survey has found.

Respondents gave an average rating of 5.5 out of 10 to the question of whether they were confident their life would be satisfactory in retirement. That was down from a rating of 6.1 two years ago.

And 40 per cent said they had considered retiring elsewhere. Of those, 27 per cent would consider mainland China, while 21 per cent were contemplating a move to Taiwan. Australia, Canada and Britain were also on the list.

The average estimate of cash needed to support themselves in retirement was HK$16,600 per month – and a total of HK$3.9 million to cover their old age once they stopped working. That was up from about HK$10,000 a month in the last survey, while the total estimate was similar.

Jeanne Sau, senior vice-president of MassMutual Asia, said: “It was surprising to see the significant increase in the estimate … It shows that they are really worried about the impact of inflation on their future lives.”

She said HK$3.9 million was a significant underestimate, and the company had calculated that someone retiring at 60 would need HK$7 million to support themselves if they lived another 20 years, taking into account annual inflation of about 3 per cent.

But the 74-year-old chairman of the Association of Senior Citizens, Mak Hon-kai, disputed those figures, saying he spends just HK$5,000 a month. “Of course, that means we live a very simple life, maybe eating out at McDonald’s,” Mak said.

That’s a good plan. Eat at McDonald’s so you will need less money because you’ll undoubtedly die sooner.

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I’m Not Lovin’ It

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Years and years ago I used to eat at American fast food chains pretty regularly. And why not?  Or so I thought at the time.

Cheap, fast, tasty enough, and easy to deal with in places where English isn’t spoken. But reading Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation pretty much put an end to that habit.  I will sometimes still go for a fast food burger but I try to limit it to once or twice a month. I still visit McDonald’s pretty often, but that’s because when I’m coming home from work and get off the bus near Tai Po Market, McD’s is one place where I can run in and use the toilet with no questions asked. I’ll also confess a liking for the McD’s branches that have a McCafe coffee shop inside – open 24 hours, cheaper than *$ and oddly enough the best western style cakes in Tai Po.

The abuses of the fast food industry in the United States are well documented, but what about in China? One can only logically assume that the food sourcing and processing in China is no better than it is in the U.S. and very possibly it could be orders of magnitude worse.  These days I favor cha chaan tengs for a quick, cheap meal. I realize that they’re probably not sourcing Australian wagyu grass-fed beef for their beef hor fun and I hope they’re not using some chemical meat tenderizer or loading the sauce up with MSG, but most places probably are. Every day we pick the compromises we are most able to live with.

(I’ve got a funny story about the quality of McDonald’s beef that goes back to my days in advertising, back in the 1970s, can’t recall if I ever wrote about that story here.)

At any rate, we now have the latest food scandal in China. And again, it is a reminder of how corrupt and greedy some people can be. I don’t want to paint a nation of 1.5 billion people with the corruption brush, because that would be a gross exaggeration, but it does seem that these things – where people running companies make decisions that knowingly put peoples’ lives at risk in exchange for a little extra profit – occur more frequently in China than anywhere else. (Yes, I know, General Motors.)

So here’s the thing, in case you haven’t read it elsewhere. There is a food processing company in Shanghai called Shanghai Husi Food Company. They are 50% owned by an American company. They took expired beef and chicken and repackaged it, changing the expiration dates to make it appear that the meat was still fresh, and then sold it to fast food chains in China and Hong Kong.

HK McDonald’s is one of their customers. So are Starbucks, KFC and Burger King.  And apparently this is not a one time occurrence – this was standard operating procedure at this company and has been going on for years.  The company maintained multiple sets of records to help them perpetuate this dangerous fraud. (I suppose one might argue that if it’s been going on for years and no one has died from it, it’s not that big a deal? Yes, it is that big a deal. It’s a level of risk that is unnecessary and unacceptable to any rational person.)

McD’s in HK has reportedly removed all of the menu items that were made with food sourced from Husi. Last night as I passed one Tai Po branch of McD, I saw they had large red signs in their windows – all Chinese-only – that were probably informing customers of this. (I guess they didn’t bother to post English versions of the sign because they don’t care about their white or brown customers.)

Here’s a few McD’s facts courtesy of the SCMP:

  • There are currently 239 branches in Hong Kong employing more than 15,000 people.
  • The first HK McD opened in 1975 on Paterson Street in Causeway Bay. The 3,000 square foot restaurant paid $64,500 a month in rent.
  • In 1992, 7 of the 10 busiest McD’s in the world were in Hong Kong.

Old joke:

A retired American comes to Hong Kong as a tourist. He’s booked everything first class. He’s met at the airport by his tour guide, who says to him, “Welcome to Hong Kong Mr. Smith. I imagine you’re tired after your long flight. I’ll take you to your hotel where you can take a shower and relax for a bit before we get started.”

But the tourist says, “No! I’ve waited my whole life to come to Hong Kong. I love Chinese people. I love Chinese food. I want to get out there and start experiencing Hong Kong right away. I don’t want to go to the hotel yet. I want you to take me to the most popular restaurant in Hong Kong!”

So the tour guide shrugs his shoulders and takes him to McDonalds.

Unrelated HK food items:

The first location of the Press Room, the one on Hollywood Road, has now closed after the landlord reportedly sought to increase their rent by 500%. Because why should the landlord continue to make a reasonable profit from a successful business that has been there for years and probably always paid their bills on time?

The same group operates The Pawn in Wanchai, which has now closed. Reports differ as to whether this is going to be just a renovation or if it will re-open with a new name and concept (but still managed by the same group).

The SCMP quotes food critic Walter Kei (whoever he is, a quick Google on his name turns up a press release from The Link calling him “a renowned gourmet traveller and wine taster.”)

Food critic Walter Kei said the proliferation of trendy restaurants was another problem.

“There are too many restaurants in the market,” he said. This led to cut-throat competition and drove up staff costs.

Kei said that with high rents and labour costs, the only cost that could be cut was food.

This was compromising quality but consumers didn’t know because food writers and critics weren’t telling them. “The so-called food reviews are only to promote new places, not the quality of the content,” he said.

“Writers are afraid of offending restaurants.”

As a result, Kei said, people had higher tolerance of bad ingredients and bad food sourcing.

He’s probably correct. HK culture cares about size of portions and price and not so much about taste, while the great majority of HK food bloggers who write in English only review places that give them free meals.

Restaurateur and critic Lau Kin-wai said he shut the doors of his famous Yellow Door Kitchen a couple of months ago more because of staff issues than rent.

“I can’t hire someone to wash dishes even with HK$10,000 a month,” he said.

I suspect there’s a little bit more to it than that. Now that my wife is working as a waitress, I’m getting to hear directly about how shittily some restaurant owners and managers treat their staff.

 

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Taking Notes

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So I was in London for a few days a couple of weeks ago, and sitting in all these meetings, and I noticed that one of my co-workers was using a pen to take notes on his iPad. I asked him about it and he told me the stylus he was using was the Adonit Jot Script and the software was an iOS app called Noteshelf.

I thought about it after I got home and decided that there could be quite a few advantages to this, not the least of which is that now my notes are spread across 27 different notebooks and pads. My iPad is obviously a lot lighter than my laptop, using a stylus for input might be more intuitive and faster, and using a note-taking program that syncs with Evernote, such as NoteShelf or Penultimate, would mean that wherever I go, no matter what I’m carrying, all of my notes would be with me.

I did a bit of research, as I am prone to do, and saw that everyone pretty much agrees that there are 2 stylii at the top of the heap when it comes to writing text on the iPad – the Adonit model my co-worker was using and and Pencil from FiftyThree.com. Pencil looked a bit thick to me while the Adonit more closely resembles a pen. These both use bluetooth and feature “palm rejection technology,” meaning you could rest your hand on the iPad while writing and it should mostly be ignored.

So Adonit Jot Script it was.

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Their web site shows the price as US$75. That should equate to HK$600. So you can imagine my surprise (and dismay) when I went over to the Wanchai Computer Centre and found that the few shops that had it in stock were asking HK$1198 for it – double the price.

Because that’s how things work in Hong Kong. When something is seen as (a) desirable and (b) in short supply, retailers will try to gouge you.

Next I looked on price.com.hk and saw that the HK price should indeed be $599. They listed several shops in Mong Kok’s Sim City mall has having it at that price, so I went there on a Saturday afternoon when I had nothing else to do. (Note that despite the recent heat wave, Mong Kok was completely jammed with people and the view was a heatwave of a different kind.) None of these shops had it in stock.

So now I could wait until it came back into stock – which would mean walking back over to the Computer Centre every few days or once a week until I spotted it at the normal price (it’s just a 5 minute walk from my office) or I could order it online, where it seemed to be in plentiful supply.

Amazon has it at $75, no discount. If I wanted fast shipping on it, that was going to be an additional HK$250 (roughly US$32.50, almost half the price of the stylus, no thanks).

Then on a whim I went back to Adonit’s web page and tried to order it from them. They do direct sales. So plenty of stock. $75.  How much for shipping?  US$8. And just 2 day delivery? What? Because it turns out that this is not just made in China, as you’d expect, but they would be shipping it to me from China.

So instead of paying $1198 at the computer center or $850 to order it from Amazon, I’m getting it for HK$665 – and it’s certainly worth HK$65 to me to save myself from making 27 more trips trying to find it in local shops.

I also decided that while I was at it I’d add a keyboard to the iPad, for banging out long emails, which I am forced to do too frequently. Logitech’s are the best reviewed. A number of shops tried to push Belkin’s at me, but it was clear after comparing the two side by side that Logitech’s keyboard was the better one. There are three different models and I went for the cheapest, the one that flips over the screen rather than ones that combined a full front and back cover.

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If I think of it, I’ll post some sort of review on both of these items after I’ve taken a couple of trips with them (Manila visit coming up in a week and I’ll just take my iPad and leave my laptop at home).

I’m not always this lucky when it comes to buying stuff like this. I’m a huge fan of Think Tank Photo’s bags.  I probably have six of them, from a small shoulder bag that holds a small camera plus several odds and ends, all the way up to their rolling bag that can hold my D800 and all of my lenses, accessories and laptop.

Now they’ve got a line of briefcases and shoulder bags designed around iPads and MacBooks that are probably incredibly well built and durable and feature what appear to be thousands of pockets. They call this line My 2nd Brain. Okay, not the greatest name in the world. But the My 2nd Brain Briefcase 13 looks to be perfect for me.

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It will easily hold what I normally carry with me during a normal work day. Reading glasses, sunglasses, over-the-hear headphones, keys, mints, pens, business cards, iPad (and sometimes MacBook), a camera, a battery-powered fan (for those 20+ minutes I’m standing on the street waiting for the goddamn 307 bus) and a book or two – all without taking up too much space on my lap while sitting on tiny, crowded bus and mini-bus seats.

But it’s nowhere to be found in Hong Kong. I checked at DCWave at Sim City and they don’t seem to be carrying the line at all. I called a friend – who is one of Think Tank’s HK distributors – and he told me he probably wasn’t going to carry it since the minimum order is 24 pieces and the line wasn’t selling that well for him.

So the price is US$130, should be HK$1,000. Pretty reasonable, I think. I could order it from B&H Photo or Adorama, but they want an additional US$80 or more for shipping, and that’s just insane. I wrote to TTP and they suggested that I check with their Singapore distributor. I wrote to them – and they never wrote back they wrote back after 3 days saying they don’t have it in stock and in any case they won’t ship to Hong Kong.

Next thought, since I’m going to Manila soon, I wrote to the Manila distributor, who told me that this hasn’t reached the Philippines yet and they didn’t know when to expect it.

So there is always one more option – “do without it.” And I guess that’s what it’s going to have to be.

(Reading all of the above, yeah, I know, it probably gives the impression that I have way too much free time. All I can say to that is that on weekdays I get home from work about 2 hours before my wife does. Plus she works on weekends and I don’t. So this kind of crap is another way to fill up some of the time.)

 

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Introducing Jessica, a Weirdo in Hong Kong

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And now for something completely different.

I get requests almost daily from people who want to do guest posts or sponsored posts here. I turn them all down. But Jessica caught my eye with an original approach and I thought that some readers might enjoy what she has to say. So instead of just a link to her blog, here’s an “interview” that she wrote, questions and all, that I’m posting here unedited. Feel free to let me know what you think in comments and, if you like what she has to say, check out her blog Best4Geek.  

Can you tell us something about yourself?

To be very honest, I detest this question – it’s the same old one whenever interviews start, and are you supposed to say “no”? No. But anyways, I would really like to thank Spike for giving me the chance to share my weird speech on his own blog, and I sincerely hope that I won’t scare all his readers away.

I have been in Hong Kong since 2 years old as my New Zealand family wanted to experience “a different lifestyle” and reunite with the relatives on my mother’s side. We have never left since then, and now here I am, a 26-year-old girl geek, an anonymous project executive by day, a weirdo by night. Since I owned my first computer at 12, my TV has been gathering dust as I would rather watch everything online. I have played numerous PC games, from famous series like Diablo, Guild Wars and Assassin’s Creed, to indie darlings like To the Moon and Gone Home. I’m also a hopelessly addictive collector of cards who’s into card games of any sort, especially when the characters are aesthetically appealing. Look at Jace, look at Jaqen – they’re the sweetest guys on earth, I mean, on cards!

 What makes Hong Kong a good place for geeks?

Despite the depressing fact that more and more local shops are forced to close due to insane rents, a few geeky gems are still lucky enough to stay around, such as the Sino Centre in Mong Kok, small shops hidden in Kwai Fong and Tai Po, etc. Not to mention there’s the annual event of ACGHK, which is definitely not to be missed for fans of video games, animation, manga and all other sorts of geeky stuff. And if you’re into cosplay, the Rainbow Gala which takes place in April and December every year would be a fantastic party to meet fellow cosplayers!

 Where do you shop when your geek appetite strikes?

As a total geek, I do most of my shopping online when other girls would spend 8 hours in local shopping malls. Not many people in Hong Kong share this habit, but it’s totally addictive once you’ve given it a try. Amazon, Steam and Kickstarter are just a few websites that I visit on a daily basis. And speaking about Kickstarter, I’m backing the notorious Potato Salad as the guy claims that he would say everyone’s name out aloud when making the dish.

 What about dating? Does being a girl geek make it better, or worse?

Dating for me is simply non-existent at the moment. It doesn’t mean that I have never dated before; in the contrary, I have had 3 dates in my life. I know it’s just me, for I would prefer joining guild events in online games instead of going outside with my date, and prefer chatting on the net rather than picking up the phone. These weird habits are relationship killers, I must admit. Others have accused me of being selfish and inconsiderate, but I guess that’s just a part of me, and a geek just can’t help but be geeky. I’m not in a hurry to get married at all as I really enjoy my single geek life.

Here’s an interesting side note about dating. As I cross the “boundary of innocence” of 25 years old, a huge incoming of “words of wisdom” starts to surround me in family gatherings and parties. Suddenly your relatives are extremely interested in you – your marital status, to be accurate – and they would offer you lots of “clever tips” and “useful links” for getting a boyfriend and hopefully a husband. From dinner parties, speed dating luncheons to the most unbelievable solution of an online chatroulette (I mean, seriously, can you believe this would be a “clever tip” suggested by your relatives?), they just wouldn’t stop until you agree to try one of those prescriptions, as if you were a patient who needs immediate medical attention. If things persist, I guess I have to be absent from those gatherings to escape from the annoyance. Yes this is part of the unique culture of Hong Kong, but it’s never funny when you are the subject.

What’s your motto of living a geeky life?

Well the first thing that came to my mind was “stay geeky, stay stylish”, but I guess that sounds rather cliché, no? I don’t live by any particular mottos on a daily basis, but I choose to be genuine and be true to my own style of living. It’s my life after all, and there’s really no reason to follow others’ opinions instead of my own choices.

Here’s a favorite quote from Kristen Stewart:

“If you’re operating from a genuine place, then you can’t really regret anything.”

If I have to describe my belief, this explains it all.

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U.S. Television Critics Awards

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The United States Television Critics Association gave out their annual awards this weekend and it’s an interesting set of winners.

Individual Achievement in Comedy – Julia Louis-Dreyfuss – Veep – both male and female actors were nominated here, and while it may have seemed like Louis C.K. should have been the sure winner, I think that Armando Iannucci’s Veep just gets better and better, while Louie is coming off a somewhat controversial season.

Individual Achievement in Drama – Matthew McConaughey – True Detective – again, both men and women nominated in this category, and notable that McConaughey won over Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad’s final season.

Outstanding Achievement in News and Information – Cosmos – I’m really pleased that this won because the show, hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, has been taking a hard-line stance on topics such as evolution and climate change.

Outstanding Achievement in Reality Programming – RuPaul’s Drag Race

Outstanding Achievement in Youth Programming – The Fosters

Outstanding New Program – Orange is the New Black – the competition here included True Detective and Fargo, both shows that I love, so I guess I’ll have to finally get around to watching this.

Outstanding Achievement in Movies, Mini-series and Specials – True Detective – Kind of a no-brainer on this one, eh?

Outstanding Achievement in Drama – The Good Wife

Outstanding Achievement in Comedy – tie between Veep and Louie

Career Achiievement Award – James Burrows (shows he has worked on in one capacity or another include Mary Tyler Moore Show, Bob Newhart Show, Rhoda, Laverne & Shirley, Cheers, Wings, Frasier, Friends, NewsRadio, 3rd Rock from the Sun, Dharma & Greg, Will & Grace, Two and a Half Men, Big Bang Theory, so yeah, he kinda deserves it)

Heritage Award – Saturday Night Live – I guess this is for lasting 40 years, which is definitely an achievement on its own; certainly the last season was uneven.

Program of the Year – Breaking Bad – duh

I’m currently in the middle of watching True Detective for the second time. The first time I watched it on my iPad on the 307 bus, one episode per week as it aired. Now I’m watching it on the “big screen,” one episode per night, with my wife.

I wasn’t sure if she was going to go for this, but she is completely wrapped up in it. One thing is, she thinks that aside from Game of Thrones, she doesn’t want to watch TV series, she only wants to watch movies.  She hasn’t yet realized that outside of indie cinema, there’s more creativity going on with televison at the moment than in film, or at least that’s how it sometimes seems to me. But after watching the first episode, she commented that it felt more like watching a film than a series.

I was actually kind of lukewarm on it the first time – loving the acting, the photography, the production design, but not quite sure how I felt about the overall story. Now I’m completely loving it.

One reason that it may be getting to me more this time is we’re watching it in the midst of the news reports about Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. The first time around, I wasn’t sure how I felt about Rust’s misanthropic philosophy.  Things like this:

I think human consciousness, is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself, we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory, experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody. Maybe the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.

Or this:

This… This is what I’m talking about. This is what I mean when I’m talkin’ about time, and death, and futility. all right there are broader ideas at work, mainly what is owed between us as a society for our mutual illusions. 14 straight hours of staring at DB’s, these are the things ya think of. You ever done that? You look in their eyes, even in a picture, doesn’t matter if they’re dead or alive, you can still read ‘em. You know what you see? They welcomed it… not at first, but… right there in the last instant. It’s an unmistakable relief. See, cause they were afraid, and now they saw for the very first time how easy it was to just… let go. Yeah They saw, in that last nanosecond, they saw… what they were. You, yourself, this whole big drama, it was never more than a jerry rig of presumption and dumb will, and you could just let go. To finally know that you didn’t have to hold on so tight. To realize that all your life, all your love, all your hate, all your memories, all your pain, it was all the same thing. It was all the same dream, a dream that you had inside a locked room, a dream about being a person. And like a lot of dreams, there’s a monster at the end of it.

Maybe the first time I watched it, I thought he was just damaged and more than a little bit batshit crazy. Now I’m not so sure. We live in a world where after 5,000 years of recorded history, we have learned nothing and are still capable of such barbaric acts. I want to be an optimist about humanity but some people sure don’t make it easy.

 

 

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Food, No Pics

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Okay, no griping in this one, at least I don’t think so. Well, maybe a tiny bit.

HK English language food bloggers, with a few exceptions, tend to review those places that give them a free meal. They get invited to tasting sessions or just get invited (or, ahem, ask to be invited). The places they review are mostly on Hong Kong island – Lan Kwai Fong and points further west all the way out to Kennedy Town. Once in awhile they’ll figure out some way to get across the harbor – it’s hard! – for a place in Elements or in one of the more social-media-savvy hotels.

For us, we’ve been concentrating on restaurants in Tsim Sha Tsui lately. That’s because it’s where my wife is working. So I’ll meet her and we’ll almost randomly try spots nearby.

Before this, I liked going to Ashley Road. This dead end street must have 50 restaurants on it, and there’s everything from high end stuff that I can’t afford to kebabs, Chinese fast food and a terrific bar called Castro’s that makes a mean mojito.

Now we’ve gone further east. And we’re finding some pretty terrific spots that may not serve Michelin-notable food but which are cheap and cheerful and, yes, satisfying.  Plus what I’m seeing is that some parts of TST, particularily around Hart and Prat Avenues, seem to attract primarily local crowds. Hart Avenue has a large number of bars – there’s Tequila Jack, several branches of M1, Hair of the Dog, Roadside Inn, Fatt’s Place, Cali Cali, even a place called Piss Bar.

So here’s a quick run-down of some of the places we’ve tried so far – and as always, I’m eager for your recommendations in the area.

In no particular order:

Over at Chungking Mansions, we’ve tried three spots. Delhi Club, Taj Mahal Club and a very friendly ground floor place whose name I can’t recall. We like them all. The difference between Delhi and Taj Mahal for us is that at TM you can order tandoori chicken while at D you can only order tandoori chicken leg. The difference between the two for my wife is that she says the waiters at Delhi Club are younger and better looking.

Bricklane has two branches practically across the street from each other. The larger of the two is called Bricklane Gallery, and they’re famous for their Eggs Benedict. I don’t eat eggs. The rest of the stuff there is decent (shepherd’s pie, burger, fish & chips and so on), they have a nice and not-too-expensive wine list, and I find it a comfortable place to sit and let the night go by. (I did my birthday dinner here this year.)

Tequila Jack’s, aka TJ’s, has Mexican-ish food that’s no better nor no worse than what you’ll find at Agave or Coyote. The draw here is some outdoor tables, Dos Equiis beer, $10 taco Tuesdays and $99 (or maybe it’s now $109) steak Saturdays.

Tonkachi is a small basement Japanese restaurant with a Japanese owner, Japanese chef and some Japanese staff. The one time we’ve eaten there so far, all of the customers surrounding us were Japanese. They use premium Kuroshima black pork for their tonkatsu – the breading was authentic, mine was slightly overcooked. Their sashimi is noticeably better than what you’ll find at places like Sushi One (but of course not as good as what you’d get at the $1,000+ per person places).  And it was a friendly and relaxing place.

We’d previously tried the famous Chicken Hof for KFC, but in this heat that far end of Kimberley Road is a bit of a hike. A couple of nights ago we tried Chum Chum Mi and really enjoyed it. They have outdoor seating (which I’ll keep in mind for when the temperature dips down a bit). They do great KFC there (and you can get half orders) as well as having a full menu – Korean BBQ if you’re so inclined but we went for seafood pancake and kimchi fried rice with our KFC and everything was really good.

While larger streets such as Cameron Road and Granville Road have seen many of their cheap & cheerful spots replaced by branches of Sasa, in between there’s a short street called Hau Fook Street that is lined with restaurants and fills up with people every night. We found a place here called Caterking Dim Sum which serves decent dim sum until 1 AM (2 AM on weekends).

Other places we’ve tried around here include a branch of hot pot specialist Calf Bone King and the Beijing style Tai Fung Lau, which from the looks of things has been around for at least 50 years. I’m really anxious to give Spring Deer a try (not for Peking duck but for some of their other old school Beijing dishes) but the last time we went there (a Monday night!) they were full and we weren’t given an option to wait, simply told to try another night.

One other nice thing about when we have dinner around here is if we’re up for it, we’ll then head to the branch of Holly Brown at K11 for some gelato or the new branch of Passion on Mody Road for some cake.

There’s also the place where my wife works, but I suppose if I was to recommend that it would be a bit suspect. But it’s actually a place I ate at a few times before she started working there and we are quite happy that we do like the food in the place where she works.

We’ve had a lot of great nights out around here lately and have always managed to keep the bill for two way under HK$500. (Some nights we’ll splurge after dinner and take a taxi home instead of the MTR if we’re really feeling tired.)

Anyway, as I said, what spots are your favorites? Which places should we try next?

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London and Me

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July 1st, along with its massive protest march in Hong Kong, has come and feels long gone. I’d meant to write something on it, but I kept stumbling and life got in the way, as it has a habit of doing. Ultimately I ended up on a very hastily arranged business trip to London – a trip with very mixed results from a business perspective but also a trip that further enhanced my love affair with London.

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(Forgive me if any of this repeats old stuff.)

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In the summer of 1972, I’d just completed my first year at college (university to you Brits) and was working an awful summer job – pushing a hot dog cart at the Bronx Botanical Gardens. A school buddy asked if I wanted to join him on a trip to London and my parents gave the okay for me to spend my Bar Mitzvah money on the trip.

We stayed in England for about 3 weeks, starting off in bed and breakfast places that cost only a pound and a half per night – though the beds were so uncomfortable that we ended up sleeping on the floor. Our days were divided between doing all of the standard sight seeing stuff and hitting every record store we possibly could. (I remember buying Roxy Music’s first album and spending weeks staring at the cover wondering what it could possibly sound like.)

Nights were for music - at one point I figured out that we saw more than 70 bands in those three weeks. David Bowie doing Ziggy Stardust at the Rainbow. Yes’s world premiere of Close to the Edge with opening acts that included Mahavishnu Orchestra. Renaissance playing for free in a pub before their first album came out. The Chelmsford Folk Festival, which included The Strawbs, Al Stewart, and Sandy Denny. (Sandy offered us a ride back to London but my idiot friend was too scared to get in her car with her two large dogs.)

We also went to Torquay for a weekend for reasons I can no longer recall – long before Fawlty Towers – where the only thing to do at night was go to a Mungo Jerry concert.

We just about ran out of money long before the end of the trip. We stayed in some park where they’d set up tents with double decker beds, 50 pence per night, one concrete building with lockers and showers, and basically existed on a diet of lentils.

My second trip didn’t happen until 12 years later. My first wife and I were tipped off about the hotel where all the bands stayed. So we’d go see Echo & the Bunnymen in concert and then the next morning we’d be having breakfast with them. This trip was also – believe it or not – the first time I ate Indian food.

In 1990 I started working for Barclays Bank in New York. This is when I first learned about the concept of business travel. I managed to get myself into a position where I spent large chunks of 1992 and early 1993 in London in a service flat in the central City (according to the guest register, the previous occupant of that room was J.G. Ballard). I got to see a lot of great live music (Julian Cope was a standout) and fell in love with a bi-polar poet whom I met at a party one night – my American accent came in handy in a variety of situations.

I knew I wanted to live in London and my boss at Barclays tried to make it happen for me. There were no suitable openings and then she found something in Manchester. I’d never been there but figured with Manchester’s fame as a music center, I’d be okay. The deal fell through at the last minute and I ended up leaving Barclays for the job that would eventually bring me to Hong Kong.

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For the past 20 years and across several jobs, I’ve traveled to London often enough to know my way around and feel extremely comfortable there. Of course these are business trips and I’m staying in nice hotels in central locations (this trip I was staying just off Trafalgar Square) and my expenses are all covered so it’s not quite the same experience as actually living there. This last trip I had lunch with my friend Kevin Westenberg, an American who has lived in London for 30 years, and I got to hear about how crazy expensive London can be when you live there.

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At any rate, I found myself with a decent amount of free time during this trip to London. I walked at least 5 miles each day, usually on a circuit that included Covent Garden, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, Chinatown and Soho.  I got up to Camden Market, got to the music stores on Denmark Street, spent time in Forbidden Planet and Foyles and browsed in some of the few remaining record shops.

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And as I walked around, I found myself constantly comparing London to Hong Kong.

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Of course there’s the big stuff. The beautiful architecture, monuments and parks everywhere. On the one hand, one might say it’s merely reminders of Britain’s history of empire and imperialism, the spoils of war and conquest. I think it’s more than that. There was an aspiration to greatness, individually and collectively. And to let everyone share in that aspiration, at least by surrounding people with beauty, even if their own lives were drab.

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Hong Kong has none of that. There are no world class museums here. There are very few buildings left to reflect the 150 year history. Skyline? Yeah, it’s a bunch of drab office buildings gussied up with neon and lasers that is only impressive because of the water in the foreground and the mountains in the rear.

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(Tacky, right? But a step up from the fake Buddhist monks scamming for change all over Hong Kong.)

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The cultural diversity of London is staggering when compared to Hong Kong. You see this walking down the streets, you see it in shops, you see it in the selection of restaurants everywhere you go.

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And then there’s the commercial aspects of daily life. Everything from banks advertising their credit cards based on competitive interest rates and telephone companies advertising no additional charges for data when roaming globally (HK’s Three is one of those companies; meanwhile for HK Three customers, one could buy a special “deal” for roaming data for HK$198 per day). This is what happens when you have true competition and a level playing field – something Hong Kong does not offer on almost any level.

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(Outdoor seating at a pub in central London. This is actually illegal in most of Hong Kong.)

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The buses are hybrid buses – the seats are set a decent distance apart (seats in Hong Kong buses mostly offer less leg room than economy class flights) and the windows are not covered with ads. The trains may be old but at least they do not have video screens blasting advertisements at a captive audience.

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(Here’s a minor pet peeve – as a photographer who follows dozens of photography blogs, I always see the companies whose equipment I use offering rebates and cash-back offers. These offers are never valid in Hong Kong.)

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I think the things that get to me most are the lack of choice and diversity combined with the second rate status of ordinary citizens.

Yes, mass transportation is pretty darned good here – it’s cheap and runs on a predictable schedule and the consumers of the transportation system are for the most part treated as captive targets of loud advertising that isn’t even clever.

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Taxes are low. That’s thanks to the revenue the government collects from real estate transactions and also, perhaps more importantly, because Hong Kong doesn’t have to support an army, navy or air force. We get that from China – it’s an army that has already proven once that they will fire upon their own citizens when so ordered to, and the odds are increasing that one day it will be used against Hong Kong citizens for daring to request that they might have a say in how their home is managed and getting fed up with receiving nothing but meaningless sound bites in return.

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Oh, new flats measuring all of 200 square feet are going on sale in Tai Po this weekend and expected to sell out. And Monday I’ll go back to the office and have to make my way down the streets in between hordes of mainland shoppers dragging suitcases behind them. And that’s after waiting 20 minutes for the bus standing in the blazing sun or the pouring rain because a simple thing like a decent bus shelter is a joke here.

I live in a town of 250,000 and there is only one supermarket out of dozens here that sells simple things like dijon mustard or Italian salami or bacon not made in China or a crusty baguette. (Said supermarket is a mile from any bus stop and offers all of 8 parking spots.) The only place in this town that has a half-way decent hamburger charges US$20 for it and the pizza is mostly embarrassing. Thai, Japanese and Korean food around here has been localized to an extent that renders it almost unrecognizable. I’m exasperated not by the fact that the only interesting new restaurants open in Sheung Wan or Kennedy Town but by the fact that there seems to be practically no demand for them almost anywhere else.

Look, I get it. If there was a utopia, everyone would move there and then it might not be so utopian after that. I always say that every place has its issues and compromises and if you’re fortunate enough to be able to choose where you live, then you choose the compromises you’re more able to deal with. And for many years, Hong Kong was the place for me.

But right now I feel that today is the best that Hong Kong is ever going to be. And by that I mean that I feel that the quality of life in Hong Kong is devolving to the point where each day is going to be worse than the day before. Each day will bring its share of corruption, greed, humiliation and assaults upon the daily existence of every day people.

There are days that I give serious thought to living almost anywhere else except here. Well, I never consider a return to the U.S.  But the list of places that I think I would enjoy living in more than Hong Kong seems to grow almost daily.

It’s a funny thing. The grass is always greener. I’ve got this friend, he’s American, he used to live in Tokyo and travel throughout Asia. Now he lives and travels all over Europe. And half the time he blogs about wanting to get back to Asia and posts Facebook comments about being jealous whenever I mention anything on bars (and women) in Wanchai or Lan Kwai Fong. I’d trade places with him in a heartbeat.

Or maybe I’m just in a bad mood today? I won’t say it’s impossible. I am a moody bastard, you all know that.

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One Country, Two Systems? Not So Much

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From the SCMP:

A Taiwanese scholar and a prominent student activist who planned to join the July 1 rally in Hong Kong were barred from entering the city on Sunday, sparking accusations that their exclusions were politically motivated.

Ya think?

A spokesman of the Immigration Department said they would not comment on individual cases.

But he added: “In handling each immigration case the [department] will, having regard to the general immigration requirements and circumstances pertaining to each individual case, decide whether the entry will be allowed in accordance with the Hong Kong Law and prevailing immigration policies.”

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PCCW Netvigator – You Make It So Easy to Hate You (and VPN Notes)

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PCCW’s Netvigator Internet service enjoys a virtual monopoly for fixed line Internet services in the small villages located all around the New Territories.  And faithful (?) readers of this blog may recall that when I moved from Sai Kung to Lam Tsuen last year, it took PCCW more than a year to figure out how to get a line to my house – despite the fact that I’m in a ten year old house in a large village located right off a main road. I spent much of that year sending complaint letters to PCCW, the telecommunications authority, and members of Legco, not that it did me much good. But now it seems that PCCW is seeking their revenge.

I’ve been paying $190 per month for Netvigator’s Internet service. This gets me an ancient ADSL line advertised as being 8 Mbps, but in practice has never been more than 5 Mbps – and generally quite slower than that. I was told this was a special promotional price because I’m also a NOW-TV subscriber. And then, my contract expired. Even though I still subscribe to NOW-TV, I was told that the monthly cost of my Netvigator service would increase to $298 per month, a more than 50% increase. This is especially frustrating after hearing from a friend in Kowloon who pays $236 per month for a 500 Mbps line from Netvigator.

Me:

I have always paid $190 per month for my Netvigator service.  My contract is finished and I am told it will now cost $298 per month for a new contract. I don’t understand the reason for this price increase. Certainly the level of service has not increased. I am not going to get a 50% faster line, so I don’t understand why I would be charged 50% more.  Can you please explain this?

Them:

Please kindly be informed that our service plan price has been adjusted
as we need to constantly invest to improve our service, in order for us
to maintain a high quality of service. Our company started sending a
notice to customers by post one month before the price adjustment. We
deeply apologize for the inconvenience and confusion that we have
brought to you.

Improved service? I’d gladly pay more for a faster line, but they are only offering me the same service I’ve always had.

Me:

I still do not understand from your answer why I am being asked to pay 50% more for the same service.

Them:

With regards to your email, we are really sorry to learn of your
disappointment over the service fee adjustment. However, we regret that
because there has been a substantial increase in our costs, price
adjustments for some of our services have become necessary.

As soon as I received your email, kindly be informed that I have
immediately passed your contact number to our sales hotline department
for their follow up action and please be patience that our colleague
will get contact you and introduce you the promotional offers on your
interest.

Substantial increase?  Please be patience? If I’m Patience, will you be Felicity?

Me:

No one has called me yet.  

A friend of mine told me that he is a Netvigator customer and pays $236 per month for 500 Mbps.  Please explain to me again why you want to charge me $298 per month for a connection that is 98% slower than that.

After a few days, I received a phone call telling me that if I want to renew the contract, it will cost $298 per month. I said that was too expensive. The guy said, “Okay, bye, see you.” That was a great promotional offer, wasn’t it?

Them:

In regard to your concern, as to cope with constantly changing market
circumstances, we do provide different promotional offers in different
market segments from time to time.

Referring to the record, our sales colleague has contacted and provided
an available offer for your consideration.

Constantly changing market circumstances? Why do they keep throwing these empty marketing phrases at me?

Me:

Your sales colleague called and did not provide me with any promotional offer, just the same $298 price previously quoted to me. Which I have refused. It is too expensive.

Them:

Referred to your message, please note that I have checked with our sales
department and kindly be informed that they will arrange to contact you
again in order to introduce you more offer plans for your interest.

A few days later, another “sales colleague” called and again offered me the monthly rate of $298. When I again said it was too expensive, I was offered a “special promotional rate” of $268. Still too much.

Then it got a little bit weird. The PCCW drone suggested that I could continue to use the service on a monthly basis without a contract. I kept asking how much that would cost me every month and I couldn’t get a clear or simple answer to what I thought was a clear and simple question.  She seemed to suggest that without a contract the service would continue to cost me $190 per month. I’m sure this is not right.

So I’m waiting for my next bill to see how much it is before I decide on my next step.

Side note #1 – You only need service of 3 Mbps or greater in order to efficiently stream Internet video services such as Netflix. These companies have spent buckets of money in optimizing their services so that they’ll work for people with relatively low bandwidth. And even with my relatively slow line and routing through a US VPN service, I’m able to watch Netflix and Hulu smoothly for the most part.

However, 4K streaming is coming soon. That will required a sustained bandwidth of at least 15 Mbps. On this Akamai chart of which countries are ready for this kind of service, Hong Kong places third globally, because 26% of the population does get this kind of speed. (No surprise, South Korea is #1.)

I think this is good news. If PCCW wants to sell this service, they’re going to have to do more network upgrades. Though I’m sure such an upgrade for my village would be years away.

Side note #2 – So why continue my Netvigator service if my 4G service from SmarTone is working decently? I’m not sure this is entirely logical, but on my last visit to the US I bought a Roku streaming stick (it’s half the price of a Roku box). I want to watch Netflix and some of the other channels they stream on my TV, not on my computer monitor. There is no way to configure the Roku for a VPN or a proxy; it has to be done at the router level. But I don’t want to route all of my Internet stuff through a US-based VPN.  So to me, it seems to make sense to have one relatively low-cost Internet account and router dedicated for this. $190 a month is probably already crazy but I was prepared to go with that. At $268 or $298 a month, I need to decide if it’s really worth it.

The alternative, I guess, will be for me to give up the Netvigator account, get a small network switch, and still have a separate router with the VPN configured in it and use that for the streaming. I’ll save a bit of money, but I’ll be sharing that Internet connection with two other people in the house and not yet sure how consistent my speeds will be. I will test this out within the next few days.

Side note #3 – In terms of VPN providers, Unblock-Us requires you to log into your account via a browser every day. That’s because their service gets tied to your IP address but your IP address is dynamically allocated by your ISP, so it changes. Logging in via the browser authenticates this change.

VyprVPN looks very attractive (their US$9 a month service includes “Dump Truck,” their Dropbox-like service, with 25 gig of online storage) but they require that your router be flashed with dd-wrt. The process is not trivial  and for whatever reason, when I tried to do this with my router, I did not succeed and had to restore my router back to factory defaults (a very good example of a time when having multiple routers came in extremely handy).

If you’ve subscribed to a VPN in order to get around geo-checking, which one are you using?

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