Hongkietown is 10 – Hello, I Must Be Going

Today marks 10 years since my first blog post. (See here for more details on that.)

And so, on the 10th anniversary of the blog, it’s as good a time as any to announce that I will be leaving Hong Kong after just over 17-1/2 years here. I’m moving to Manila at the end of January.

I don’t want to be overly dramatic about this but it does represent a seismic shift in my life. The reasons are purely financial – Hong Kong has simply gotten too expensive for me. I never bought a place here back when I could afford one and I will never be able to afford to buy one again. I can’t imagine retiring here and paying Hong Kong rents, or retiring into some government subsidized 300 square foot shitbox. Whether I should or should not have bought a place back when I could have afforded to is immaterial; I didn’t.

I can afford to buy a place in Manila, and quite a nice one at that, close to my office and more than 90% cheaper than a similar place in Hong Kong.  But I cannot afford to simultaneously pay rent in Hong Kong and a mortgage in the Philippines. Add in the age factor – in another year or two, I’ll probably be too old to get a mortgage. It was becoming clearer that it was a “now or never” situation.  And so it’s now. The house is chosen, the down payment made, the mortgage approved, the final papers will be signed before the end of the year.

For the past few years, to paraphrase LCD Soundsystem, Hong Kong I’ve loved you but you’re bringing me down. Hong Kong today is not the Hong Kong I first moved to in 1995 and it is not the Hong Kong I returned to in 2001. It is a territory that is managed by the rich for their own self-benefit. Hong Kong has a government that is controlled at every level by China and the billionaire property developers and has a vested interest in keeping things as they are or in tilting the field in their favor even further. There is no indication that things will change for the better (or my perception of that) in the near or distant future. “Patriotism” has been defined as maintaining the status quo rather than striving for improvement.  I increasingly feel that Hong Kong residents are like the frog in the pot on the stove – the pot starts off cold and the frog never notices how hot it’s getting until it’s too late and the frog is boiled alive.

I don’t mean to go off on a rant here (which I did, but since deleted).  I’ll simply say that Hong Kong is great if you’re rich. It sucks if you’re poor or middle class. This land was not made for you and me.

Yes, I do get that the Philippines is a third world country, or at least several orders of magnitude behind Hong Kong in many ways. I’ll probably find just as much to complain about there, possibly even more. I am not going to pretend that it is some kind of South Pacific island paradise.   I understand that there is crime, corruption and poverty, not to mention an infrastructure badly in need of renewal and upgrade. I know it is the natural disaster capital of the world. I’ve been traveling there on a regular basis since 1997 and I believe I have a good idea of what I am getting into and what the challenges will be.

If I was a millionaire, I might have chosen another destination. Tokyo or Paris or London or even New York. On the other hand, I’m comfortable there, I can find more of the things that I like there (even if some of them are relatively trivial, like Krispy Kreme or Dean & DeLuca), and I can go out at night for a fraction of the cost of going out in Hong Kong.  English is more widely used there and American brands are more widely available. I’m married to a Filipina so a permanent visa is not an issue.

I will still have the same job with the same company and I expect to be returning to Hong Kong every month or two for the foreseeable future, which means lots of opportunities to see friends and I can maintain my PR status.

I’ll still keep writing and photographing but I don’t think it will make sense to have a site called “Hongkie Town” when I’m based in Manila. (I don’t have an idea yet for a clever (or a stupid) name for a Manila blog. Any suggestions?)

I want to keep all of the Hongkie Town content online and available but the odds are that I will move it to a different hosting arrangement. This domain is for sale (along with honkietown.com, the most frequent misspelling of hongkietown.com) if anyone is interested in it.

(I’ll also be selling off quite a bit of stuff before the move – CDs, DVDs, books, furniture, appliances, car, the usual “expat leaving” stuff.)

So there you have it. In less than two months I’ll be saying so long Hong Kong, and thanks for all the fish. It’s been a slice. And thanks to all of you who have kept coming back here and reading my stuff and leaving your comments.

Thank You Morton’s of Chicago

For our first anniversary dinner my wife wanted steak. I initially thought about us going to Le Relais De l’Entrecote. We’d been to one of their branches in Paris during our honeymoon and I thought it would be a nice bit of synchronicity to hit their Hong Kong branch. That was until I found out they don’t take reservations.  I was concerned that we would arrive there and there could be a long wait for a table (it’s new here and HKers love to hit new places) and then we’d either wind up standing there waiting for a table for 30 minutes or choosing some nearby place at random. Not a great idea for a special dinner, right?

So I booked a table at Morton’s. I asked for a window seat, which they said they couldn’t guarantee, and I asked them to try as it was our anniversary dinner.

We arrived a bit early and our table wasn’t ready yet so we went to the bar. For my wife, the bartender’s special concoction and for me, a classic dirty martini (which they call a Mortini but it drank just the same). Fifteen minutes after we arrived, still no table, so we told them it didn’t have to be right next to a window as long as it had a view. (The Hong Kong branch of Morton’s is on the 4th floor of the Sheraton in TST, facing Victoria Harbor.)

And here’s what we ate (sharing everything). Oysters Rockefeller, Caesar salad, a 24 ounce porterhouse steak, creamed corn, mashed potato with horseradish and bacon. All of it was fabulous (actually I wasn’t that in love with the horseradish mashed potato, a plain one would have been fine by me). The steak was the star of course. Perfectly cooked, as you would expect in a steak house.  It was so tender and tasty that even though I’d asked for some English mustard on the side, I ended up never touching it. For me, this was one of those time when the saying “the banquet is in the first bite” wasn’t true because we ate slowly and savored every mouthful.

I actually hadn’t been to Morton’s in at least 7 years and I recalled that if you wanted a souffle for dessert, you needed to order it well in advance, and I wanted one of those because my wife had never had one and I know they make them good there. When I asked how long in advance I should order it, the waitress told me we were getting one on the house because it was our anniversary dinner – I asked them to please make it chocolate.

When they brought out the souffle, it had a single candle in it, and they’d written “Happy Anniversary” in chocolate on the plate. Before we could blow out the candle, the waitress pulled out a camera to take our picture as another “gift.”

As I said, my wife had never had a souffle before, and she found it pretty amazing. Two and a half hours after we got there, I asked for the bill and along with that, they brought me an 8×10 photo inserted into a card “signed” by all of the Morton’s staff.

The bill for what we had was HK$1,950 (including 10% service charge and I added in a nice tip on top of that) .  Morton’s isn’t cheap. But when you consider that the two cocktails alone were $300, I thought the price was quite reasonable given what we ate, the size of the portions and the quality of the food. The whole experience added up to a memorable first anniversary dinner indeed.

(No food photos. It was our anniversary dinner. I wasn’t gonna go, “hold on honey, let me get a shot of those oysters before you mess ’em up!”)

 

I Got the Kindle Voyage – And I Love It

I used to read a lot of books – and then one day, for some unknown reason, I just seemed to stop.

Let me back up a bit. My father was a book wholesaler. Growing up, I’d come home to find cartons of books on our doorstep – many publishers would mail us their new releases each month. Or I’d go to see my dad at his warehouse and he’d give me an empty carton and let me roam through the place and fill it up. He always looked at what I was taking but never told me to put anything back. I don’t think my parents cared too much about what I read as long as I was reading. In my teens and twenties, I read mostly science fiction. Now I almost never go near the stuff but Philip K. Dick remains my favorite author to this day.

When I traveled, whether it was for business or pleasure, it was always a struggle to decide how many books to take with me vs. the weight of the books I’d need to carry. Living in Hong Kong, which has mostly shitty English-language bookstores, any trip to a country with a decent bookstore always meant filling up my suitcase with books on my return.

I remember the first e-book reader I came across, years ago. It was from Sony and I thought it was fabulous, but it cost $400 and I thought that was just way too high. I bought the Amazon Kindle 2 when it came out in 2009 but I thought it was kind of clunky. And while I was never bothered by the lack of a built-in light on real books, I didn’t like having to keep a reading light on (or buy a clip-on light) to read from this. I used it sparingly for about a year and then pushed it to the side.

I thought the iPad was the answer. I’ve bought almost every generation of the iPad, loaded each of them up with a couple of hundred books, and then hardly ever read them. I thought I might go back to reading physical books again and bought a few when I was in London a few months ago – all of which are sitting on the floor by my desk, unread.

I’m very aware of the fact that my mother who is 93 and has macular degeneration still manages to read a book a day, thanks to the fact that on the Kindle every book is a large print book. She thinks the Kindle is a miracle.

Then a friend posted on Twitter and Facebook asking about buying a Kindle. Some people, myself included, advised buying an iPad because it could do so many other things on a single device. But he bought a Kindle anyway and I found myself looking at reviews of the latest models. Amazon released the Kindle Voyage at the end of October and the reviews were pretty spectacular. And so when my wife asked me what I wanted for a present for our first anniversary, this is what I requested.

The Kindle Voyage is relatively expensive. It’s about double the price of the Kindle Paperwhite. But I reasoned that I was going to use the same one for several years so I wanted the latest and greatest. In the U.S. the Kindle Voyage sells for $199 “with special offers” – on screen ads, or $219 without the ads. That’s for the WiFi versions. If you want 3G, that adds another $70 to the price. Amazon won’t ship the Voyage to Hong Kong but there is a Hong Kong distributor – and a much higher list price, around HK$2580 (roughly $335).

Shop around a bit and you’ll discover that you can find the Voyage for as low as HK$1990 – but that just comes with a 7 day shop warranty. The one from the Hong Kong distributor with a full warranty can be found for as low as HK$2,180, and I managed to negotiate a bit further and get it at HK$2,130. I balked when I saw it was the version with ads but I was told that’s the only one that’s being sold in Hong Kong.

First off, this thing is almost insanely small for what it is. 6.4 inches tall, 4.5 inches wide and just 0.30 inches deep. It weighs just 6.3 ounces. It fits in the inside pocket of my jacket and I barely know it’s there. Here’s the Kindle Voyage next to my old Kindle 2:

kindle

It blew my mind when I realized that the screen on the Voyage is actually the same size as the screen on the Kindle 2. But it’s so much easier to read.

It has an amazing e-ink screen. At 300 ppi, it’s almost 50% sharper than the previous Kindle Paperwhite. It has a touch screen (the lack of one was another reason I hated the Kindle 2, it just seemed too kludgy and non-intuitive to have to move around the screen with that tiny joy stick) and it also has these essentially invisible buttons on the sides that Amazon is calling “Page Press.” You can touch the screen to turn pages or press these buttons. You get a bit of haptic feedback on the Page Press thing, but I find I prefer touching the screen.

Battery life is said to be 6 weeks (with reading 30 minutes a day, WiFi off, light at a medium setting). Storage is 4 gigabytes; I’ve got about 250 books on it at the moment and I’ve barely begun to fill up the memory. I got a “smart cover” that functions similar to the iPad’s covers; turning it off and on when I close and open the cover.

The other advance is the front-lighting system. You can adjust the brightness via an onscreen menu, or you can use something Amazon is calling “adaptive lighting”. There’s a light sensor built in and it will adjust the light relative to the light around you. In practice so far I’ve found it to make the screen slightly dim for my liking so I haven’t been using it too much.  There’s another feature you can toggle that will gradually dim the light when you’re reading at night, also supposed to be good for your eyes but I haven’t tried it yet.

I was worried about the ads, but they don’t appear on screen when you’re reading a book. They take up the entire screen when the Kindle is “off” (the e-ink screen uses no power when the light is off and you’re not turning pages) and there’s a small banner across the bottom of the screen when you’re looking at the list of books in your library. So it turned out to not be an issue for me.

Here’s the main thing. The iPad was really terrible for reading in bed at night. Even though I’d adjust the light on the thing, it was always too bright and my eyes always got tired after 10 minutes of reading. I found that all of the iPads (I currently have the iPad Air first generation) were too heavy to hold comfortably while lying down and reading. And my wife would complain that the screen was lighting up the room too much and making it hard for her to fall asleep.

The Kindle Voyage is so light I can hold it in one hand and not notice the weight. The e-ink screen and the light they use are easier on my eyes so I can read for much longer without getting tired. My wife isn’t complaining about it being too bright.

And I’m reading again. At the moment, I’m halfway through Stephen King’s latest, Revival. The physical book is 421 pages. I’ve read the equivalent of 200 pages in the past three days and barely noticed it. (The last book I read was My Lunches With Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles. I read that on the iPad. It was 335 pages and took me almost a month.)

So basically I feel excited about reading again. I’ve only had the Kindle Voyage for a few days but if feels as if my “reading life” has been rejuvenated and I think this is a feeling that will last.

From what I’ve read in various reviews, if you already have the Kindle Paperwhite, then think twice about doing an upgrade. But if you’re buying your first e-book reader or upgrading from a much older one, then the Kindle Voyage is the one to get. I’m completely satisfied with mine.

If John Tsang Is Against It, It Must Be Good

From the SCMP:

Hong Kong’s economic growth for this year could be lower than the government’s earlier forecast of 2.2 per cent, the financial chief said as he warned that the Occupy movement is harming the city’s image as an international financial centre.

Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah made the remarks on Monday morning following a night in which Occupy protesters escalated their actions and attempted to lay siege to the chief executive’s office at government headquarters in Admiralty.

“Some student groups have called on people to block government headquarters, and they tried to occupy Lung Wo Road … police have the responsibility to carry out enforcement actions,” Tsang said. ”What these groups have done is very irresponsible. We need to condemn them.”

Although figures from the Hong Kong Tourism Board showed that the number of mainland tourists who visited the city grew 18.3 per cent in October, compared to a year earlier, Tsang said he was not scaremongering when he warned about the impact of Occupy.

He pointed out that the number of visitors from some other places to the city had dropped.

Tsang said the number of property transaction in the first 10 months reached 5,700 a month on average, up 25 per cent on last year. Property prices have also risen 10 per cent in the first 10 months.

Basically, Hong Kong Financial Secretary John Tsang has been consistently wrong in every prediction he has ever made. If he worked in the commercial sector as a CFO, he wouldn’t be able to hold onto a job for more than 2 years, if that, but he’s held his current position for 7 years, mostly because he’s surrounded by even bigger idiots than himself and he’s proven time and again that he’s willing to do the bidding of his bosses.

What Tsang has done as Financial Secretary for seven years has been very irresponsible and we need to condemn him.

UPDATE: Some figures, also from the SCMP:

… the Census and Statistics Department announced yesterday that the city’s retail sales value in October rose 1.4 per cent year-on-year, despite a previous warning from the Retail Management Association that there might be no growth in retail sales for the month.

… official figures showed the city’s overall retail sales value in October rose to HK$38.3 billion. It went up 4.8 per cent in September.

After correcting for the effect of price changes over the same period, the volume of total retail sales in October rose 4.3 per cent year-on-year.

Sales for electrical goods and photographic equipment went up 23.6 per cent. Other consumer durable goods including smartphones went up 67 per cent, and medicine and cosmetics rose 7.6 per cent.

Jewellery, watches and clocks, and valuable goods went down 11.6 per cent, while clothes sales saw a decline of 8.8 per cent.

Caroline Mak Sui-king, chairwoman of the retail association, said the October figure was still bolstered by sales of the iPhone 6, which came out in mid-September. She believed the November figure could be better because tourists now knew how to avoid conflict areas in Admiralty and Mong Kok.

Mariana Kou, investment analyst at equity broker CLSA, said the retail market was significantly affected by the Occupy movement. The number of mainland tourists to the city was high because many tour groups were booked and paid for in advance, Kou added.

So if overall sales are up, when this Mariana Trench-mouth says that the market was significantly affected by the Occupy movement, is she saying that Occupy is actually helping Hong Kong?