Thursday, 18 November 2010

Hong Kong begins to shit itself

In this morning's newspaper (South China Morning Post) is a report about a woman in Hong Kong who has contracted bird flu - the city's first case in seven years.

Hong Kong's complete and utter obsession with hygiene is due to the bird flu epidemic which was responsible for about 300 deaths in Southeast Asia from when it made its reappearance in 2003. Authorities in Hong Kong have raised the city's bird flu alert level to "serious" as they cannot tell yet whether this is a local case or one which travelled into the country as the woman travelled through mainland China from 25 October to 1 November.

Luckily, "so far there has been no sign of human-to-human transmission", says Dr York Chow Yat-ngok, the Secretary for Food and Health. There is, however, a two-week incubation period - the exact reason they cannot correctly identify where this woman caught the virus. Her family and people who have been near her recently have been tested and no strain of flu was found.

Chinese authorities in the cities the woman travelled to say that they have no sign of bird flu within their jurisdictions, although Hong Kong has told them to keep their eyes open. Communications have also been sent to the Agriculture and Quarantine Departments (I know... there's a Quarantine Department - who knew?) in preparation for whatever may come.

It is not good news for Hong Kong. But the city is on alert.

I expect to see even more of these:

People wearing facemasks are prevalent in Hong Kong - due to the hangover of the last outbreak of bird flu. It is also why there are signs up everywhere informing the public that escalator handles, lift buttons and even carpets are regularly disinfected (sometimes hourly).

Health is a massive public concern here. This city is so cramped that you have no option but to be breathed on by other people sometimes.

I expect government to overreact. Which might not be the worst idea when it comes to health, I suppose.

Friday, 12 November 2010

The terrible tragedy of the toilet

For the first time in my life I had to use an Eastern toilet. Myself and Mike went for a run down Bowen Road, a scenic, flat trail that runs from Central out to Wan Chai. Mike runs a lot faster than me, so I was trundling along on my own when my stomach suddenly did a backflip, and I was forced to walk half bent-over, squeezing my please-god-keep-it-inside muscles until they nearly spasmed.

Finally I arrived at the public loo with my bowels virtually overflowing (as if someone was repeatedly smashing me in the stomach with a cricket bat) ready to relieve the pressure cooker I must have swallowed. And what greeted me was this:

Well let me tell you, I have used many bogs in my life ranging from ones in snooty hotels to long-drops, and I have never in my life endured such an unpleasant toilet experience.

For starters, you can't sit down. You have to put your feet on the sides - where those lines are - and hover over it. I wasn't sure at the idea angle and tried half standing up - maintaining terror that I was standing too straight and the resulting excrement would land in my shorts, or squatting right down trying to quash the fear of falling backwards. I have never encountered a toilet where I had to aim. On a sitting-down bog, one merely lets it drop out in full knowledge it will land in the bowl... a privilege not extended to users of Eastern toilets.

Secondly, we also enjoy the luxury of having our personal waste sit in a little pool of water, hiding the smell, and because of the shape of the toilets we are used to, we don't need to look at it. This is not the case with this crapper as it sits in the porcelain bowl right below from whence it came - which is the user's rear end. It's really not my favourite part of how my body works and I would prefer to ignore it.

The next terrible thing about it is that, for some unknown Asian reason, the toilet paper is outside the stall. Now I have never budgeted toilet paper. I have no idea how much I use so I grabbed as much as I thought I needed, then doubled it and went in with that.

I wasn't even close. After half-wiping, I hoped to blinding hell that no one else was in the bathroom and squat-hopped my way over to the toilet paper dispenser to get more. This is a lot easier said than done. Think leap-frog with your pants around your ankles.

Once again, there is no simple way to just pop the used bogroll into the can. The first time I tried throwing it in I missed and it landed on the floor. Needless to say, I left it there. I wasn't wasting any of my precious bogroll supply picking it up. (I eventually felt guilty and, resisting all temptations to just run away, kicked it in post-flush.)

Bear in mind you also aren't wiping at an angle you're used to, and you've been hovering over the toilet for a few minutes now. Your leg muscles are killing you but you cannot move until you've finished.

It was the grandest form of torture under which I have ever gone.

Next time I go running I'm taking a bucket.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Hong Kong news 9 November

At last, I have the South China Morning Post AND the internet at the same time, so stand by for today's news, brought to you by my favourite Beijing-biased publication.

Tencent and Qihoo are China's two top online companies: (Naspers-owned) Tencent is the country's top free messaging service (called QQ - they tried to punt it in SA a few years ago), and Qihoo its top anti-virus company. Combined they have 400 million-500 million users and are currently spatting, with each company accusing the other of privacy theft. Qihoo kicked proceedings off initially accusing QQ of scanning software and files without users’ permission or knowledge. Tencent hit back with accusations that it was Qihoo's new tool called Bodyguard which scanned users' passwords, accounts and more when they logged onto QQ. On Wednesday last week Tecent upped the ante by declaring that it would shut down QQ on all computers which used Qihoo software but on Friday backtracked somewhat and said this would only apply to computers with the Koukou Bodyguard product. Qihoo are playing it diplomatically with their VP saying that he hoped the internet would return to normal as soon as possible. Tencent have taken the other tack, declaring "we will never compromise on this and will fight to the end". It is estimated that 100 million Chinese internet users use both Tencent and Qihoo products. I back Tencent here, even though it has been said that government will involve itself.

Today's front page headline: Chinese fans take loss to Japan sitting down. Remember how I have mentioned that China and Japan aren't the best of friends lately? Well I wasn't joking. They are currently undergoing territory disputes, there are protests in each country against the other and some Japanese politicians have insulted their Chinese counterparts. Well, the Asia Games commenced yesterday, and in in the first round of football fixtures, Japan trollied China 3-0. That's far more important that any politics and Japan should be given the disputed territories as a prize.

I want to cry from delirious laughter. In case anyone doubts that China is shaking up the world: the notoriously capitalist USA is about to jump into some quantative easing - basically printing more money - and good ol' commie China has kakked all over it for doing so.

Myanmar is to Thailand what Zimbabwe is to South Africa: countries so incredibly shockingly run that citizens of them have no option but to flee. At least 10 000 Burmese (Myanmarese?) crossed the border into Thailand yesterday after post-pretend-election violence in the country. Beijing reckons it's a step forward for the country. I think that's complete crap.

Taiwan has called off the search for victims who are still missing due to the destruction caused by Hurricane Megi last month.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron is stopping in China en route to the G20 summit in Seoul next week. It is expected he will bring with him a large delegation with the intent of promoting trade with China. The SCMP makes mention of China hoping that Cameron does not bring up social issues such as the continued imprisonment of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiabo. Cameron has been fairly outspoken about foreign policy since he took the reins of the country though.

The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (Democrats for short) - the administrative region's biggest political party - wants to reform HK's parliamentary structure after elections in 2012. Although much of HK's politics are dictated by China, there is a 60-seat decision making body called Legco (Legislative Council of Hong Kong), 30 seats of which are chosen by permanent HK residents, and 30 of which are voted for by about 200 000 people in functional constituencies like business, special interest groups etc. It is these in the functional constituencies who are going to block the Democrats reforms. The politicians on each side will go head-to-head in the next few weeks.

The minimum wage in Hong Kong is expected to be set at HK$28 (R25) today due, to some extent, to the politicisation of the wage changes at Cafe de Coral. Cafe de Coral is HK's largest food outlet and recently took strife for giving workers 2.5%-3.5% salary increases at the expense of their paid lunch breaks which turned into a net loss. Cafe de Coral says this new wage could cost the company an extra HK$120 million (R108 million) in salaries and wages per month. KFC pays the least in the industry with HK$21 (R19) but has a far more hard-line approach to complaining employees: it ignores them, says the Catering and Hotels Employees' General Union.

Hong Kong's next football fixture in the Asia Games kicks off tonight against Group E favourites Uzbekistan. That's the team ranked 127 vs the team ranked 75 respectively. In the first round, Hong Kong drew 1-1 with the UAE.

South Africa drilled Pakistan in the last match of the ODI series between the two countries. I report this because it's fucking great, even though it is not relevant to HK at all.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Hong Kong news 8 November

We've finally got internet in our house, so as I excitedly sat down to concisely issue you some Southeast Asian news, I realised that I'd forgotten to buy the bloody South China Morning Post (SCMP).

So, to tittle your taste for current affairs, see content from today's The Standard and The China Daily.

Forbes has announced that Hu Jintao (President of China) as the world's most powerful person. Shame, poor Barack Obama just can't win at the moment, can he?

Wen Jiabao (pretty much China's second most important person) is to visit Macau soon. Macau is similar to Hong Kong in the way that it was a (Portuguese, instead of British like HK) colony which is now Chinese again, but also it's own country with its own economy. The Standard seems to think that this is a warning to Hong Kong to do better (it doesn't flesh it out, really) but I doubt it. Wen is going to a conference called the Ministerial Conference of the Forum for Economic and Trade Cooperation between China and Portuguese-Speaking Countries which, to me, sounds like it has bugger all to do with HK. Interestingly, both Angola and Mozambique will be represented there - indications that China's African investments remain in motion.

China has had to back down from proposals of making all public transport in Guangzhou free in the lead up to the Asia Games later this month. Instead, the government will give all home owners in the city 150 yuan (R154) for commuting purposes. Cool hey?

This seems to be a problem in many countries around the world. China is running out of hospital beds as its population gets older and older. In countries like South Africa, most old people just die because our public health system is such a shambles. In Hong Kong, the healthcare is so good that old people get even older and the amount of money that public health costs is becoming a burden to the state (which is complete shit as there is bucketloads of money here). In China, it is getting to the point where news hospitals will have to be built, it seems.

There's big kak and heads will roll after an Asian (of the Southeast Asia variety, not Middle Eastern) man wearing a mask transiting through Hong Kong Airport managed to illegally board a flight to Vancouver where he intended to seek asylum. Big problem was that nobody knows how he managed to screw the system, and now everyone is convinced that the new route to international terrorism is going to be through Hong Kong. Worse kak will be for the perpetrator who wanted asylum from China and will probably be deposited back there.

Liverpool beat Chelsea last night so I am boycotting all sports sections of all newspapers and websites until I have recovered.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Hong Kong news 3 November

We still have no internet at home, so I am, once again, down at the coffee shop with a cursory Coke Light so I can abuse ther wireless connection. I am this close to downloading a few seasons of 30 Rock as I spend so much time here I feel I deserve it.

To the news. Today's ripped publications shall include the tabloidy The Standard and the (Chinese) government-controlled China Daily.

Look at what a good South African I am. I even chose a picture with a white folk and a coloured folk with the famous black folk.

SPORT (I do sport first when SA is involved)
Makhaya Ntini has retired from international cricket. I remember this oke when he made his debut against Sri Lanka in what I think was 19978. Aravinda de Silva have him a pretty rude awakening by thrashing him all around Newlands. It wasn't till a few years later that Ntini settled properly into the South African team, and, with Shaun Pollock, provided one of the best new-ball combos South Africa has had since re-admission. Ntini was probably the fittest cricketer that has ever lived, and use dto run back to his bowling mark, even during spells of 15 or more overs. A team man, an inspirational man. Goodbye, Makhaya. South Africa says thank you. Well, I do.

Bryan O'Driscoll has been declared fit to play in the Ireland-South Africa test this weekend. So if John Smit and the South African team turns their back under instruction from the referee, he'll be able to score just like Ronan O'Gara (no I am totally not over it).

China's go-to position regarding other people's affairs is usually to let governments run ther own countries and to stay out, so it is no surprise that Beijing has rejected Washington's offer to host trilateral talks with China, the USA and Japan over the Diayou islands - which both China and Japan claim are theirs. How the USA thinks it should have influence in this is beyond me. I agree with Beijing that this is a dispute between Japan and China. And it would be hard for the US to be objective when one of the squabblers is one of its mates. That being said, I can't see this being reported in the NY Times, so it is possible that China just made this story up to paint the US a funny colour.

China doesn't expect the Democrats trouncing to have any effect on Sino-US ties, even though Beijing reckons US domestic policy will change a lot. It will be interesting to see how the rise of China affects US contentment, with more Tea Party nationalists and right-wing Republicans in key government positions. Full of drama. YAY!

David Cameron, prime minister of the United Kingdom is popping over to visit China next week and he's bringing along Chancellor George Osborne AND Vince Cable. So Nick Clegg is being left to run the country on his own? Bloody brave.

Here's some nice drama. An ex-cop has been accused of killing his lover (who was dating some other German chap) in a taxi after her body was found in the sea. This is notable because the (ex) pair met up in Sheung Wan before the copper strangled her and put her body in the boot. Sheung Wan is where we were living last week. Bar gruesome taxi murders, it's a really lovely area and we'll take you there when you come and visit.

There's nothoing else very interesting in the papers today. I miss the South China Morning Post (which I forgot to buy this morning). Expect better tomorrow.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The Language Barrier of Cantonese

Admittedly, I struggle with accents that aren't South African. Give me an Indian speaking Afrikaans while trying to be respectful of the Zulu person he's talking to and I'm fine. However, my ears are stuck that way. Try as I might, I can barely understand the people in Hong Kong unless they speak decent English (my weakness, not theirs).

Whoever may have told you that Hong Kong was perfectly English speaking is communicating via the seat of their pants. While the signs around the city may be in Cantonese and English, the population does not speak both lanuages equally. In fact, dear Britain, this was a pretty weak attempt at colonialism all round, if you ask me.

There is no easier way to find this out than to go and try and buy something.

In the last week, while shopping, I have had to act out dustbin bags (make circle with arm and use other arm to point inside), lemon juice (squeeze pretend fruit in the air and then make sour face), moisturising cream (rub arm repeatedly), toothpaste (this one is easy - just pretend to brush teeth and it's the first thing you get taken to after the toothbrushes, floss and whitening products) and toilet paper (the easiest one of the lot).

I have also been given Coke when I asked for Diet Coke, been told Red Bull is called "cocaine", been given after-sun cream when trying to buy tanning cream (not for me, I swear), had my name spelled Williamsa and exchanged many shrug-shoulders-and-grin looks... which is cute and funny at the beginning, but gets tiring later on. Ordering something by telephone is a nightmare as the constant presence of fast-food oddities testifies. If we get exactly what we order we run to church to give thanks.

The peak of this was using the realtor expertise of a man called Mr Wong who didn't speak a word of English. Now, bear in mind you can't even write things down here because the scripting isn't A-B-C-D. At Mr Wong's shop, to ask for a flat with 2 bedrooms in a building with a lift within a certain price I had to pretend to sleep while holding up two fingers, then use my hands to make an oblong, act like I was in a lift and then use my fingers to spell out the rent price. He looked at me like I was insane (not altogether untrue) and phoned someone who could speak English and told her in Cantonese what I had been trying to do. "Mr Wong doesn't know what you mean" she spat down in the phone in that typically polite Hong Kong fashion. And I used to be good at charades... I also had to draw a clock to tell him what time I would come back to his office and point to the date on his calendar.

Trying to buy tickets for the Hong Kong Sixes was much the same issue but I, once again, had the added joy of trying to organise over the phone - an exercise in total futility as I couldn't even wave my arms to try and explain myself. There was also a problem on their website which I tried to point out but, as things stand, it's still very much there.

There's only so much frantic arm waving and sign-language I can do in a day. It was exactly the same when I lived in Italy. My brain goes to sleep at night utterly exhausted. Of course it's not Hong Kong people's fault. And they do speak more English than I'd imagine we will find in China or other countries around the place, so the challenges shall continue.

But it's time to pull that Cantonese for Dummies out of the bag, methinks.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Hong Kong news 1 November

I have no internet at home and am relying on that provided by the coffee shop down the street. The speed of the internet here is about as fast as a blood clot and I don't have the paper on me, so we are going to be relying on the China Daily (a government controlled Chinese newspaper) and The Standard which is the Hong Kong equivalent of The Metro (in London).

The lead story in today's China Daily is the beginning of the census which is intended to work out how many people live in each house in China (which previous censuses? censi? have not done). How'sthe scale of things in China though? 6.5 million census takers are to process 400 million households and this whole speel will cost 700 million yuan (729 million ronts). The last census done in 2000 showed that the country contained 1.29 billion people.

Wen Jiabao proclaimed the New York Expo in Shanghai (I dunno - go figure) was a great event and blah blah which it obviously was, as I am told by Mike who attended it in June (while the rest of us were football befok). What we do know is that anything that the pro-democracy Jiabao says goes through loads of editing and the censorship department so I take what he is quoted on with a pinch of salt. Always.

The Prime Minister of Japan really knows how to piss China off. The two countries are already at loggerheads over disputed territories and now the PM has gone to visit Taiwan. Taiwan is an interesting place (nutshell version) as it was formed by a bunch of angry folks who left China after the commies won the civil war in 1949. Weirdly enough, Taiwan calls itself the Republic of China (the people who ran China before having their arses handed to them by thecommunists) and still sees itself as China's legitimate government. Imperialism (this knack of just renaming things) means we think they are two different countries with different names, but there has never been an official split between China and Taiwan. Oh, my point is that there is a bit of argy bargy between Taiwan and China, so the Japanese PM visiting there is bad PR.

Cafe de Coral is Hong Kong's largest food outlet chain and has finally decided to raise its workers' wages, but at the expense of a paid lunch break, which, according to The Standard is equivalent to a pay cut. This is the most capitalistic society in which I have ever found myself so I can't say I'm surprised. The people who feel the strongest about it have started a facebook group and an online petition about it which I expect to achieve absolutely fuckall.

Hong Kong is set to increase its investments in nuclear power with the intent to have 50% of its energy requirements taken care of by nuclear by 2020 (currently it is 24%) so the greenies had a protest about it yesterday. 50 protestors lay around Mong Kok and they gathered 900 signatures on a petition. In a city of 7 million people, most of whom don't give a flying wank about environmental issues, I would imagine that their achievements will compare neatly with the attempts of the people mentioned in the previous news item.

The Bledisloe Cup match between the rugby teams from Australia and New Zealand wasn't well supported by the Hong Kong public and the HK rugby board has given a whole load of ridiculous reasons for why only 26 000 people attended the game (stadium capacity was 40 000). None of them seem to be able to comprehend that tickets prices starting at HK$880 (R800) is bloody barmy. I love rugby and would have gone, but I refuse to pay that much. Hong Kong's next scheduled international fixture...? In 2013.

Hosting the 2023 Asia Games here in Hong Kong is still a hot topic in the news, with the drawback being the HK$40 billion it will cost in preparation. That's R36 billion. Nearly enough for a brand new arms deal.