Hong Kong’s new high-speed rail heralds a dubious era

A new era began in Hong Kong on the weekend as its high-speed train to Guangzhou began running on Sunday. Hong Kong is now connected to China’s high-speed network, which is the world’s largest. Yet this is far from a joyous occasion because not many Hong Kongers are rejoicing. The opening of the high-speed train also saw the imposition of mainland Chinese authority and law on Hong Kong soil. This is because the immigration area at the Hong Kong terminus is staffed by mainland officers and is under mainland Chinese law.

Why this is significant is that it goes against the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, that was supposed to guarantee Hong Kong’s autonomy until 2047 under the One Country, Two Systems arrangement. This means while Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997 by the United Kingdom, Hong Kong would be able to govern itself, and maintain its own courts and laws and police force. This is why Hong Kong can enjoy freedoms such as having proper rule of law, uncensored internet and a free press and civil society. All this has been coming under threat in recent years from China’s encroaching interference but the imposition of Chinese authority in the high-speed terminus formalizes this and sets a scary precedent.

The high-speed train didn’t come cheap at US$11 billion and neither was it necessary. There is already a direct train to Guangzhou that takes just two hours from Kowloon, and the East Rail (local train) runs to Shenzhen. In fact, there are already multiple ways to get from Hong Kong to Guangzhou. The real goal of the high-speed train isn’t to benefit Hong Kong, but to benefit China by binding HK more closely and eroding the distinctions between China and HK.

Another major project is the Zhuhai-Macau-Hong Kong (ZMH) bridge which comes into operation later this year. Running from Zhuhai through Macau to HK, the bridge is the world’s longest sea bridge (part of it is underground) but again, there is little benefit to HK. Costing a whopping US$20 billion that is shared among the 3 cities, the bridge meets no real need and has caused delays, the deaths of workers, and a cost overrun of at least US$1.5 billion.

These white elephants cost a ton of money but the real intention is to integrate HK into the mainland. And China, or rather Xi Jinping, its leader and “emperor,” has come up with a grand plan called the “Greater Bay Area” (GBA) to facilitate this. The GBA is intended to “integrate” HK, Macau, and 9 major cities in China’s Guangdong Province to create the world’s biggest bay area that would also be a tech and financial powerhouse.

Similar to the Belt and Road initiative (BRI), which some of you may have seen mentioned in the news, the GBA is full of grand promises that is centered on massive infrastructural projects and economic development. I recently wrote about the GBA for Foreign Policy’s website. I have a very critical take on the GBA and its projects, the high-speed rail and the ZMH bridge, which I see as reflective of the GBA’s flaws. That its wasteful, of dubious value, and ultimately has a political goal of binding Hong Kong to China.

The weekend also saw another dubious distinction for Hong Kong as the city’s government banned a tiny political party, the Hong Kong Nationalist Party. It’s the first time this has happened, with the reason cited being “national security” since the HKNP advocates independence from China. This is a huge blow to Hong Kong’s free speech environment if one cannot openly talk about independence. As political dissent becomes a crime, this makes Hong Kong more like China, where people can be even arrested for criticizing Xi or the Communist Party online, not to mention in public. In Taiwan, for example, people can still openly wave China flags and call for unification with China even though China is hostile to Taiwan. And in the US, I’m sure people can openly call for secession from the union.

It’s a sad sign for Hong Kong that closer ties with China mean white elephant projects and threats to free speech and freedom of expression. I’m not optimistic about the near future for Hong Kong at all.

‘Happy’ Taiwan leads region

After the toilet paper scare in February and the posturing from China, with “emperor” Xi having been officially elevated, Taiwan had some good news this past week. According to the World Happiness Report 2018 (page 22), Taiwan is the 26th happiest country in the world, as well as the second happiest in Asia. In East and Southeast Asia, Taiwan is the undisputed number one, coming well ahead of Japan (54), South Korea (57) and Hong Kong (76). Jeffrey Sachs, the American academic and author who has done a lot of good work in studying the developing world and poverty, was one of the editors behind the report.

It is not surprising that Taiwan did so well (finishing 33rd overall last year) because there are so many positives in its society. While the economy has weak in recent years and salaries are quite low, Taiwan’s democracy and civil society are strong, the health service is one of the most affordable and accessible in the world, and there is a growing sense of national pride and identity. Some writers and foreign media outlets might like to present a picture of Taiwan suffering and being brought to its knees because of its economy and because it refuses to kowtow to China anymore, but as far as I can see, people in Taiwan are still very doing alright. People are still very polite and civil, customer service is quite good, and politics is just as noisy as before. Even with the aforementioned toilet paper fiasco, while for a few days supermarkets actually ran out of toilet paper, there were no actual riots or physical fistfights, ha.

The report attributed country’s happiness to six key factors: income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust and generosity. On this count, Taiwan is doing well in all except the first one. Taiwan’s life expectancy is over 79, its health insurance is available to all Taiwanese (it’s actually free for the poor and unemployed), the media freedoms are among the highest in the world, and Taiwanese are among the most polite, helpful and pleasant people in Asia.

On the other hand, Hong Kong doesn’t seem to be a very happy place at 76th place. That HK’s regional rival Singapore was 34th also makes HK’s abysmal placing noteworthy. Just as it’s not too hard to figure out why Taiwan placed so high, it’s not difficult to understand why HK performed so dismally. There are almost too many reasons. There are serious political problems with China, financial inequality and poverty, and daily inconveniences. Housing is sky-high, whether you’re renting or buying, as is private health care, eating out and groceries. In addition, HK society has a lot of materialism, selfishness and arrogance. Hong Kong couldn’t be any more different from Taiwan in this area, which one can easily observe in customer service or in asking strangers questions. On paper, Hong Kong has a very high GDP per capita but in reality, a lot of people are struggling. For HK, the adage that money literally can’t buy happiness is very much true.

As for China, it came in at 86th. The leaders probably don’t care as they were too busy granting their great president and “emperor” Xi official approval to rule forever.

Hong Kong 2017 photo roundup


As 2017 comes to a close, I’m not too sad. It was a rough year both personally and broadly speaking, regarding what was happening in the world (which I will touch on in another post).
My time in Hong Kong finally came to an end a few months ago. While things were disappointing for me on the work front as I left my job (one which I really busted my ass at), my time in Hong Kong helped me learn some important lessons, renew old friendships, make a few new friends, and save up a bit. I also did some good hikes though not during the summer when it was terribly hot. If there is one aspect about HK I really like, it is the hiking, which is easily accessible whether you’re in Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, or the New Territories; and which offers some fantastic views of the sea, greenery and urban scenery.


Looking out to the sea and the eastern fringes of Hong Kong island from Devil’s Peak in Kowloon

Dragon’s Back hike has been called the best in Asia and it’s not hard to see why. This was my last hike in Hong Kong, done during my second-to-last week there

Sometimes the older and somewhat rundown buildings are the ones with the most character in Hong Kong, like these in Sai Ying Pun.

I’m not exactly a fan of cosplay and anime but I still decided to attend the anime convention in the summer. It was kind of decent.


During my last days in HK, I moved out to this hotel near my apartment. Great views, terrible rooms.

The smoky interior of Man Mo Temple’s main hall, with its lanterns and coils of burning incense
Continue reading “Hong Kong 2017 photo roundup”

Random Hong Kong photo roundup




Enjoy some photos of Hong Kong taken during this year, including two summer conventions (yes, I should have put them up sooner). The book fair and anime convention took place during the summer, and both were packed. The book fair was busy like last year’s, though there were less English language books, as Page One has pulled out of HK and did not have a booth. The anime convention was a bit more lively than I expected with some cool Transformers, Gundam and samurai figures on display, Marvel and DC movie booths, and even local comics, which the first photo above is about. However, there weren’t many people in cosplay with the exception of a few such as the two cheerful gals above. I also included a photo of the Indonesian President speaking at a summit on Labour Day this year, which I had to attend (thus having to work on a holiday though I did get back a day as compensation from the CEO) due to my company helping to support the event.


Cenotaph, Central. It honours war dead from World War I and II who served in Hong Kong.


Probably the most colorful harbour ferry design, advertising Hong Kong tourism

Rubber duck made out of food cans at the airport. It was part of an exhibition to highlight poverty and food security.  

  
The six photos above were all from the anime convention.

Saw Indonesian President Joko Widodo at a summit back on May 1 (Labour Day), which meant I gave up a public holiday for work.

It might look more like a kitchen set, but this guy was tearing it up on this improvised drum set.


I’m not advertising for Commercial Press; this just happened to be the best of the few photos I took during the book show.

Hong Kong hiking- Devil’s Peak


In previous posts, I’ve pointed out that Hong Kong, despite being famous for its concrete jungle, is actually covered by a lot of mountains and nature parks. But besides that, Hong Kong is also a maritime city, surrounded by water and virtually next to the Pacific ocean. Well, specifically, it’s the East China Sea, but that leads to the Pacific. So Hong Kong is also full of coves, bays, and even beaches, as well as lots of small islands. While some of these places require a bit of hiking and/or a long transit to get to, others are a few subway stops and a short hike away.

One such place is Lei Yue Mun (Carp Channel) near Yau Tong, on the eastern edge of Kowloon. Between Yau Tong and Hong Kong island, there is a narrow gap that leads to the sea to the east, while to the west is Victoria Harbour. The two sides of the gap collectively are called Lei Yue Mun. In the old days, this was a vital strategic point that guarded the eastern side of Victoria Harbour from enemy ships. As a result, the British built forts and gun batteries in Lei Yue Mun. In Yau Tong, you can see the remnants of some of these battery walls, but not cannons, on Devil’s Peak, which is only a little over 200m high, but has some brilliant views of Junk Bay and the sea. You can also see Victoria Harbour as well though that is partly obscured. Despite its name, hiking Devil’s Peak isn’t that hard, but it does involve a long walk from Yau Tong subway station to the trailhead along a steep road (the Lion Rock hike is also the same – the walk to the trailhead from the subway is harder than the actual hike). Once you get onto the trail, it takes about 20 minutes or less to reach the summit and gun battery.


Just over the hill is the Lei Yue Mun gap

Looking to your right on Devil’s Peak lets you view Victoria Harbour, Wan Chai (left) and the rest of Kowloon (from the centre to the right)


Part of the gun battery 


The start of the trail

Junk Bay. Even such a secluded cove has a large residential complex 

Hong Kong kite, the local bird of prey

Photo roundup-Asian airports

When you travel a lot, whether as a tourist or an expat returning home, airports become a familiar place. In Asia, there are a lot of modern, large, and sleek airports. It’s even better when they are attractive or have interesting features, like the ones below.

Taiwan’s Taoyuan Airport might be small but the slanted latticed roof of Terminal 1’s immigration hall is a very attractive and welcoming sight for visitors, especially with the reflection on the floor. Every time I see this roof, I never fail to be impressed.

I’ve passed through Hong Kong’s airport, one of the largest in Asia, so many times but it’s still one of the best I’ve been too. The Terminal One departure gates as well as the newer and smaller Terminal Two check-in hall are attractive, especially the wavy ceiling of the latter.

Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport is another large and attractive one in the region. But despite the throwback metal shed-like appearance of the check-in hall, the departure gate area is another story.

Beijing’s airport is one of the largest in the world but even then, it isn’t as modern as Hong Kong’s airport, as sleek as Bangkok’s, or welcoming as Taipei’s. As with a lot of things in China, size and grandeur take priority over actual convenience and warmth. It does have a cool red ceiling with a layer of stripes below it.


Kuala Lumpur’s airport features a unique brown, lumpy ceiling that is probably based on indigenous hut design.