Doing the unthinkable in Hong Kong- slowing down

I’ve been spending some time in Hong Kong recently so I think it’s fitting I publish this short essay below which I first wrote last year on whether Hong Kong should try and slow down.

As a major regional business hub, many Hong Kongers take pride in working and talking quickly. An English-language book released by a local well-known HK writer a few years ago (and which I bought) was titled “No Place for Slow Men,” implying only fast doers thrive in Hong Kong. Indeed, Hong Kong is full of fast talkers and movers and shakers. But is this really something to continue to be proud of?

While Hong Kong is a bustling business hub that tops many business-related lists, it has developed an unabashed money-first mentality and a stressful society that lags in certain measures of livelihood including happiness. Maybe Hong Kong should take a look at elsewhere in the region.

Take Taiwan as an example. The stereotypical image of Taiwanese are of people that are laid-back, friendly and not in a rush. While there is a lot of truth to it, the fact is the “laid-back” Taiwanese are not sitting around relaxing and doing nothing. Many working Taiwanese face just as much or even more stressed than their counterparts in Hong Kong. Salaries are much lower, annual leaves are shorter, and working hours are among the highest in the world.

Frankly, as someone who has worked in both Hong Kong and Taipei as well as on the mainland, my Hong Kong colleagues were no more hardworking than those in Taiwan or Beijing, actually took more days off and seemed the most happiest, spending much more time hanging out in the office and chatting.

When it comes to customer service, the difference between Taiwan and Hong Kong is like night and day. And the politeness is matched by efficiency. As someone who has lived in Taiwan, I can safely say that going to the bank, hospital or convenience store is almost always a quick and efficient experience. Over the last decade, I have flown on Taiwanese airlines Eva Airlines and China Airlines as well as Cathay Pacific many times and I would say service on Eva and CA are better than Cathay, especially in recent years.

Going beyond work ethic and customer service, Taiwan has achieved significant progress in areas like recycling and e-government.

In Taipei, residents must separate food waste, paper, plastics and regular garbage into different bags so they can be recycled accordingly. In contrast, the HK residential building I lived in did not offer any recycling so I had to take my paper waste to the public bin out on the street or even to my workplace. The local recycling industry is small as the vast majority of Hong Kong’s waste is sent to mainland China. Hong Kong has no paper recycling plants nor is food waste able to be utilized. Hong Kong is however set to implement a new garbage fee on the public to help reduce waste. Similar schemes have already been undertaken in Taipei and Seoul, while Hong Kong’s will start, not right away, but sometime in late 2019. It is striking that the speed with which Hong Kong authorities approach business-related matters is not replicated in policies that are not economic-related.

Let’s also look at Hong Kong’s regional rival Singapore. Almost every other week, it seems there is at least one article in local media about yet another area in which Singapore has outperformed Hong Kong. Yet I remember once overhearing in my workplace elevator a Hong Kong lady give her opinion on Singapore to someone next to her, “It’s alright, but the people walk so slowly there! They are not fast like us [Hong Kongers].”

Nevertheless, those Singaporean “slowpokes” have outpaced Hong Kong in things like Smart City initiatives and mega-projects like Gardens by the Bay and Sentosa. One can just as easily look at the more spacious and green urban layout and the affordable and bigger public housing flats, and see a big gulf between Hong Kong and Singapore in the latter’s favour.

Hong Kongers might still revel in thinking they walk and talk very fast, but that hasn’t prevented others from overtaking them in many aspects. As unpalatable as it might sound to Hong Kongers, being less obsessed with moving fast, taking the time to concentrate on issues other than business, and being more considerate might actually be a good thing.

Maybe it is time Hong Kongers should consider slowing down a bit, and realize fast is not always the best.

Hiking Hong Kong’s Dragon’s Back

Dragon's Back, Hong Kong

For such a tiny place, Hong Kong has some really great hikes. The Dragon’s Back is probably one of the world’s most scenic and pleasant coastal hikes. Located on the southeastern tip of Hong Kong Island on a peninsula jutting out into the sea, Dragon’s Back is a mountain ridge that overlooks Shek O Bay. Besides the views, what makes Dragon’s Back great is that the hike is only a short bus ride from a subway station.

The hike starts from a path next to the To Tei Wan stop, which I got to on the #9 bus from Chai Wan subway station. Before you get on the path, you can enjoy fine views on the opposite side of the road (this being the west side of a peninsula) of Tai Tam bay and a ringed apartment complex. The path goes up a long flight of stairs but once you reach the top, it’s a nice walk along a ridge during which you enjoy unobstructed views of Shek O Bay, beaches, villages, and the Tai Tam headland.

Dragon’s Back is a very well-known hike and I’ve heard that the trail is full of people on weekends as it’s popular with locals, expats and visitors. As such, I chose to go on a weekday when I had free time so there were only a handful of people.

After Dragon’s Back, the trail heads gradually downward to a forest path on the hill that goes on a clockwise loop (see the map on this site) down to Big Wave beach. It’s a completely different sensation walking along this path shaded by trees, vegetation and streams after the wide open views from Dragon’s Back. This trail is also section 8 of the Hong Kong trail, a 50-km islandwide route that goes across the entire Hong Kong Island.

The loop adds at least an hour to the hike and while it is not hard, I had the misfortune of tripping over a large brown snake while staring at Googlemaps on my phone. Luckily, the only harm I suffered was a huge fright that resulted in me jumping twice (the first after I tripped, and the second after I realized it was a snake and not a long piece of rope). I definitely learned my lesson not to stare at my phone while walking along quiet forest paths.

The forest path eventually reaches a concrete clearing where it diverges into two paths heading in opposite directions. I took the path to the right and walked all the way (there are at least two side paths on this trail you can use to head back down if you don’t want to continue onwards) to Big Wave beach, then proceeded to Shek O village in a taxi shared with a HK couple (who kindly paid the full fare and refused to accept money from me).

The village features a headland, where you can look out on the South China Sea. While it’s probably a 10-15 minute walk between Big Wave beach and Shek O village, I was not in the mood to walk after just completing a 3-hour hike.
Dragon's Back, Hong Kong
Dragon's Back, Hong KongDragon's Back, Hong KongHong Kong
Forest trail on the way down from Dragon’s Back
Hong Kong Hong Kong Shek O, Hong Kong
Shek O village
Hong Kong
Big Wave beach
Hong Kong
View from across the road after getting off at the bus stop
Hong Kong
Shek O village

Have a Merry Christmas

Hong Kong
Christmas is almost upon us so I’d like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season. I hope for those of you who celebrate it, you can have a great time with good fellowship and good cheer. Enjoy these photos of Hong Kong, specifically Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. The extravagant giant crown in the top photo is from 1881 Heritage, the former colonial Maritime Police Headquarters.

Hong Kong

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
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