Hong Kong

Is Hong Kong a world city?

To some people, this question is obvious. Hong Kong is one of the world’s greatest cities, almost on par with New York and London, basically “Asia’s World City,” according to them. But they are wrong. While this may have been true a long time ago, maybe even up to 15 years ago, despite what some people profess, Hong Kong is not and is actually moving further and further away from being a world city every single day. There are experts who have made this claim and they look at macro-political, economic and governance factors, but I think just looking at society tells its story.

Now Hong Kong is a top financial hub. It is also unique as a city-state that has its own flag, currency, administration, police, educational system, and legal system. But it is not a city that can call London and New York its peers.
First, a great city is strong in more than one area. If you look at New York, it is the US center of gravity for arts, media, advertising, business, finance, tourism and so on. London can claim a similar status for business, arts, media, education, and political power. In Hong Kong- finance, yes, but nothing else. Going through key areas, the situation is bleak. In sports, there is the Hong Kong rugby sevens annual tournament which is certainly well-known, but no other major events. Its entertainment industry used to be well-known regionally, back in the 80s and 90s, but its singers and movie stars are no longer famous outside of Hong Kong. It may be a financial hub and boast some incredibly rich tycoons, such as Li Ka-shing, one of Asia’s richest men, yet none of its companies dominate banking or finance. HSBC is not a Hong Kong company despite its name, while AIA may be one of the world’s biggest insurance companies, but it is headed by a Westerner and was spun off from AIG. Customer service is alright at best, often dismal and sometimes downright rude. You can easily find better service in Taipei, Tokyo, and Seoul. And Hong Kong doesn’t produce or develop much of anything, so there isn’t anything here that you can’t buy elsewhere.
Also, a great city should be the most important city in its own country, for example, London in the UK, Paris in France, Toronto in Canada etc. Hong Kong, however, isn’t even the most important city in China, or even the second.

Second, a great city should be multicultural. One might say Hong Kong has loads of expats, as well as Westerners and Indians who’ve lived in Hong Kong for generations, as well as a multitude of Southeast Asian helpers. But Hong Kong is still overwhelmingly ethnic Chinese (almost 95%) and its government and institutions are all run by ethnic Chinese with a thin layer of Westerners holding senior positions. Meanwhile, all those Southeast Asian helpers are temporary workers who fulfill an important role but who are not exactly part of regular society (they are not eligible to apply for permanent residency and are bound to live in their employers’ homes). Longtime Westerners may be doing alright as do some Indian business families, but a lot of South Asians who grew up here still struggle to get proper education, jobs and representation. Unlike Singapore, no non-white minority holds or has held a top governing or administrative post and there are hardly any minority faces in entertainment. On the contrary, it is common to see white expats hold positions of power in administration as well as business and education. Not that they are all unqualified, but this is both a reflection of colonial heritage and a lack of local leadership talent. Of course, by this same rationale of multiculturalism, regional metropolises like Tokyo, Seoul, and even Shanghai fall short and for the same reason, they are not really great world cities.

Third, some folks try to label Hong Kong as the perfect example of East meets West. However, the result is not so much a dynamic, unique blend, but a watered down mixture. That doesn’t mean there aren’t talented and quality people, because there are, but it’s that the society and culture does not create anything spectacular. The reason is probably due to a mix of factors like cramped buildings and streets, sky-high living expenses, animosity towards China’s growing control, and so on. There is a lot of negativity in Hong Kong between people, and I don’t mean my little rant here. The strong notorious anti-mainland Chinese sentiment still exists but I’m not just talking about that. A lot of Hong Kongers are trying to emigrate, even young people, which says something about how they perceive their future here. And to be honest, a lot of people, especially locals, some expats, and even the SE Asian helpers, don’t like it here and don’t like each other.

By being unable to be great at anything except as a business/finance hub and by failing to become truly liveable and truly integrate non-Chinese minorities, Hong Kong is not able to break out from its box. In a sense, it is already special, but more as a fading star still living on past glories.

This issue has perplexed a lot of people, including those who are more intelligent and informed than me. But in short, a city cannot be great if its only purpose is as a finance hub and that is pretty much all Hong Kong has got going for it.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong not always so modern

Hong Kong might look really sleek and modern, especially with all those tall skyscrapers in the Central business district, and fun, but underneath the facade, it is not easy. It’s a fast-paced, business-oriented city and it’s crowded with people and packed with buildings. Yes, Asia has a ton of people, but Hong Kong is much more cramped than Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul and a lot of other cities in the region.

But there are less obvious reasons why Hong Kong can be tough, and that is because in some ways it is backwards in terms of daily living.

But wait, surely that can’t be because as an international financial center and wealthy city state, Hong Kong is part of the first world right? Not exactly, judging by housing. A huge number of people, especially in Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, live in tiny spaces. Some of the poorest people even live in “cages,” which is atrocious. In addition, there are subdivided homes where an apartment is divided into compartments, each one for a tenant, which in some cases are families or couples. It’s not only limited to poor or working-class areas. There are apartments in middle-class areas where bedrooms are so small only a bed can fit into them or say, toilets are located right next to kitchens. I know from first-hand experience when I was apartment-hunting last year. And these are the poor ethnic Chinese Hong Kongers. If one looks at minorities like South Asians, there are problems with unemployment, poverty and street gangs.

Moving on, banking also comes to mind, which is surprising because Hong Kong is a financial center. Regular banking service is relatively efficient, but the problem is with certain tasks. For example, to change my address a while ago, I had to download a form from the website and mail it in. I waited a long time and eventually I found out they mailed a letter to my old address (by my relatives) saying the address change form had a problem and I had to come in to a bank branch to do it. Imagine if I hadn’t had been able to go back to my old address. To do a lot of things actually, you have to do that. Another example is that transferring money from the ATM to an account in another bank is not possible. That means you either have to withdraw cash and personally go to the ATM of another bank, or you can fill out a check but still go to another bank. In Taiwan, I could transfer money at the ATM from my account to dozens of other banks just like that.
But it’s a good thing I’m not an entrepreneur trying to start up a business because even opening a corporate banking account is almost an impossibility for some. It’s such a big problem that my workplace even had to organize an entire seminar strictly on the problem of opening bank accounts.

Another example is supermarkets, specifically checkout counters. Hong Kong is the only place in the world where supermarkets have small horizontal counters (think of a bank counter and imagine placing your basket of groceries on it). I mean, convenience stores have small counters because people usually buy one or a few items. However, when you’re in a supermarket and you’ve got a basketfull of items, your basket occupies the whole counter and the cashier is grabbing items from it, scanning them and then putting them back. I may be the only person in Hong Kong who thinks this is weird, but I’ve been to supermarkets from Trinidad to Sri Lanka to China and they all have proper counters, as in vertical and with conveyor belts and space at the back that let you pack things after they’ve been scanned by the cashier. Yes, space is limited, even in supermarkets, but it’s no reason somebody can’t modify checkout designs so that it is somewhat in the 21st century.

While these are issues at the ground level, Hong Kong also has major issues at higher levels that prevent it from being “Asia’s World City,” according to its self-proclaimed slogan. That will be another post for another day.

Books · China

Asia’s Cauldron- book review

The South China Sea has been the biggest flash point in Asia for the past few years, even though North Korea has stolen the thunder with its provocative missile tests in the last few weeks. Surrounded by multiple nations, but heavily contested by one that is furthest away from it, the sea is a vital conduit for regional trade with over $5 trillion worth of shipping passing through it each year. It is also rich in underground petroleum deposits. The nation that I am referring to above is China, which has expended a lot of effort in claiming and occupying islets and reefs in the sea that even extend into other countries’ waters. Asia’s Cauldron – The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific looks at this potential theater of war and the geopolitics surrounding it.

Kaplan outlines China’s rising military strength and capabilities, which last week’s news of China launching its home-built and second aircraft carrier provided a reminder of. China claims over the majority of the sea, using a dubious nine-dash map (first issued by the ROC in the mid-20th century) that supposedly shows that China historically had control of many islets in the sea. While this flimsy evidence does not have much ground in contemporary international norms or laws, China has disregarded this and continues to stand by its claims.

But yet, international conventions be damned, as other than economic collapse or a significant decline, China is set to dominate the region. However, while nations like Vietnam and Malaysia are obviously too small to confront China by themselves, the US support and cooperation among those countries can ensure a balance of power. Because to ensure stability and relative peace, balance of power rather than US domination is necessary. In other words, China’s rise must be tolerated and even given some breathing space, though the US needs to remain involved.

Kaplan also says that the South China Sea is potentially to China what the Caribbean is to the US, basically its maritime backyard over which which it has total domination. The US did this in the early 20th century and China is trying to do something similar. Of course, one difference is that rather than being filled with mostly tiny Caribbean countries, the South China Sea is surrounded by larger, older countries that do not readily accept Chinese domination.

So in addition to China, Kaplan also devotes a chapter each to key countries including Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia and Philippines, all of which he visited. He provides interesting and insightful observations of each country on their geopolitical situation,history, military, and society. Vietnam is the one most at threat from China, but despite its small size, it is a feisty country with a long history of resistance to Chinese occupiers and attackers from imperial times, not to mention its fight with the US in the Vietnam War.  Meanwhile, Kaplan surprisingly rates Malaysia highly, seeing it as a model Islamic nation that is also democratic and diverse. The chapter on Philippines makes for somewhat surprising and amusing reading, as Kaplan likens it more to a failing Latin American country than an Asian one, a result of its inefficient Spanish colonialism. In these country chapters, he provides a complete picture combining interviews, history and observations, as opposed to some writers who visit a country and use a few anecdotes or statistics to come to conclusions.

Robert D Kaplan is one of my favorite authors, due to his keen geopolitical views and insights on regions and conflicts around the world in Africa, Central Asia and the Balkans. He is famous for The Coming Anarchy, a 1994 essay that painted a very bleak picture of the world due to overcrowding, tribalism and environmental issues. But his writing is measured as opposed to alarmist or emotional. Even if you don’t agree with him, you will still learn something.

Asia’s Cauldron was published in 2014, but its topic and views are still just as relevant and vital now.

Books · Hong Kong

The Expatriates- book review

The title alone should provide a strong clue that The Expatriates may be set in Hong Kong but isn’t exactly about Hong Kong. But in keeping with Hong Kong, the expats in question aren’t your regular entrepreneur, copy editor or English teacher as in many other Asian countries but the ones on fancy expat packages, living a charmed life in mansions with Filipino maids/nannies/cooks, and high-end dining and yacht/junk jaunts. On the one hand, it is about privileged Western (mostly white), American expats living it up in Hong Kong, but on the other, it is a story with more substance than you’d expect.

When it begins, we are introduced to the three protagonists, two of whom mask a tragic secret which surprisingly is soon revealed. Consequently, the plot drags a little in the middle, but it does pick up towards the end and builds towards what could have been a predictable ending, but instead turns into a surprising finale.

The three main characters are American women at different stages of their lives whose fate is tied together by very unfortunate circumstances. One is a young, Korean-American, Columbia grad, another is a mom of young kids, and the third is a childless wife whose marriage seems to lack more than just children. At times, the details of the pampered lives of these well-to-do expats seem obscene, being something that is miles away from our lives, not to mention the poor and working class in Hong Kong. But rather than glorify the lives of those expats, it actually almost makes us feel a little sorry, but just a little. There is a very self-aware tone throughout the narrative about feeling as if one is putting your real life on hold and not being in reality, which is true when one has a 24-hour maid who caters for your every whim. But of course, this also reflects a major disparity between the lives of the characters in this book and  the more common expat life, which is that of putting up with greater challenges and hardships than you would face at home.

The funny thing about Hong Kong is that, as tiny as it is, it can sometimes seem like it comprises two very distinct worlds. This book is only about one of them, and even then, only a small segment of this world, specifically the highest-paid expats, the ones who could live in houses and actually not even have to pay for them. Add in the fact that pretty much most of the main characters are American expats, with nary an Englishman or Australian in sight, and one could wonder how much of this actually bears any relevance to most people living in Hong Kong. But yet, somehow the story is interesting enough, the details dramatic and the plot intriguing for the most part. It is a credit to the author, a Korean-American who was born and grew up in Hong Kong.

China · China travel · Travel

Huangshan photo round-up

As we get set to move into the Year of the Rooster with Chinese New Year coming up on the weekend, enjoy this photo round-up from a CNY trip to Huangshan a few years ago. While it certainly wasn’t the best time to visit the mountain, it was still enjoyable enough.

The subject of countless paintings, photos and literary references, Huangshan is one of China’s most beautiful mountains, and it is not hard to see why. Despite not being able to hike around the paths at the top in full and having to share it with thousands of Chinese tourists, I was still able to experience some of the mountain’s beauty and magnificence.
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Books · China · Travel

The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China- book review

China is a large, vast country with an area of 3.7 million square miles and though the majority Han make up 90% of the population, has over 50 ethnic groups. As a result, beyond the teeming megacities and factory zones, and the heavily populated Han-majority provinces, there is a lot of ethnic and societal diversity.

This is what former Sunday Telegraphy China correspondent David Eimer explores in The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China as he travels to the edges of modern China. A well-known Chinese proverb goes “The mountains are high and the emperor far away.” What this means is that in the outer reaches of the empire, the emperor is a remote figure and so is his rule. The modern equivalent of that saying is true in areas like Yunnan Province and the fringes of the Northeast. There, the government’s rule is not as firm as everywhere else in the country, and local non-Han minorities and cultures still thrive. In Tibet and Xinjiang, the very opposite is true as the full force of the regime is imposed, ranging from heavy army and police presence to repressive measures limiting or banning local religious practices and languages. Not surprisingly, these areas – Xinjiang, Tibet, Yunnan and the edges of the Northeast – are often considered exotic and fascinating to both foreigners and the Han (the dominant majority in China) Chinese. But there is also a tragic element to several of the peoples in these areas as well, as Eimer examines how these minorities like the Tibetans and Uyghurs fare after decades of Communist rule.

The situation in Tibet and Xinjiang, the most restive and repressed areas in China, is not surprisingly, rather bleak. Heavy-handed policing and harsh measures enacted against the locals have generated significant anger, the result of which can be seen now and again in the news with “terrorist” attacks in Xinjiang, which raise fears of an insurgency, no doubt played up by the government to justify their taking even harsher measures. Not only are Tibetans and Uyghurs not able to speak their language at schools or freely practice their religion, but their movements are restricted through measures like making it extremely hard to get passports, and they are unable to integrate into mainstream Chinese society.

In Yunnan, the province that has the most minority peoples in China and borders Thailand and Myanmar, a Wild-West atmosphere prevails in much of the borderlands. Here, the government practices a looser form of border control as there are several tribes who peoples live across different countries like the Tais. A thriving cross-border criminal trade exists, especially in narcotics. Eimer manages to travel across to Myanmar where he visits areas populated by minority tribes and controlled by drug armies, descendants of KMT soldiers who fled to Burma and stayed to cultivate opium.  The Northeast is more sedate, though the vast icy landscape belies the economic dominance of China compared to Russia just across the northerneastern-most border. In this area, Small ethnic groups, including the descendants of nomads, cling on while facing the obsolescence of their language and customs due to decreasing numbers, intermarriage with the Han, and modern-day integration. This is already the fate of the Manchus, a Northeast people who ruled all of China as the Qing Dynasty for over 250 years up to 1911. Interestingly, the ethnic Koreans in the Northeast provinces are allowed to have their own schools where classes are taught in their own language. There is also interaction with North Koreans across the border in the form of trade, people smuggling and marriages, but this is starting to get clamped down on by the government.

It is a book rich in travel, historical and ethnographic detail about a China so much different from the one often portrayed in more conventional travel books, whilst not shying away from illustrating the repressive rule of the Communist Party. It is also sad to ponder the fate of all the peoples mentioned in the book, many of whose cultures and languages are under threat in one way or the other. Simply put, The Emperor Far Away is about a China that is rapidly disappearing.

Hong Kong

A brief look at Hong Kong’s dire poverty

Today is a special day though not many people probably know. It’s the UN International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. While it’s not too well-known (I wouldn’t have if the pastor hadn’t talked about it at church), it marks a very important cause worldwide and in Hong Kong. Hong Kong might be a financial hub with a flashy skyline, the most expensive homes in the world, and GDP per capita of over $36,000, but poverty is a serious problem here.

So much so, that the poverty rate has increased and is almost near 20%, which the government admitted in a report released on the weekend. This is a shameful figure as it means almost one out of five Hong Kongers live below the poverty line. Hong Kong is often thought of as a rich city, and indeed the government is awash in cash, but the reality is more stark. Having lived here for more than half a year, I’ve seen so many old people on the streets sifting through garbage and collecting paper for recycling, as well as homeless and rundown buildings. It’s worse than Taipei, Taiwan’s capital city, which though its GDP per capita is not as high as Hong Kong’s, does not have as much homelessness, rundown buildings and old people going through garbage. On a side note, it is common to see old people working, such as security guards of residential apartments including my own, in Hong Kong and while some of they may want to, others are probably forced to continue working in order to live.

It’s kind of hard to get a visual representation of how bad poverty is in Hong Kong because there are no outdoor slums in Hong Kong like the ones you see in cities like Manila or Bombay. Instead, the slums are hidden and all indoors, made up of cage homes and subdivided flats and rooftop dwellings. Cage homes aren’t homes, nor rooms, but instead are bunk beds in rooms covered by wire mesh because each bed is a person’s home. A little less bleak, but also just as tragic, are subdivided flats in which families may live in rooms. A while ago I blogged about my apartment search and I complained about toilets next to kitchens. But for some people, the toilet is a kitchen as well. There is an ongoing photo exhibit of subdivided and cage homes which I viewed on the weekend that vividly illustrates the sad reality of these places. This isn’t even a recent problem because it has existed for many years with international media often carrying stories about this.

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Bathroom doubling as a kitchen
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Cage home

Of course, not all poor Hong Kongers live like this, as many do have actual apartments, but even then people are still struggling by. Obviously poverty exists everywhere, but there is no reason for a “rich” city state like Hong Kong to have a poverty rate of almost 20%. There are several reasons with the crazy price of property being a main culprit. High home prices also mean high rents, both in absolute and proportional terms. Public housing is inadequate, so much so that the waiting time on the public housing application list exists for years.

Meanwhile salaries haven’t kept up with rising home prices, and the paucity of state benefits like pensions and low minimum wage means a lot of working class people are struggling. Anytime there are attempts by social workers, unions and activists to try to get the government to raise social benefits, they face strong resistance from businesses and corporate interests. According to some Hong Kongers, you get what you work for and if you’re poor, that’s because you’re lazy and not working hard enough. Obviously, this is hogwash but this misplaced pride is what many here believe.

Anyways, it’s 2016 and Hong Kong’s poverty continues to be terrible while the abominable cage homes persist and increase.

Hong Kong · Taiwan

Taiwan number one for expats?

A couple of weeks ago, a major expat website released a survey of the best countries for expats to live in. You know which country topped it? Taiwan. On the InterNations Expat Insider Survey, Taiwan placed first due to quality of life and personal finances (affordability), both areas of life that it is very strong in.
In contrast, Hong Kong and mainland China dropped down the rankings, with HK falling 18 places to 44th. That certainly looks dire, but it is not that surprising given all the issues that HK has been coping with.

So did I make the wrong choice to move to Hong Kong to work? Well, no.
Because while it’s great to see Taiwan holding down the top spot on that survey, that doesn’t mean Taiwan is ideal to live and work in. To live in, yes, but to work in, not quite. Of course, one can’t discount the possibility that most of the respondents to this survey may be well-to-do professionals who get nice expat packages such as housing subsidies and so on. In that case, Taiwan would be great to work in. However, as an expat in a more regular job with slightly higher-than-average salaries and the same benefit packages as locals, working in Taiwan isn’t that good.

First though, why is living in Taiwan so good? The reasons are many – an affordable and accessible health system that covers everything from doctors to dentists to surgery, public safety, low cost of living especially in transportation, food and the aforementioned health system, and very polite and helpful people. Expats, even those who can’t speak Mandarin, can live relatively comfortable lives, save money, and enjoy good food and so on. The local health insurance system is extremely affordable (monthly premiums being roughly US$40) and provides coverage for both private (not all) and public hospitals and clinics and even Chinese medicine clinics. There is no need for foreigners to get expensive private medical insurance because as long as they are working in Taiwan, they are covered by the health insurance.
All of this is why I’ve said several times to people who asked, Taiwan is a comfortable and convenient place to live, especially compared to China and even Hong Kong.

However, when it comes to work, there are several factors that mitigate how great Taiwan is. Salaries are extremely low, the job market is limited, and so are opportunities to rise in companies. In addition, Taiwan is not a very international place, though Taipei is quite decent, and there is a very local mindset and not much knowledge or awareness of the wider world that constrains how Taiwanese companies operate.

Salaries haven’t budged much from many years ago, and fresh university graduates can earn starting salaries even less than those from 17 years ago. Things are somewhat better for expats, who by law have to receive at least about NT$48,000, which is still only roughly US$1,600 (and my first job’s wages didn’t even reach that). Fortunately, aspects of daily life like eating out and transit and apartment rents, even in Taipei, can be ridiculously cheap, especially again, compared to Hong Kong.

However, if low salaries can be bearable, there are not that many different type of jobs available for foreigners with English teaching, technical writing, and marketing making up the vast majority. Meanwhile, in the workplace, it is difficult for foreigners to get promoted, because of language and local working culture. There is no corporate ladder for expats to climb in local companies. Many Taiwan companies that operate in overseas markets are focused on China to a very heavy extent. Even at larger companies that are very active in many international markets, like a networking company I worked in, there were roughly 10 expats and only two, including my boss, were managers, and even then it was only one level above.

Taiwan could do much better when it comes to being more internationalized and attracting more expats.
Improving relevant work and immigration policies for foreign professionals would be a good start.
Unfortunately, Taiwan seems to continue to want to do things on the cheap. One proposed measure to attract more expat white-collar workers is to lower the requirements, including scrapping the NT$48,000 minimum salary. Now while this might sound like it will be easier for companies to hire foreigners, the question is why would expats be lured by even lower salaries than those being offered now? Perhaps those from less developed countries like the Philippines or India might be ok with low salaries, and this would indeed be beneficial to Taiwan. Though I’m not sure that engineers or IT specialists, for example, from those countries would indeed be satisfied and willing to relocate to Taiwan for salaries less than US$1,600. Even a government minister said earlier this year salaries were too low to attract expats, though the unspoken question is what is the point of lowering the salary requirement in the first place.

Companies also need to consider other markets beyond the local one and China, and with the government’s new “going south” policy which supports firms in expanding into Southeast Asia and India, there may be a greater need for expats and hence, more jobs.

It is good that Taiwan got some recognition for being a great place for expats but it’s still got some ways to go.Still, getting more expats to come to Taiwan would be beneficial. Taiwan itself is not a very diverse society, and neither is the expat community, which is mostly Western and male. In this sense, Beijing and Shanghai have much bigger and broader expat communities. So yes, Taiwan is very convenient and rather pleasant for expats, but it isn’t the land of honey that being termed the best place in the world for expats might cause one to think it is.

Myanmar travel · Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Myanmar travel- Mandalay

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My last travel post about Mandalay was actually about the ancient royal towns around the city, so this one is about Mandalay proper.
The city may be Myanmar’s second city and the former royal capital, but it isn’t exactly a tourist hotspot. One reason is the country has other more interesting places like the former capital Yangon (Rangoon), the ancient temples of Bagan and myriad scenic destinations like Inle Lake. Another reason is that bombing during World War II destroyed much of Mandalay’s royal palace, which was eventually rebuilt on the same site. Granted the rebuilt royal buildings probably look the same as the original and the complex itself is an incredibly large site completely surrounded by a moat, but it didn’t appeal to me so I didn’t visit.

I instead went to Mandalay Hill, one of Mandalay’s main attractions which provides great views of the city, the Irrawady river and the mountains and plains to the north and east of the city. Mandalay Hill is also supposedly where the Buddha visited over 2,000 years ago and prophesied that a city would be built at its foot. Just 790 feet, Mandalay Hill takes less than a couple of hours to climb, but since it was so damn hot and I had a driver, I took the easy way up courtesy of his car. From the parking lot, I entered a building with an escalator that went to the top. The hill has several temples on top, which is not surprising in this very religious country, at least in the Buddhist parts. There were gleaming and ornate gold stupas, statues of hideous green cartoonish ogres and a female deity Sandamukhi who supposedly cut off her own breast to offer to the Buddha as a sign of her devotion, monks, and even sleeping dogs. There were also some locals, many of whom were themselves tourists, and they were flocking around white tourists to take photos (this happens a lot in China in smaller cities too).
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Kid with thanaka (local sunscreen)-smeared face
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The ogre Sandamukhi who pledged devotion to the Buddha. I’m not sure if the dozens of little ogres behind her are her offspring.

Back on the ground, my driver, the same one who had taken me to the places around Mandalay the previous day, took me to the Kuthodaw Pagoda which features over seven hundred of white stupas, each housing a [sculpted] page of Buddhist scripture, which together made up the world’s largest book. When I went inside, I was immediately met by two female postcard vendors, which happened many times at Bagan and other places. The first one left me when I promised to see her postcards when I was leaving, but the other one didn’t quite let up so easily and followed me a bit. I walked around to take in the sights, and I bought postcards from the  first vendor as promised. As I was leaving, the second girl, who had a nice golden leaf design painted on her cheek, really got to work on her sales strategy. I tried telling her I had already bought postcards, to which she was having none of it, replying in charmingly broken English, “My friend happy, I not happy!” Whenever I tried to cut her off and say no, she’d say something like “Really? You buy from me? Please.” Usually I try to be firm with vendors who are too forward but this girl was just too much and I ended up buying postcards from her too.

I then went to Sandamuni, which also featured a giant golden stupa and countless white stupas arranged in neat rows that collectively had a dazzling effect. It resembles Kuthodaw Pagoda, though I found this one more attractive. The over 1,700 stupas (not a typo) each house a slab featuring Buddhist teachings and commentaries, a vivid example of just how seriously the Burmese, those that are Buddhist in this case, take their religion.

After Sandamuni, I stopped by a wooden teak temple and Kyauktawgyi Buddha Temple, which featured a massive hall with walls and pillars covered with green decorations. By then, I had had enough of temples and I was ready to head back. I left Mandalay later that night by overnight bus, which I had booked in advance. It was clean and spacious and I recommend it as an alternative to taking a plane or train. The journey back to Yangon was uneventful though at times, I felt a little jittery as the bus drove on the highway in near total darkness. By the time it was close to Yangon, the bus made a few stops where people got off and the emptier it got, the more apprehensive I felt about missing my stop. As it is, the final stop was the Yangon bus terminal which by then, I was relieved to reach.

That is until in my early morning drowsy (6 am) and sleep-starved state, I accepted an offer from a taxi driver who was loitering in the station and ended up getting overcharged by him (lesson: never take taxis inside stations because they always overcharge tourists). What happened is he gave me a price, then as we were driving out, several guards stopped us and asked me what the driver charged. When they heard, they immediately told me it was too high and that the driver should charge me less. “OK, OK!” said the driver, but as soon as we drove off, he turned to me and said I had to pay the original price.

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Sandamuni

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Entering Kuthodaw

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Puppets being sold by a vendor outside a temple
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One corner of the enormous moat that surrounds the (rebuilt) Royal Palace
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Kuthodaw Pagoda’s giant “book”
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Page housed inside a stupa

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Temple on top of Mandalay Hill
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Hong Kong

HK’s dire apartment rentals

My home search was concluded a few weeks ago, which is why I can now safely blog about it in good humor. First, home prices in Hong Kong are no joke. All those articles and rankings showing HK homes being the most expensive in the world are not exaggerating. Rent is not much better because unlike say, Beijing, rents are just as expensive in comparison to sales prices. That is why, visiting over 20 apartments, at least five agents, and four parts of Hong Kong Island, my search spanned two months and almost drove me despondent at the ridiculous prices and sheer lack of good choices. In the end, I found a decent enough place which exceeded my original budget by a bit, and that was after negotiating a price cut from the landlord.

First, I do have to say that home prices do vary in Hong Kong depending on your region. HK Island is the most expensive, with some of the most eye-popping and nauseating prices you will ever see for an apartment (mind you, not a house) though obviously I’m not living in those, while Kowloon is slightly cheaper albeit less Westernised and a bit shoddy in some parts. The New Territories, which is the biggest, most rural, scenic and spacious part of HK, is the cheapest but it is also the furthest from HK Island.

If you live in the NT, especially in the more northern parts, you will face transit times of an hour or more one way to get to HK Island. I know this all too well, because when I arrived in HK earlier this year to start my job, I stayed with a relative near Yuen Long, and I had to take a bus to the West Rail, then take that to Kowloon, and switch to the subway. I couldn’t handle that in my “advanced age” – I did enough hour-plus commutes during my university years to not want to do that now – so I made the move to HK Island, where I work. I found a serviced “apartment” to stay in at first. In reality, this “apartment” was a room with a bathroom as well as items like a TV, hotpot and eating utensils. These serviced apartments are quite common in HK as they’re geared for people who want a place to live in for a month or two, so it’s ideal for travelers or people like me starting work in HK without an apartment yet. Why they’re called “serviced” is because there is room cleaning, though I didn’t even get that at first since I got a relatively cheap room. It was a little rough but I got used to it, even a little attached, as I lived in the room for four months.

I did consider Kowloon but since my “serviced” room was in HK Island and I got accustomed to life there, I decided to take the hit to my bank balance and find a place on the island instead. Also, earlier in the year, when I’d come to HK to interview, I stayed in a “hotel” in Jordan and it turned out to be a tiny room in a building located in a sketchy area that turned into a bustling and noisy street market at night. So that kind of influenced my decision to stay in HK Island as well.

When I started, I had a certain budget (HK$11,000 or US$1,350) but on my first day and with the first few places I saw, that budget was already being exceeded. I wasn’t too impressed by any of those places and even when I was, the asking price was too much. For instance, I saw a furnished studio I liked, but the price was HK$13,500 (almost US$1,700). Needless to say, I didn’t get it. I didn’t just stick with one agent as I looked around and checked out apartments with different agents. I looked around Sheung Wan, where I was, Central, Sai Ying Pun, and even HKU, where the university of that name is located.

But no matter where I looked, I didn’t really find any cheap places. I didn’t want walk-ups nor did I want any smaller than 200 square feet so that ruled out the real cheap flats. The ones that were just within my budget were either tiny or in one case, located on a steep road 15 minutes from the nearest subway station. Another one had a great sea view looking out onto the harbour but it was small and the bathroom was old and shoddy.
Besides being small, two really major no-nos for me were bathrooms right next to the kitchen (meaning you had to go into the kitchen to get to the bathroom), and bedrooms which were squarish rooms that were only big enough to fit a bed. Seriously, you could barely stand in these bedrooms, which were often found in 2-bedroom places. Because these apartments were only 200-something square feet, the landlord basically split a bedroom into two so it could be advertised as having two bedrooms. A third problem was toilets that doubled as showers, meaning the bathroom was so small you’d have to take a shower standing in front of the toilet.

I had hoped that July would be better than June but apparently, summer is really busy for the rental market because a lot of students and workers come to HK at that time. I found that prices were still around the same, and the decent places I found in June had all been rented out. I looked for more places but they were all either very pricey, old, or one of the issues I described above. Finally as I was running out of options and a bit desperate (did I want to live in my room for a fifth month?), I tried another real estate agency and the one place they had that fit my requirements turned out to be quite decent, which is the one I am staying in now.

Finally, when you find an apartment you like, there is the issue of signing the contract to formalize things. Before you can even move in, you need to pay the first month’s rent and a deposit of two months’ rent, as well as the agency fee equivalent to half a month’s rent, and my part of the stamp duty for the rental contract which was just HK$400. Luckily I’d saved up my first few paychecks otherwise it would have been a bit tricky. In addition, in Hong Kong, standard rental contracts are for two years and usually have a one-year break clause, which means if you move out before the first year is up, you still owe the remainder for the year. And I thought the three-months’ rent cancellation fee in Beijing for moving out before the contract was over was rough.

So if you want to rent in Hong Kong,  budget wisely and choose carefully. If you want cheaper places, live further away from Hong Kong Island, but  if you want to be on the island, then be prepared to spend a bit.

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Very decent view, but the apartment had a terrible bathroom and was completely unfurnished.
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A bedroom in a 2-bedroom flat. Once you squeeze in a bed, there’s practically no space for anything else.

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This is common in older apartments in HK but I can’t comprehend why you’d build the toilet right next to the kitchen, especially with the door facing the kitchen.