Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Singapore- first impressions


Singapore is one of Asia’s great success stories. Tiny and lacking natural resources, the city state managed to raise itself from an impoverished reject (it was briefly part of Malaysia before being kicked out) in 1965 to become one of the world’s richest nations and major financial hubs. Singapore manages to punch well above its weight in business, trade, tech, tourism, and regional politics. Singapore is also unique in that it was ruled by a legendary strongman who was very respected, feared and admired – the late Lee Kuan Yew, who passed away in 2015. Much of Singapore’s economic success and development has been credited to his leadership. But Lee also contributed to Singapore’s reputation as a nanny state due to severe laws that limit freedom of expression, dissent, and other more banal things (like chewing gum for instance). While supposedly a democracy, Singapore has been ruled by only one party, Lee’s PAP, which always wins elections in an overwhelming manner (PAP currently hold 83 out of 89 seats).

I visited Singapore last year for the first time, and I was prepared to be bored, but instead I was quite impressed by the buildings and attractions, and how modern the country was in general. There was a lot of open space and greenery, and places did not feel crowded, despite being a small country with over 5 million. While the population is about 75% ethnic Chinese, Indians, Malays and expats make up the other 25%, and this was apparent everywhere in terms of the people and the food.

My birthplace Hong Kong seems to regard Singapore as its main competitor, due to both being tiny city states that are thriving financial hubs and former British colonies. But from what I saw, Hong Kong is so far behind that there is almost no contest. As mentioned, Singapore felt so spacious and uncongested, in comparison to Hong Kong and its cramped buildings and sidewalks and very crowded spaces.

Also, Hong Kong has nothing like the Gardens by the Bay or the Marina Bay Sands hotel, which even though they often appear in countless photos , are impressive to see in person. I saw a lot of towers with rooftop gardens or plants strewn across the building itself, which besides supposedly being good for the environment also looks kind of cool. I’m sure Hong Kong might have similar buildings, but I haven’t seen any yet.

However, there were a few issues.
As spacious and clean as the streets and buildings in Singapore were, it often felt a bit too orderly. While not boring, I did feel like everything was a bit too perfect and artificial. In fact, parts of the city were a bit sparse like the riverside where the Asian Civilizations Museum was.

I also found the subway system to be kind of slow. For instance, I took the subway from my hotel in Little India to the airport, thinking it would take 1 hour, but in reality it took almost 1 hour and a half, which resulted in me having to rush to check in and scramble to my gate (I made my flight). Apparently, when going to Changi airport by subway, you need to get off at Tanah Merah station and wait for another train to go the final two stops, which took about 15 minutes to come. I hadn’t realized it would take so long because I thought that as a train going to the airport, it would be more frequent.
I also took the subway to visit a friend who worked there as an expat. Foolishly, I thought 45 minutes would be enough since I only had go less than 10 stations, albeit transferring twice, but instead it took over an hour.

A very surprising issue is the dual pricing at attractions like the Gardens at the Bay, which means Singaporeans pay much less than tourists. While this exists across Southeast Asia, I was surprised at seeing this in Singapore since it is a very wealthy country (if anything tourists should be paying less than locals, but I know locals have contributed to these attractions through tax). Still, dual pricing doesn’t exist across Europe, Japan or North America.

It may not be a place to stay for too long or go wild and let loose (go to Thailand for that) but Singapore is a very interesting small country that is an oasis of calm and order in Southeast Asia.




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Hong Kong · Taiwan

‘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.

Books

Crazy Rich Asians- book review

Even though Crazy Rich Asians and its two sequels have earned a lot of acclaim, I held off on reading it for a long time because I wasn’t sure I cared about the lives of rich, high-class Singaporeans/Asians. Especially when the main plot centers on an American-Chinese girl, Rachel, flying to Singapore for the first time with her boyfriend Nicholas, whose family is one of the country’s wealthiest. Why would I find a romantic love story filled with wealth and extravagance interesting? Well, I did read Crazy Rich Asians, and I have to admit I found it interesting and more.

First off, the romantic plot is actually not the main point of the book – the lifestyle of the wealthy and elite Asian is. After getting past the convoluted beginning, which seemed to introduced several dozen characters (a mild exaggeration) and their backstories which focused on how rich they were, the story became more fascinating. That it is almost wholly set in Singapore, with a bit of Hong Kong and China included, made it interesting to me because I know little about the country. More specifically, it introduced the idea of a Singaporean old-money elite, which is distinct from the merely wealthy in the scale of their wealth, sophistication and their place in society. I suppose this is similar to the UK. The plot progresses from a simple trip to more complex and disturbing developments involving plots to break up the main couple, family fights, and illicit affairs. Rachel and Nick are coming to Singapore to attend Nick’s best friend’s wedding, where Nick will be the best man and which all of Singapore will be crazy about. However, despite being together for a year, Nick hasn’t told his parents about Rachel. But even worse, he hasn’t told Rachel about his family, which leads to obvious complications. In addition, there is a plot twist involving Rachel’s background that adds a poignant piece to the story and will have further repercussions.

The book is not without its faults. The main male protagonist, Nicholas, was rather boring, and both him and his girlfriend were not the most interesting couple in the book. The narrative can get too caught up in superlatives, especially concerning physical appearances. For instance, almost all the main male and female characters are exceedingly handsome or exquisite beauties. On the other hand, Rachel’s Singaporean best friend, while also wealthy, belongs to a different class – nouveau riche – and her parents and brothers are all short, and the latter dark-complexioned. While the book is described as a satirical parody of wealthy Asians, I found that at times it was quite serious and seemed to have a reverential tone towards its characters. And the sheer vapidity was quite overwhelming in a few parts, such as the wedding of Nicholas’ best friend and a local supermodel.

Despite its flaws, Crazy Rich Asians was an exciting read that turned out to be a guilty pleasure and more.

Uncategorized

Goodbye (and good riddance) to 2017

With days left until the end of 2017, it is with a lot of disappointment that I look back at this year and a lot of concern to the new year.
The world is no less messed up than it was at the beginning of the year, and as if to underscore the point, December saw several major tragedies including a deadly train crash in the US, a massive mall fire in the Philippines, a tragic gym fire in South Korea, a mass shooting in an Egyptian church, as well as terrible fires in New York and Mumbai just this week.

The American president continued to make a mess, while the UK struggled to come to terms with its Brexit decision. There is already more than enough written about the US president and his antics online and in print, so there’s no need to mention him further here. China under Xi sees itself as the world’s true superpower, though cracks appeared in its facade, most notably with its recent forced eviction of tens of thousands of its poorest people from Beijing. As China seems to get stronger, its economic debt problems might worsen next year while its technology-enhanced grip on society and information shows no sign of abating. Also, it has kept up a belligerent approach towards Taiwan, with a Chinese diplomat warning China would invade Taiwan if any US naval ship was to visit, and ramping up military drills around Taiwan and claiming this would become normal in the future. However, China has faced pushback from countries like Australia and New Zealand about its illicit activities overseas, as well as increased resistance to its nebulous Belt and Road “project.”

The Rohingya tragedy stunned the world when over 600,000 Rohingya were forced to flee Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh after a military campaign to destroy their settlements and kill Rohingya. It is a massive disappointment given how far the country had come from its authoritarian past in just a few years, and Aung San Suu Kyi went from a symbol of hope to one of disappointment and complicity to what many saw as genocide.

But beyond human rights and the continued political theater of the US and Europe, one of the biggest developments in the West was a backlash against technology as people started to realize that not everything related to technology was positive. Not only does technology not solve everything, it can make things worse as with the proliferation of fake news and propaganda on social media. And worse yet is that the growing use of technology such as smartphones can have a detrimental and addictive effect on people. Major tech executives and insiders have spoken out about the dangers of tech and social media, going so far as to ban their own kids from using it. The growing glorification of tech in the past few years has seen tech entrepreneurs acclaimed as superstars, obscene amounts of money thrown into all kinds of start-ups, and “hip” companies acclaimed as vital disruptors of “staid” industries.

The other big development in the West was a stunning wave of sexual harassment cases that started with movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and grew to include directors, actors, chefs, comedians, tech executives, politicians, and even a former US president. It seemed like every day brought some new story about a different famous person, even those who were previously admired or liked a lot, being accused of serious sexual harassment behavior.

Hong Kong saw the selection in March of a new Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, who became the first woman to lead HK. But it also saw political farce in its legislation as four pro-democracy legislators were expelled from office for supposed problems when taking their oaths, as spurious a reason to eject elected lawmakers from office there is. Beijing continued to tighten its grip on HK and erode the “One Country, Two Systems” that enforces HK’s distinct status, including approving joint checkpoints (mainland officials will be stationed inside the station and mainland law will apply to those parts, thus violating HK’s mini constitution) at HK’s new high-speed rail station and openly urging HK to accept that it is “part of red China.”

Taiwan saw a few serious protests during the year as the ruling DPP, under president Tsai Ing-wen, found it a little rocky when they implemented or backtracked on some tough measures relating to labour hours and wages and pensions. Internationally Taiwan continued to be bullied by China, which besides increasing military flights near Taiwan and making belligerent statements, lured Panama away to leave Taiwan’ official allies at 20.

There are several other major tragedies elsewhere, such as Yemen and Syria (where civil war has raged since 2011), though at least ISIS has been defeated and in Europe the refugee crisis has improved from 2016. North Korea, with its childish madman leader, has kept on ramping up tensions, making nuclear war a growing, significant concern. This post is already quite long and I don’t want to keep going on about terrible events in 2017.

But while it might appear that a lot of this world is falling apart or in danger of doing so, maybe this is a necessary period of turbulence before serious improvement (politically, economic, cultural, etc) can occur.

With all that in mind, let’s look forward to the new year. Surely, 2018 can’t be worse, right?

Hong Kong

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”

Hong Kong

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

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

Hong Kong · Taiwan · Travel

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.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong hiking-Lion Rock


As one of Hong Kong’s most well-known mountains, Lion Rock is regarded as a symbol of Hong Kong’s working-class resilience as it developed into a prosperous financial hub in the latter half of the 20th-century. This originated from a local 1970s TV show called “Below the Lion Rock” about working-class families living in communities below Lion Rock.

At 495m, it is not very high but it commands the best views of urban Hong Kong, letting you take in Kowloon, Hong Kong island and even the smaller islets in the west. To have so much of Hong Kong spread out below you is a fantastic feeling, though one which you will likely have to share with dozens of people around you on the peak. Lion Rock also has a special role in recent politics as a physical platform to express ideas. Since the Occupy Central protests in 2014, Pro-Hong Kong democracy activists have scaled its cliffs to hang political banners, which were then promptly taken down by the police.

I climbed Lion Rock from east to west, going from Wong Tai Sin MTR station to the Shatin Pass Road, going up the trail head there, and coming down by a small garden to Chuk Yuen Road. I followed the directions here, which is an excellent site for Hong Kong hikes. The walk to the trailhead on Shatin Pass Road was probably the most gruelling part. It is a funny trait of several Hong Kong hikes that the walk to the trail is much tougher than the actual hike itself. The Peak hike on Lugard Road is the same in that the walk to the trailhead from Sai Ying Pun station is the most arduous part.



Continue reading “Hong Kong hiking-Lion Rock”

Hong Kong

Always a first time for everything

For most of my working life, whether I was in small companies or big ones, in Taipei or Beijing, I’ve had the good fortune of working with people who I got along well with, respected, and befriended. Since this happened regularly, I considered it normal to have pleasant work experiences. I have had a lot of great Taiwanese, Chinese mainlander, Western (English, Scottish, Welsh, Australian, Canadian, American etc), and Asian (Singaporean, Indian, Korean etc) colleagues. You might notice a certain omission on this list so please read on.

Sadly, this good colleagues “streak” came to an end in my last job, which I left recently. Now, this wasn’t the main reason I left (that would be issues concerning the work role and responsibilities so I won’t touch on that here), but it was a major factor. Because it’s just not good when you work with people who don’t respect you and vice versa. What bothers me is that I have no idea what was the cause of this problem with my colleagues, which went on for over a year up to the very end of my time there. I never had any disputes with anybody, never undercut anybody, and never disrespected people, whether my peers or juniors.

From the start, there were a few people who didn’t like me for some reason. They so disliked me that they became fixated on me. What started as petty gossip from these people, from my own team, about me became more vicious and blatant. They also did things like search for me online, including finding this blog and talk about things I’d written (and not in a good way). Even worse, they also spread their gossip about me to other colleagues. I tried to stay professional and remained polite with people, including the very ones who started this, but this still went on. During a very hectic period earlier this year where I had to handle several tough projects simultaneously, I decided to limit myself to perfunctory greetings (some not even) with most colleagues and ceased attending certain voluntary office events, which made some people realize that I was aware of what was going on. Instead of letting things dying down or deciding to repair the situation like adults, my colleagues aggravated the situation even more. And that’s when I really lost a lot of respect for some people and started wondering about whether I really wanted to work with them. During this time, I also had to deal with a lot of complications in handling the aforementioned projects, and this reaction (not the original gossiping, but the fact they escalated it) helped convince me to make my decision.

I don’t regret it. Truth is despite what you may have heard about Hong Kong, I’ve never been in a workplace where so many colleagues spent so much time hanging out and gossiping during office hours. It’s not like I’ve never chatted or joked with coworkers at my previous jobs, but not to the extent where we were doing it all the time and disrupting others in the middle of the day. I’ve also never been in a workplace where young people, specifically those in my team, were the ones gossiping so much (maybe this is a Hong Kong thing). In the end, I was more disappointed than angry at them.

I was a little at fault for trying to tolerate this for so long and not taking steps to resolve this situation like directly speaking to some of the people involved. I’ve never been good at confronting people and especially not at work. Also, in general, I believed that people usually behave with decency and hoped that my colleagues would act like adults in the end. But, as with many aspects of life, problems never go away if you just ignore them and refuse to deal with them. Sometimes you need to either confront or call out people for their bullshit. Of course, if the job was worth keeping and staying on, I would have tried doing this.

In the end, I’m not sure if what I experienced was normal in Hong Kong workplaces or if it was that I had some particularly devious and negative colleagues. Either way, whenever any Hong Konger boasts about how hardworking Hong Kongers are, I have a great comeback.