Who needs April Fools Day anymore?

April 1 is tomorrow and I’m sure most of us know what that means. But the thing is who needs April Fools’ Day now, when it seems like idiocy and absurdity are around us all the time in the world? Paraphrasing a comment I saw on an online forum about a Southeast Asian country, I can extend it to the world and say it’s almost as if every day is April Fools.

The most obvious example might be the UK and its ongoing Brexit mess. Despite the original deadline actually having just passed (April 29), the British parliament are still unable to decide what they want to do. Every day there is some kind of vote, which always fails, and the prime minister even promised to resign if MPs would support her bill, but even then she failed. The British parliamentarians can’t agree on whether to support Brexit, whether to hold an election, whether to have a full or a partial Brexit. It’s a little frustrating to me so one can imagine what lots of British people must be thinking.

In the US, you’ve still got a joker in power but at least he’s not a Russian stooge, or at least there wasn’t enough proof. It hasn’t stopped Donald Trump from feeling even more confident and giving his enemies verbal jabs in bombastic speeches and tweets.

In Hong Kong, the government has decided to solve the problem of inadequate public housing and supposed lack of land by building thousands of homes on new man-made islands in the sea. And it will only cost at least US$80 billion (HK$624 billion). Keep in mind this is Hong Kong, which boasts one of the world’s most pro-big business, pro-tycoons governments, and one would have to be dreaming to think that US$80 billion will be spent on affordable housing.

With all this nonsense happening in real life, it’s going to be tough to come up with convincing April Fools’ stories. Talking to colleagues last week, maybe only something uncontroversial and banal would do like “UK leaders decide what they want for Brexit” or “Donald Trump says [something sensible]”.

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

2018 roundup

Taipei, Taiwan
As we come closer to the end of the year, I’ve got several things on my mind. First is that 2018 turned out to be a rough year for the world. While 2017 wasn’t so great, it seems like 2018 saw the world become more troubled. Donald Trump continues to baffle ad mismanage his own country, the UK can’t figure out Brexit, while civil wars in Yemen and Syria continue.

Taiwan had a decent year, though there was a shocking train crash in October that took 18 lives and injured almost 200 (train accidents are rare in Taiwan). However, the November local elections and referendum stunned and disappointed a lot of people. The ruling DPP party suffered huge defeats and lost many of Taiwan’s counties and cities, while the referendums showed Taiwan isn’t as progressive as many people had thought.

The bigger concern for me is the DPP lost big to the KMT, which is pro-China and openly intends to expand ties with China. As you know, China still claims Taiwan belongs to it, and continually launches provocative military flights, bars Taiwan from participating in international multilateral organizations (hence Taiwan is not a member of the UN), and even threatens invasion. It does not make sense to me for Taiwan to become more economically dependent on China and look to it as some kind of savior.

I still feel that Taiwan has several things that are going well such as increased investment from major international tech firms, a growing reputation for civic and political freedoms, and a president who is not afraid to stand firm against China. That said, President Tsai Ing-wen took a lot of blame after November’s election results, and was forced to step down as chairman of her party. Hopefully this will help her focus more on her presidency as she is freed from having to oversee the DPP.

China is going down a dark road, exemplified by its recent seizure of 3 Canadians on nebulous or made-up charges as revenge for the arrest of the Huawei CFO and founder’s daughter. China has also imprisoned over a million Uyghurs in Xinjiang in concentration camps or “reeducation centers,” for no reason other than to “re-educate” them. This was shocking when it was first reported, and China kept denying it. However, as more news and evidence came out about these mass detentions, China was forced to admit it though they still claimed that there was no sinister reason. China has also continued to threaten Taiwan with military planes flying close to and around Taiwan.

For me personally, the year was a bit mixed. I worked at a Taiwan company in a field that was new to me and things didn’t work out for various reasons. What was good is that I got to do more writing and was published in several major outlets. I wrote about China’s “victimhood” status which it exploits in international disputes such as against Canada over the Meng arrest, Hong Kong and the “Greater Bay Area“, about China’s state media’s global push, and the “disappearance” of yet another Chinese due to Chinese authorities. I also wrote about museums and arts attractions in Southern Taiwan, which I visited for the first time in many years. I also reviewed several books including a novel about Taiwan when its southern part was ruled by the Dutch and a travel book/memoir about a couple traveling around Taiwan.

I also did a little traveling. I hiked a mountain and visited ancient city ruins in Thailand, and I wandered through two superb Malaysian cities filled with historic buildings and street art. I also went to Kaohsiung and Tainan (first time in many years for both cities) in southern Taiwan, and I visited Hong Kong as well.

I do hope that 2019 will be better, but I feel it might be even more turbulent than 2018.

Ayutthaya, Thailand
One of the major temple ruins in Ayutthaya, the capital of Thailand before Bangkok
Penang, Malaysia
Penang’s oldest Chinese temple
Hiking in Hong Kong
Hiking in east Hong Kong, near Tseung Kwan O
Tainan, Taiwan
Tainan’s restored Hayashi Department Store, just as classy as it was 80 years ago
Ipoh, Malaysia
Mural of tin miners on the wall of the Hakka Miners’ Club museum, Ipoh
Lanyang Museum, Yilan, Taiwan
Lanyang Museum, Yilan, Taiwan’s northeast coast
Krabi, Thailand
View from Khao Ngon Nak, Krabi, Thailand

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

Why traveling solo is great

Ever since I started traveling as an adult, I’ve mostly done it solo. By now, it’s like second nature to go on a trip by myself to foreign countries and explore cities, historical sites, or travel around. I enjoy this a lot and I hardly feel lonely or strange. While solo travel seems to have become more popular worldwide, not many of my Asian friends do it, and I don’t often see other solo travelers on my travels, so I don’t think it’s common in Asia. The solo travelers I often see are from the West while in my many trips in China, I only met two solo Chinese travelers and one from Hong Kong.

Though I’m from Trinidad, as an ethnic Asian, sometimes I get some weird and noticeable reactions in Asia probably because locals don’t think I’m from the West and judge me like a local or an Asian. When I was working Hong Kong, I got stunned reactions when I mentioned to local colleagues (it was so incredibly unusual that some of them gossiped about it) I’d gone on a trip by myself (this was just one of many issues I had with those HK colleagues). I’d say there’s definitely a stigma attached to solo travelers in Asia, moreso if one is Asian and less so if one is say, white. I kind of get it, because of the strong emphasis placed on group interaction and behavior in Asian cultures. Whereas in the West, sometimes you want to be on your own and value some time alone to do things and ponder your own thoughts, in Asia, being by yourself and doing things alone is terrifying.

Despite this, it’s great to travel solo. There are a lot of advantages compared to traveling with other people. You determine everything, you set your own schedule, and you go wherever you want or do whatever you want. To me, it’s the closest you can come to absolute freedom. You are also fully responsible for what you do and can’t blame anyone for any mishaps. Traveling solo also makes you independent and helps you feel more focused on the places you visit and sights you see. When you are walking around and exploring places by yourself, unless you are daydreaming about something, you tend to pay more attention to things going on around you. Being able to set my own schedule is really important since I don’t like waking up early and I often don’t want to spend the whole day outside.

That said, I don’t mind talking to people I meet while traveling, whether on a long-distance bus or a half-day-tour or while hiking on a mountain. There have been times I’ve met good people while traveling, such as on my first trip to Southeast Asia several years ago or even in China last year, and we’ve visited places or hung out together. Ironically these were all mainland Chinese, though they weren’t traveling solo.

One thing that is key to having a good solo trip is to always have an idea of what places to visit and what to do. I never spend an entire day relaxing (not that there’s anything wrong with this, but it’s just not for me) or trying to find out what to do (yeah, I’m not spontaneous). I’ll always prepare a list of places to check out before my trip and then decide on my daily itinerary based on that list the day before. It’s the same with travel arrangements and accommodation – I always try to do it in advance.

There are also a few minor setbacks, of course. For instance, as I mentioned above, you can get strange reactions from some people in Asia (people in Asia can be very judgmental about a ton of issues). In contrast, I hardly got any awkward reactions in Europe (presumably there is more of a culture of solo travelers in Europe as opposed to Asia). It might be a little awkward to eat at fancier restaurants, though as I’m not a foodie and I usually eat at small eateries, this isn’t an issue for me. You have less room to haggle when getting rides that don’t have a fixed price since if you are the only passenger, you need to pay the entire fare. In some hotels, single en-suite rooms (with its own bathroom) are for two persons so you are paying for two even if it’s just yourself. But this also is relatively minor if you budget accordingly.

When I first started traveling, especially when I went to China by myself for the first time or to parts of South Africa by myself, I did feel a little wary about personal safety and being scammed. Since then, I’ve become much more confident. Of course, I still read up on potential problems and take necessary precautions such as being aware of where I am and not being too naive (for eg, if you need to look at a map, don’t do so in the middle of the pavement or an open area; don’t have all your money in one spot; watch out for pickpockets etc). Women might need to be a bit more careful with safety, especially in certain parts of the world like India. Ironically, when it comes to my Asian friends, I know a few girls who have traveled solo (including a Canadian-Chinese who traveled to India by herself more than once) whereas none of my Asian male friends have done that.

If you want to travel by yourself, whatever your age or gender, just do it. Ignore the skeptics and discouragement.