Friday, 12 June 2009


So all of Hong Kong's primary and kindergarten schools have closed - giving the children a couple of extra weeks off and the parents the joy of yet more time to fill. More time for the children to forget everything they've learnt this year, and more hours to get bored and fractious.

Actually, I have no problem with the schools closing. The government said that if students got sick all schools would close and they've been as good as their word. What strikes me a slightly strange is the trigger for this closure...

Twelve secondary school students have been diagnosed with H1N1 piggy flu!

(Yeah, yeah - I know. The school at which the twelve older students were diagnosed has also been closed, and this is a precautionary measure to protect the [usually more vulnerable - but maybe not with this strain of flu] younger children. I just found it vaguely amusing)

Only on Lamma (?)

Running on Lamma - can be hazardous

Finally the weather (if it’s not torrential rain, it’s scorching hot) combined with the lack of anywhere flat to fun has persuaded me to join a gym again. I used to work in the same building as Pure SoHo which was fantastic. I kept my shoes in the office and could pop down practically every lunchtime (they provide towels, gym kit, toiletries – everything you could possibly need). Even if I didn’t feel like exercising, I could always chill out (not literally) in the sauna and steam room. The convenience factor was instrumental in getting me exercising after a bit of a break since struggling through the Luton marathon.

Since leaving that job – and therefore the convenience of working right above Pure – I have been trying to get some runs in here on Lamma. This was just about bearable in the winter but recently the narrow crowded paths, killer hills and sapping humidity has been completely putting me off. So I’ve bitten the proverbial bullet and joined ‘Train & Tone’ – the Lamma gym.

And what a great experience. The ground-floor gym used to be run in a traditional manner, with a beauty parlour on the first floor (second if you’re American). But it wasn’t profitable and shut down just over a year ago (I think). The current owners run their own e-business on Lamma and went down to see if they could but some of the old equipment. One thing led to another and they ended up taking over the running of the gym.

With an average membership of just 35, a conventional business model was never going to work here. The time and/or wages to have someone on-site during opening hours simply cannot be covered by membership fees. So the gym (uniquely in my experience) is run not just as a private members’ club – but completely unsupervised.

Such is the trust shown in their members that before I’d even arranged my first payment, I was handed my key. Members are encouraged to limit their use of the gym to the hours between 5 am and 11 pm (in deference to the local residents) but otherwise it’s ‘open house’. Users are responsible for the lights, air-con, dehumidifier and windows (apparently it’s a favourite hangout for the local cats if their left open). A water cooler is kept topped-up and glasses provided (to be rinsed after use), and there is a none-too-shabby stereo for playing CDs or hooking up iPods. There are even spare towels in case you forget your own.

I’ve talked about the common view of Lamma as being a place that washed-up hippies gravitate towards, but I honestly can’t think of (m)any other communities where an initiative like this could be so successful. The owners (Rick and Soli) say they run the gym purely as a non-profit service for neighbourhood and it’s true that I’ve never used such a friendly gym. Sure, some of the equipment is a bit suspect – or missing entirely – but I think it’s great. Colour me very impressed. And boy has it made running a more pleasant experience!

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Gulangyu's Rubgy Invasion

Xiamen. Until a few months ago, Xiamen was just another port city in China that I only ever saw in supplier quotations. All that was to change a few months ago, though, when our (very much social) rugby union team were approached by the Xiamen Typhoons. Set up a couple of years ago, the Typhoons had yet to play a competitive match. With a few enthusiasts and many players who’d never laid eyes on the revered egg-shaped ball, they’d previously focussed on training and touch rugby matches. Now was time for a coming-out party.

And what a party. With the enthusiastic backing of the local community, and fantastic support from the business community, the Typhoons set about arranging the inaugural Xiamen Gulangyu 10s tournament. With just four teams (the Typhoons and Hong Kong’s Happy Valley Griffins were joined by the Guangzhou Rams and the Shanghai Hairy Crabs), the tournament would take place over just one day, with late kick-offs and plenty of time for the main event – the beach party. With painful memories of the recent Manila 10s tournament (leaving the hotel at 7 am two days running to get to the ground in time, and then hanging around until late), this sounded like heaven.

The cherry on the top of this rugby-flavoured icing was the ground on which the tournament took place. Gulangyu Island is to Xiamen as Shamian is to Guangzhou. A tiny colonial enclave, Gulangyu boasts no cars, some stunning architecture, and a 111-year old football pitch. Our mission was to show Gulangyu what they’d been missing all these years and, for the first time in its 111-year history, pick up the ball and run with it. That’s right, this was to be the first every rugby played on the beautiful Gulangyu pitch.

The Typhoons and Gulangyu ground staff had done a fantastic, innovative, job preparing for us. There were beer and food tents, plenty of shade and seats, and rugby posts approximated by leaving the football goals and adding bamboo uprights! So to the rugby. Luring the competition into a false sense of security with our receding hairlines, beer bellies, and magnificent tour shirts, we won the tournament. And then on to the beach party, to watch the moon rise over Taiwan in the distance, accompanied by fireworks. Spectacular. We may have won the rugby, but we were soundly beaten in the drinking ‘boat race,’ and didn’t fare much better on the bucking bronco either. Details, details.

I can’t wait for next year. My name will be first on the list for this tour, and I hope to spend a few extra days in Xiamen to see more of what looks like a fascinating place.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Back, with an advert

Wow! It's been over two months since I last posted anything here. Shocking.

I also notice that, despite the blog title, I have hardly yet talked about Lamma on these pages. Let’s try to rectify that with some thoughts about life here.

First, to get some stereotypes out of the way. Yes, there are some washed up old hippies here; and yes, there are an abundance of freelance journalists and full-time environmentalists here too. But the common perception of Lamma does a great disservice to the fascinating diversity of people here.

My favourite thing to do here is to take a quiet wander down the lesser-travelled paths, negotiating the stray dogs and their ever-present booby-traps, but negating the need to jump out of the way of the village vehicles. No cars on the island, you see, just what look like ‘estate’ quad bikes and, of course, the Bedford Rascal van that is our ambulance. God forbid a typical Westerner requires it; we’re too tall to lie down!

Leave Yung Shue Wan and its plethora of mouth-wateringly good Western and Chinese restaurants behind. Let the crowds of tourists head over the family trail past pristine semi-deserted beaches and on towards the famous fish restaurants of Sok Kwu Wan. And pass the returning commuters (lawyers; company directors; salesmen; and, yes, the odd kung-fu or yoga instructor, or part-time teacher) as they hit the bars of Main Street and pick up their vegetables from the grocery stores or market stalls. Before too long, you’ll see another side to Lamma. Subsistence fishing or farming villages abound, each one a fascinating slice of ‘the old Hong Kong.’ Here, mah-jong is played daily and long into the night, and life – to those of us accustomed to city dwelling – appears (forgive the cliché) hard but honest.

But, like much of rural Hong Kong, all is not well. The number of abandoned village houses and empty schools speaks volumes about a people that wish to move onwards and upwards. And good luck to them. As an expat, this exodus to urban areas seems a dreadful shame, but who am I to hope villagers remain forever so simply for their aesthetic appeal. I do hope, though, that Lamma will never lose sight of its inherent appeal as a place to get away from the vertiginous towers and relentless pace of life of Hong Kong or Kowloon.

So come visit Lamma, and see for yourself what draws such an assorted crowd here. Bring some food and use the bbq pits on the beach, or eat some of the freshest fish around – from the floating fish farms in Sok Kwu Wan directly to your table. Just don’t come on a sunny holiday weekend, when the roads are so full of pedestrians that gridlock ensues. If, that is, you haven’t been put off by the two-hour plus queue for a ferry.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Age-Old Problem

After the furore at the 2008 Olympics caused by suspicions that Chinese athletes were artificially inflating their years in order to beat minimum age requirements, it seems that the problem is heavily ingrained in Chinese sports. This time though, x-rays analysis by the sports ministry in Guangdong has found that a staggering 20 percent of youth athletes tested were older than they claimed – some by up to seven years!

Of course, the Olympic athletes in question were exonerated by an independent investigation. And it is also clear that age-fakery is just one of many problems facing sport worldwide. With drug abuse rife in athletics across the globe, this post should not be seen as portraying Chinese sports as worse than anyone else. Indeed, in the run-up to the Asian Games in Guangzhou next year, the authorities must be applauded for such attention to detail in, as they put it, making "sure fakers have no advantage."

However, with the Chinese Basketball Association discovering last year that some 26 players just from the top-flight league had misrepresented their ages, the problem does seem to be endemic, and I suspect the rumblings over Beijing 2008 will continue. Particularly since, as has been pointed out, in an authoritarian country with such strict control over official paperwork, falsification of documentation comes pretty easily. Add that to reports from individual members of the independent age-verification investigation team, stating their serious reservations about the exoneration, and one has to wonder how fair the record Chinese medal haul was.

Controversial? Maybe, but as I have already pointed out, the Chinese (if there is substance to these allegations) won' t have been the first to cheat at the Olympics, and you can be sure they won't be the last.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

The height of subtlety, or irony?

Wish I'd had my camera...

Parked right outside the Police Recreation Club on Saturday was a lovely looking Bentley (or Rolls Royce, sorry, I'm not so good with my luxury cars), bearing the glorious number plate 'SCARFACE'! Subtle, or ironic?!

Not really enjoying the weather at the moment, thank goodness we haven't got any visitors over for half-term / mid-term break - Hong Kong really isn't at her finest in this mist. It seems to me like it hasn't rained for so long it's forgotten how to.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Powering Up

Lamma's Power Station - Three Chimneys

When I started this blog I didn't envisage that so many of the posts would be environmentally focussed, but that's the sector I'm currently working in, so I suppose it's inevitable that my mind should be pointing in that direction.

Anyway, had a very interesting chat with the environmental officer of China Light and Power at a networking function last night. The conversation (as so many seem to) had already swung round to pollution before we found out what she did and she was then very nervous when I asked; she usually gets abuse from people who blame CLP and HK Electric for the terrible pollution here. Unfortunately, as this lady pointed out, it's not as clear-cut as that. The trouble is that a simplistic view of the situation shows that, now industry has almost entirely fled across the border into the Mainland, the power companies are the only major emitters left. So the choking smog must be their fault, right?

Wrong. That ignores the fact that while industry has indeed relocated into China proper, it didn't go far. So now factories that were previously regulated by Hong Kong emission standards are just across the border in Shenzhen and the Pearl River Delta. And of course the wind blowing into Hong Kong from the PRD doesn't respect (semi-)international borders, so along come all the nasties too.

One question I had to ask, even though the power station on Lamma is run by HK Electric rather than CLP, concerns one of the first stories I heard on arrival in Hong Kong. Just after choosing an easy to remember phone number consisting almost entirely of fours I found out about the superstition that (because it sounds like death) the number four is considered very unlucky here. An example related to me involved the Lamma power station, which supposedly started life with five chimneys. Soon it was decided that this was well over capacity, so one of the smokestacks was demolished. However, so unlucky were the remaining four chimneys considered that another was knocked down to leave the three standing today. CLP didn't know anything about this, so I have done some digging today.

It turns out, much as I would have loved to believe the story, that there is no evidence to back it up. Long-time residents can probably help me out here, but I think the Lamma power station was built with, and has only ever had, three chimneys.

Funnily enough, though, I did find a similar story that is true. HK Electric, who run the Lamma power station and supply energy to Lamma, Hong Kong Island, and Ap Lei Chau, used to run a power station on Ap Lei Chau. When it was brought online in 1968, this power station also had three smokestacks. The local community, however, were up in arms because of the similarities between the chimneys and the incense sticks used in ancestor worship and at funerals. In response, HK Electric did indeed build an additional, unused, chimney!

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

HK Electric and the Environment


Toward the end of last year the government announced a rebate of up to HK $300 per month on all electricity bills, supposedly to help the poor. A nice gesture, I thought, although coincidentally our first bill following the announcement was exactly the same as we were expecting without the rebate. Somehow we managed to use $300 more electricity.

Anyway, I haven't really thought much more about it until today. Our bill for last month was zero. Thanks to the cold weather we'd only managed to spend $292 on electricity, rebated down to nothing. Great, one might think, except that today I went in to switch off the dehumidifier because the washing was almost dry and then thought "well, we might as well make the most of the rebate – the bill's bound to be less than $300 again this month otherwise."

Thankfully, my conscience got the better of me and I did turn it off, but how many less environmentally responsible people took far less time than me to reach the conclusion that they have been given a licence to waste electricity?

Not sure that's had the desired effect at all. Surely if the aim was to help the poor a means tested system would be far preferable?

Edit: while writing this post I came across this blog saying a similar thing much better than I have.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Some Videos

Some not very good video of a Lion Dance just outside our flat.

And, from Christmas Eve, the hilarious Big Band (Hong Kong Youth Marines Band, I seem to remember) at HKIA. A brilliant way to start the holiday.

(Yes, that is the fabulous Barbie Girl by Danish pop legends Aqua)

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Blue Sky Thinking

Back from a fantastic week in Malaysia. Not always relaxing, but just the break from Hong Kong we needed. I loved KL. Such a diverse and culturally varied city; a real assault on the senses. From the sounds and smells of Little India (we decided there was no real need to see another Chinatown – incidentally, why is it Little India, but Chinatown), to the quiet magnificence of the Petronas Towers.

However, what I couldn't get over for the first couple of days was just how clear the air was. We could see! KL is roughly the same size as Hong Kong (certainly in population – both around seven million), and has a very familiar feel. Some stunning monoliths, some beautiful natural surroundings, some surprisingly run-down areas. But for all this, it was amazing what a difference a blue sky made. Much in the same way that getting back from Hong Kong Island to Lamma in the evening can feel like a weight lifting off my shoulders, I could feel my mood improving the more I looked up.

I'm certainly not alone in knowing of plenty of people who are actively considering moving away from HK to get away from the pollution here, and a familiar story is of expats who have really noticed their health deteriorate since moving here. Just yesterday I chatted with a colleague who has recently arrived after spending seven years in Singapore. After trying HK Island for a month or so, they felt they had to move to Discovery Bay to try to find some cleaner air. Another is having to move from Kowloon to Sai Kung to try to alleviate his daughter's asthma.

So what to do about it? Well, that's the thorny issue, isn't it? This site shows some of the strategies already in place, and (certainly compared with other major cities) it's actually fairly comprehensive and encouraging, but I feel that it is not executed with sufficient vigour or enthusiasm. There are also numerous non-governmental bodies doing their best to raise awareness (although anyone that has glanced across the harbour and not been able to see the other side should already have a fairly good idea of the scale of the problem) and implement solutions. The problem, however, is that tackling pollution sources in Hong Kong is only part of the battle. What to do about the smog billowing down the Pearl Delta from Guangdong and Shenzhen is quite another matter. However, the light at the end of the tunnel is that this pollution is often 'made in Hong Kong,' in the sense that the majority of heavy polluters in the mainland are HK owned. What is needed is for the government to be bold and introduce legislation that compels HK owned, but mainland located, polluters to meet rigorous emission standards. And, as is slowly starting to happen, planning legislation must be equally bold in preventing new developments from further preventing free air flow and thereby causing pollutant build-up.

Especially with the current economic situation, Hong Kong cannot just sit back and let the exodus gather pace, this is a key opportunity to do something about it.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Express Airport

Kung Hei Fat Choi!

We're off to Malaysia for the Chinese New Year holiday. A couple of days in KL (my first time), and then maybe a drive up to Ipoh and the Cameron highlands. Getting here reminds me of why I love this place: wander through the village avoiding the day-trippers streaming in, admiring the whole pigs being butchered and flanked by endless tanks of beautiful fish, then onto the ferry (the novelty value of commuting by ferry still hasn't worn off!). A quick five minutes through the IFC, with its Gucci and Armani provides a bit of a contrast, and then it's into the Airport Express to check in.

Traveling at peak times certainly has its benefits, I think we've now been upgraded something silly like five out of six segments! Checked in, so no bags to worry about, it's then only a maximum ten minute wait (they've just increased the frequency from 12 minutes, just for CNY?) for the next train straight into the terminal.

Unfortunately, no band piping us through the airport this time (unlike at Christmas), but security was a breeze and then not a single person queuing for the smartcard immigration machine. A quick left turn directly in to the first class lounge, and I just can't help comparing this experience with any other major city/airport!

And at least, unlike Ho Chi Minh for Christmas, this flight (at four hours, rather than two, is long enough to take advantage of being in business!).

So, Kung Hei Fat Choi, and see you when we're back.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Hong Kong's Addicts

No, not the drug addicts that are soon to be rooted out by random drug testing (if the government gets its way, that is), but it seems we're addicted to spending. Recent research from Synovate pinpoints Hong Kong as the most pessimistic of the four Asian markets studied (the others being Singapore, Malaysia, and Taiwan), with the UK as the most pessimistic globally (the release of these data also happens to coincide with figures finally showing what we already knew - that the UK is now officially in recession).

What is more interesting though is that a mammoth over 50 percent of Hong Kongers responded that, 'despite misgivings over their financial status, they were unable to refrain from spending at the same level as during a positive economic climate.' By contrast, only 25% of respondents from Singapore felt the same.

Well, we're either going to spend our way out of this recession, or we're going to have a bl00dy good time trying!

(Sadly, despite myself, I'm afraid I probably fall into the half of us here who still keeps spending despite all logic dictating otherwise)

The Hong Kong Trail

So, we've finally finished hiking the 50 km Hong Kong Trail. Not in one go, you understand - although some crazy people do the much harder MacLehose Trail in one fell swoop in November. In fact, rumour has it that I will be joining those crazies this year, but I'm not convinced yet. The average time is about 24 hours, but the winners last year completed it in a spectacular time of under 12 hours! They were ex-Ghurkhas, obviously.

Anyway, we took a rather more sedate approach to the HK Trail, only taking on one or two of the eight sections at a time. It was brilliant though, and really showcases the beauty (both rural and urban) of Hong Kong Island. Stage five, in particular, offers fantastic elevated views over the rolling hills of the South side of the island, with its heavy dusting of lush green trees and sprinkling of emerald reservoirs glinting in the winter sunlight, the peace only broken by hawks soaring below, looking for thermals. But a glance to the left reveals one of the most densely populated cities in the world in all her glory. The magnificence of the IFC and the Bank of China Tower flanked by the surprise of Happy Valley racecourse nestled among gravity-defying skyscrapers. And then over to Kowloon-side, and the remains of Kai Tak airport, with its legacy of an encircling of stunted buildings only beginning to dissipate, framed by the mountains of the New Territories.

Of course, this is hiking, Jim, but not as I have ever previously known it. Much of the trail, unfortunately, is across paved roads, and even the really out of the way sections have safety rails and concrete steps. Lots of steps. And the route seems designed so that if there is a sustained flight of stairs to be conquered (I believe the most consecutive steps is around 800), it will always hit you right at the start of a section leaving no time to warm up or contemplate the task ahead.

But it’s a beautiful walk, and even within 50 km on a very small island, still manages to traverse some astonishingly diverse terrain. And descending the final, lingering staircase down into Big Wave Bay to join the surfers did bring with it a definite sense of satisfaction.

Next up the Wilson Trail, wending its way from Hong Kong Island almost to the border with China, and passing through monkey territory! First though, the small matter of The Twins: an ascent of 1000 steps, only to rinse, repeat and head straight up to the second summit. Wish us luck!