Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Alfresco dining ban in Hong Kong?

My latest from Globespotters, the New York Times travel blog. You can leave your comments there. (Or here, of course, if you can penetrate my crappy MSN Live Windows interface thingie)

A Ban Looms, but Outdoor Dining Still Alive in Hong Kong

By Joyce Hor-Chung Lau

HONG KONG | In its near-obsession with tidying up the city, the Hong Kong government can impose some silly restrictions. Like the recent one against walking up the escalators in the MTR subway system. Or the one against sitting outside to eat.

In January, the local government in the Central and Western areas – which includes the bustling financial district and the popular wine-and-dine areas of Soho and Lan Kwai Fong –- decided to greatly restrict outdoor dining.

One of the targeted restaurants is Gaia, a lovely Italian place with a terrace that my husband and I have been frequenting since it opened in 2004. It’s rather pretty, done up with white tablecloths and fairy lights. It’s also within walking distance of Central, but far away enough from traffic that you don’t see, hear or smell it. (See our previous post featuring its sister restaurant, Isola.)

The site ILoveHongKong.hk has started an online petition against the ban, garnering support from local residents.

Gaia has been given an exemption through July, and its terrace has been busier than ever. We recently had thin-crusted parma and arugula pizza and homemade rabbit stew at the last available table.

The war between al fresco restaurants and the government long predates this most recent battle. It also goes beyond the expensive, high-profile eateries that usually make the news.

For decades, working-class Hong Kongers ate at “dai pai dongs” — outdoor stalls serving steaming bowls of soup, noodles and rice on plastic tables and chairs on the sidewalk. It was cheap, authentic and reasonably hygienic, probably given the very fast turnover. (Just keep you eyes on the soup bowl, and not on the floor beneath your chair). And because of the proximity of the dai pai dongs to the city’s wet markets, the ingredients were fresh.

The government hasn’t banned the dai pai dongs yet, but it has stopped issuing new licenses for them, ruling that existing licenses can only be passed down through families. So, if the younger generation doesn’t want to work over a steaming wok like their parents, that dai pai dong will close.

At one time, there was probably good reason to crack down on the city’s old let’s-bludgeon-this-fish-to-death-on-the-sidewalk method of food preparation. Hong Kong has been hit by various animal-related diseases –- the avian flu and the H1N1 flu among them -– that have frightened away tourists and spooked the government.

But banning outdoor eating will do away with two defining Hong Kong characteristics: the love of all things culinary, and the energy and chaos of its street life. So if you’re wandering downtown and see a bunch of stools set up on the sidewalk, I recommend that you sit down and eat there while you can –- and never mind if you can’t read the menu. That place might not be there the next time you return.

Happily, al fresco dining is still alive and well in other parts of the territory. Check out past Globespotters posts on Knutsford Terrace in Tsim Sha Tsui, which is a packed, urban experience; seafood dining in the outlying area of Sai Kung; and the beachside area of Stanley.

Even if the government goes through with its crackdown in Central and Soho, there are still plenty of places to sit outside in the summer night with your grilled seafood and your glass of wine.


DAVID -- A good article, as always. Do you know if they actually have a rationale for taking away the exemption or is it just a 'rules is rules' thing?

For the dai pai dongs I think it is the weasly way they are doing it that is the most annoying thing about it. If there are genuine concerns with dai pai dongs then there should be a genuine debate about it and, if necessary, reasonable regulations to address those problems directly and fairly, e.g. regulations about hygiene, obstructing access etc. instead of the current weasly cop-out of using licensing arrangements to gradually phase them out.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Getting a Hong Kong mortgage

The first domino to fall in the worldwide financial crisis was the prevalence of bad home loans in the U.S.
The U.S. media (after the fact, I might add) is full of nagging tales about irresponsible mortgages. The New Yorker tells of a laid-off employee-turned-part-time bicycle messenger who bought a New York home on a 0% down mortgage that also "covered" five years worth of interest payments. There are a million stories like this -- illegal immigrant cleaning ladies using sub-prime loans to buy houses in Virginia, Americans with six overdue credit cards moving into McMansions....
So it's probably a good thing that it was much harder to get a mortgage in Hong Kong, even before the crash.
Marc and I have had steady incomes for years. We diligently saved up for a downpayment. We are full-time employees at big companies, with salaries auto-paid into HSBC every month. We have minimal credit card spending that we pay off every month. We have no dependents -- not yet. By all accounts, we are good people to lend money to.
And HSBC STILL gave us the run-around. We had to produce endless documentation. They went through our files with a toothbrush. After swearing to The Father, The Son and the Holy Ghost that we had no debt, HSBC dirt-diggers pointed out the monthly payment I give my parents as a sort of filial-love "spending money," and the fact that Marc bought a laptop on a 12-month payment plan. These amounts were so small, we hadn't even considered them.
They also demanded that we give them months worth of HSBC bank statements. Never mind that they had these statements right in front of them, right on their screen, and that they could just hit "PRINT."
There is this rather scary period after you've signed the papers with the sellers, and before the bank gives you the OK on the mortgage. It's unavoidable, because the bank won't submit your mortgage application before you've signed for the flat. And no Hong Kong seller is going to wait around for you to get funding.
If you're rejected during those six weeks, you're basically screwed. You'll have to back out of a legal document, and pay a bunch of fines. Any money you've spent on legal advice or a real estate agent will be gone.
We waited and waited. I've been banking with HSBC since 1999, and their service has always been good. So we were shocked when it wasn't.
HSBC employers allegedly don't have direct phone lines or direct emails. (Obviously, they do, but they don't give them to pesky customers like us). Their automated phone system is like the 9 circles of Dante's Inferno. 'Twas always thus. But what if you have a problem with your mortgage application?
You have to keep going back to the same damn branch in person, trying to find the same damn person who handled your account. She will inevitably not be there. And mortgage applications, unlike regular accounts, allegedly can't just be called up by any staff member on the computer.
It's possible we were just unlucky, since the girl who handled our application went on vacation and allegedly passed the files to someone else -- or didn't. It somehow fell through the cracks.
At first, HSBC staff blamed the Hong Kong Monetary Authority for being slow in approving our application. (This is for all mortgages of 90% or more). Then it was obvious they were just fibbing.
The straw broke the camel's back about a week before the final deadline given to us by our lawyer.
I'd just left the TST HSBC, frustrated that it might not go through, and that we might lose the home we liked so much. I was on the minibus back to our serviced apartment in Hung Hom. My mobile rang, and it was a rather frantic HSBC girl, calling after hours. Sounding confused and embarrassed, she rambled a long list of documentation she wanted me to bring in immediately, and I lost it.
You know those crazy people who scream into their mobile phones while on public transit? Those people who hold their mobiles in front of their mouths like a karaoke microphone? The crazy people everyone else on the bus / train tries to ignore? I hate those people. But, on this day, I became one of them.
These were the documents we had painstakingly compiled and submitted weeks ago, complete with all that stamping and signing Hong Kong is so fond of. I was sure HSBC had lost the file.
I threatened to sue. I threatened to call her boss and put her job on the line. I said that her mistake may have ruined a family's new home.
OK, frankly, I had no idea what I was talking about -- My threats were empty and I was seeing red. But maybe it was good to lose my temper.
Until then, I was the good girl, waiting in endless lines, nodding and smiling with my hands in my lap at bank managers' various promises and excuses, hushing the husband when he started to lose it. I hate being the maah faan customer, but they are unfortunately the ones who get their way.
I never got 100% proof that they lost our file. HSBC would never admit that. Whatever happened, they found it. We missed our deadline by a bit -- a day or so. There was some frantic taxi-ing around town to get things stamped and signed. But we did make it. And we even got a sizeable renovation loan -- so I don't think our credit rating was the problem after all.
Phew. I hope that's a good warning to anyone else going down this route.
Despite it all, I'm still glad that Hong Kong has strict mortgage policies, which is why (even with the "stir-frying" in the real estate market), we never had a sub-prime mortgage crash like America. Buying a home is a privledge. And if you work harder for something -- saving the downpayment, going through months of red tape -- you are more likely to be responsible about it.
If any broke unemployed American can just stroll up to a bank and get a seemingly free house, then why wouldn't everyone do that?
Sometimes, I fantasize about buying one of those preserved, historic brownstones in Montreal. Beautiful, clean, green Montreal, with its quiet people and good music scene and sidewalk cafes that the government will never shut down. Lovely Montreal. Cheap Montreal. I always figured that, if I ever made money from our relatively expensive Hong Kong flat, it would be enough for a small place in my city of birth.
I could stay there in the summers to write my book, maybe on a balcony or terrace. In the winters, I could rent out to students or something. (It's the Hong Kong blood in me. Even my romantic visions involve sub-letting profits.)
Sometimes, in my noctural Internet wanderings, I check places out. I found out that, in Canada, you need to put at least 20% down on a home. (Less than that, and you need special government approval, as in Hong Kong). I'm sure some far-right fiscally conservative Americans would find that "socialist." But good for Canada, I say.
I'm not saying I would buy. But check this place out in Montreal. It's probably less than HK $3 million.

Friday, June 19, 2009

How to profit from a Hong Kong flat. (Not like I'd know)

A friend recently asked for advice on buying a Hong Kong flat, which my husband and I did about a year ago.
We may be the last people to ask, because we were the Einsteins who bought right before the global financial crash. Had we waited six months, we might have saved HK $1 million.
I've been doing a lot of math since we bought. I haven't done so much math since high school.
To give you a feeling for the ups and downs, let me use a hypothetical flat worth HK $10 million. (Our flat is NOT worth this much. We wish. But I don't want to put my real property price out there for the whole world to see. And 10 is a nice round number).
Right after purchasing, our imaginary flat shot up to $12 million. As first-time homeowners, we were thrilled. So THIS is how people get rich here.
Then, the crash hit and our flat fell to $7 million.
As our hypothetical mortgage was $9 million, this put us in negative equity, meaning we owed the bank more than the property was worth. This means we lost the flexibility to sell or move.
I check our flat's value regularly, using online property valuation tool at HSBC. It's edging up again. We are now out of negative equity, but still a tad under our buying price.
As prices are low and rising, this might be a good time to buy. But what do I know?
If you buy a flat at $10 million and sell at $11 million, do you make a profit? Maybe not.
Let's take our imaginary flat and pretend that we are rich investors (ha) who can buy a property in cash (double ha) and "flip" it. To buy and sell, we'd spend about

Real estate agency fees ($200,000), stamp duty ($ 40,000) and lawyers fees ($ 20,000)
That means we'd be making a profit after the price hits $10.3 million or so.
But we're not rich investors, we're work-a-day, normal homeowners with a mortgage.
Let's say we live in our hypothetical $10 million for five years. Over that time, we would have paid $600,000 in interest.
Hong Kong interest rates are low -- a tad over 2%. But almost 30% of some mortgage payments go to interest.
Why? Because the bank artificially tilts the amount of interest you pay to the front of the mortgage.
There's also mandatory"mortgage insurance" for anyone getting a 90% loan. (I've frankly forgotten how much, but it was significant).
And people who buy to live are more likely to spend money renovating, because they might actually have needs (home office, amah room, kid's room, etc) and personal tastes.
Here are the extra costs in this scenario: Interest ($600,000), renovation ($400,000), real estate agency fees ($200,000), mortgage insurance ($100,000), stamp duty ($40,000), lawyers fees ($20,000).
The extra costs are now almost $1.4 million. That means you have to sell at at least $11.4 million to start making a profit.
Is this still a good investment?
Sure it is. Over the course of five years, you'd probably spend $1.4 million on rent anyway for a same-sized flat.
I actually have alot to say about this. I didn't at the time because a) I was too busy actually buying / renovating / moving / pulling my hair out; and b) I wanted to get perspective after it was over. During the process, I would have told you that it was hell on earth. In retrospect, I'm glad I did it. So consider this part of a Joyceyland series.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Interview with me!

My mom will be relieved, because it is about nothing political at all.

The interview is about the minutae of life in Hong Kong, e.g. important questions like why Hong Kongers can't walk in the straight line and why little old Chinese ladies are so mean. It's with my good friend Hong Blog and you can view the full text there.

Speaking of the direction-challenged, I just saw this in an interview with another Hong Kong blogger, Elizabeth Briel, from something called Expat Interviews.

"After 5 years in Asia, local customs in a new place are pretty straightforward. One skill to master here is the flexible walking patterns: people don't walk in a straight line, they wander in the general direction in which they're going, and react unconsciously to those around them. I think it's a survival skill in such a densely populated place."


Flibbertigibbet y -
Just to note, people don't cover their mouths when they laugh in the Mainland.

Having lived for far too long around Japanese people, this is one habit I cannot break. When I lived in Shanghai and Harbin, my friends would tease me endlessly for it.

Joyce Hor-Chung Lau -
you know, i am now going to pay attention to whether people cover their mouths when they laugh here. i'll consider it my sociology experiment.
i wonder if i do it. i will have to ask my friends.

Someone on Windows Live
"Weekend drivers in their Mercedes" - do you have anyone in mind?

Joyce Hor-Chung Lau -
uh. no. i have no idea. i have certainly not spent my weekends being driven around by a dashing, moneyed westerner in his mercedes.
so -- what make was the fumiemobile again?

Ulaca -
Don't worry about him, J - he enjoys playing with himself.

Joyce Hor-Chung Lau - 23 June, 2009 - Delete
That's not an image I wanted popping into mind.

Candlelight and Canto-pop -- Hong Kong's 6/4 memorial

Photo by me.

You thought I was finished with my 6/4 thing, didn't you? There's just one more to go. Here are some observances from the day.
I was heading to the vigil, and presumed from my cabbie's heavily accented Cantonese that he was a recent mainland immigrant.
I was curious about his opinion of the Tiananmen Square crackdown of June 4, 1989, the event we were commemorating that night.
So I made small talk -- Did he know how many people were going?
He said he didn't. But he had the radio blasting with 6/4 coverage, with exactly that information, so maybe he was being coy.
Did he ever go to these things?
"No," he said. "I have to work nights."
What did he think of it?
After a long pause, he said, "I feel sad that students died."
Hong Kong cabbies are usually loudly opinionated. Most have nothing but abuse for our governments in Beijing and Hong Kong. Few defend China. (Once I got a crazy who screamed that the original 6/4 protesters were greedy pigs who deliberately killed themselves because they were martyrs brainwashed by the West -- but that was a one in a million conversation.)
This guy was oddly deadpan and unresponsive, and the subject seemed to make him nervous, so we ended up talking about traffic. Not surprisingly, given that 100,000 people were trying to enter one of the busiest commercial districts in the world, it was bad. The police had blocked roads in Causeway Bay. But the driver was gracious about taking a detour through Tin Hau, so I wouldn't have to walk.
When I left, I apologized for making him drive straight into a traffic jam, but he said, "You never have to apologize when you are going to an event like this. Just keep safe."
Hong Kong's political demonstrations are the safest feeling, possibly anywhere in the world. I used to feel more threatened walking home alone late at night in Montreal (never mind New York) than I do at a 6/4 rally in Hong Kong.
Maybe it was because the first thing I saw was the Mister Softee truck. When ice cream vans are more prominent than police vans, that gives you a sense of security.
I joined a crowd of people at the intersection outside the back of the park. They were average Hong Kong families, patiently waiting for the light to change. It's funny that China tags 6/4 demonstrators as crazy, fringe dissidents. These people weren't dissident enough to jaywalk. 100,000 people demonstrate in Hong Kong and nothing happens -- not one arrest, not one mugging, not one car window broken.
And, unlike the Olympic torch rally in Hong Kong, there was no group of "pro-China" counter-protesters there to harass people. (I guess it makes no sense for Beijing to bus people down for an event whose existence they deny).
I've been to almost all the 6/4 memorials since 1999. I've always found the carnival-esque feel odd.
It's not just the kids riding on shoulders, grannies, smiling teenaged volunteers and vanilla softserve. There were stalls selling T-shirts and souvenirs, and hawkers yelling into megaphones. The money ostensibly goes to pro-democracy groups and political parties, but still. On one hand, I'm glad the event is accessible to the average person, proving that you don't have to be an activist to care about these issues. On the other hand, it can feel a bit, well, easy-going, for a massacre memorial.
(I am also deeply ambivalent about people who take this opportunity to fly the Taiwan flag at the event. All power to Taiwan; but why complicate an issue that is already so wrought? What does Taiwan have to do with this? Why give China even more excuse to criticize?)
I didn't go as a journalist, so I didn't pull out my reporters pass. I waited in the hot, sweaty crowd with no view, just like everyone else, while debating whether the guy behind me was trying to cop a feel.
It took me 20 minutes to get into the main park. But when I got there, the sight of football fields filled with candlelight made me catch my breath. This is my eighth 6/4 memorial, and I'm moved anew each time, and very proud to be a Hong Konger. No photo does it justice.
I'm still not sure how many people went. (The police said 60,000-70,000. The organizers said 150,000. Apple Daily and other local newspapers said 200,000). But it was obviously, significantly bigger than past years.
In the front was a large stage with lights, a giant video screen and booming speakers, as if for a rock concert. The speeches and songs were mostly in Cantonese, with a little Mandarin. (I'm always surprised how many people know the words to the anthems, which are set to Canto-pop-like ballads). The only English was a short announcement of the 150,000 number.
A nice new touch was a group of students who were born in 1989. The kids were there to dispel the idea that the next generation would have no memory of what happened. One 20-year-old slip of a girl spoke well and forcefully, and the led the audience into a spirited chant.
At one point, someone on stage said, in a jeering voice, "Tsang Yam-Kuen, are you listening to this?!" He was referring to Donald Tsang, the Hong Kong chief executive who asked people to forget and move on. This drew a roar of indignation from the crowd. An old lady people behind me said, "Tsang Yam-Kuen -- he's wetting his pants right now."
Later, more daringly, someone on stage said, "Hu Jintao -- what are you afraid of?"
The field was divided into quarters. Imagine two pedestrian avenues-- one leading from the stage to the back, and other cutting across perpendicularly. At the intersection was a crude "goddess of democracy" statue (which looks like a mini Statue of Liberty), and funeral wreaths. This is not a subtle event. At one point, the organizers burned a pile of documents on stage.
There was no talk of being "pro-China" or "anti-China" either on stage or in the crowd.
The next day, I spoke to my dad. My parents are aware of problems in China and are very sympathetic people, but are not overtly political. They don't attend events like this, and don't usually speak of these issues in public.
My dad said he saw something good in the local press that said there was no point in calling the Hong Kong 6/4 memorial "anti-China."
I'd guess that 95% of the people there were Chinese -- people who speak Chinese, eat Chinese, travel to China, work with Chinese companies and have family and friends on both sides of the border.
My dad and I agreed that it was more of a request to have history recognized and to respect the dead.
Judging from our multiple grave sweeping holidays, and our huge reverence for ancestors, respecting the dead is a very Chinese thing to do.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Political Poems -- Sad, Bad, Funny, Scary

Passed on from From My Friend Who Should Have His Own Blog, who got it from Salil Tripathi, an Indian journalist.

The poem is by Vikram Seth, a writer who speaks Chinese and studied Chinese society for nine years for a PhD he never completed. (But then he wrote The Golden Gate, so all is forgiven).
He wrote it the day after the crackdown, on June 5, 1989. It appeared in the Indian Express, but then disappeared from cyberspace. Tripathi finally found a fraying, yellow newspaper clipping with it, and I've revived it here.


No miracle will ever clean the memory, brutal and obscene,
Of those who, having fouled their trust,
Grew warped with dread and powerlust -
And order fire on the Square,
On unarmed people everywhere,
Brave people seeking to be free,
Of rottenness, of tyranny.


I generally don't like overtly political poetry, the same way I don't like overtly political art. War and disaster have inspired great works, but I don't think art should read like a demonstration placard. Seth's poem speaks of something greater. The Square is obviously Tiananmen. But aside from that, it could be about the Holocaust, a war in Africa -- really, any bloddy conflict covered up by any censorious government.


For comparison, I have the famous "Why Do Westerners Hate China" poem. Seth's poem is short, elegant and nuanced. This one is wordy, overly emotional (not to mention petty and defensive), cheesily nationalistic and hits the reader over the head with a hammer, which is pretty painful. It also shows an astounding lack of understanding of world issues. I may have blogged this poem before. I think I have a sort of morbid fascination with it.

It reminds me of a scene in "Meet the Parents", when the hapless Ben Stiller character meets his terrifying future father-in-law, played by Robert De Niro. De Niro, in an awkward show of emotion, reads a poem he wrote about his dead mother, including descriptions of how the cancer ate away at her "like a rebel force." It's an exercise in something so very earnest, so overwrought, it's hilarious. Stiller says in response: "That's amazing...so much love... and also so much information." Same goes for this Chinese poem. I mean, it even lists major wire and news services.

"When We were called Sick man of Asia, We were called The Peril.
When We are billed to be the next Superpower, We are called The threat.
When We closed our doors, You smuggled Drugs to Open Markets.
When We Embrace Freed Trade, You blamed us for Taking away your jobs.
When We were falling apart, You marched in your troops and wanted your fair share.
When We were putting the broken pieces together again, Free Tibet you screamed, it was an invasion!
So, We Tried Communism, You hated us for being Communists.
When We embrace Capitalism, You hate us for being Capitalist.
When We have a Billion People, you said we were destroying the planet.
When We tried to limit our numbers, you said It was human rights abuse.
When We were Poor, You think we are dogs.
When We Loan you cash, You blame us for your debts.
When We build our industries, You called us Polluters.
When we sell you goods, You blame us for global warming.
When We buy oil, You called that exploitation and Genocide.
When You fight for oil, You called that Liberation.
When We were lost in Chaos and rampage, You wanted Rules of Law for us.
When We uphold law and order against Violence, You called that Violating Human Rights.
When We were silent, You said you want us to have Free Speech.
When We were silent no more, You say we were Brainwashed Xenophobics.
Why do you hate us so much? We asked.
No, You Answered, We dont hate You.
We dont Hate You either, But Do you understand us?
Of course We do, You said, We have AFP, CNN and BBC
What do you really want from us?"


Someone you might not think to be a poet is Osama bin Laden, though it has been reported that he is something of a scholar.

“His poetry is didactic,” said Flagg Miller, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of California at Davis who has studied bin Laden rhetoric. “Always with a political message, but sometimes very moving.”

Here is a part of his message to Barack Obama

"And over hellfire growing middle aged
Clothed in raiment of sadness that never leave them."

(That bit is from a great New York Times article on how Obama and Obama relate to the masses).


Someone on Windows Live -
I'm a little disappointed that you have not included my haikus in your analysis, Joycey.

Joyce Hor-Chung Lau -
Well Fumie. There's no comparison. I wouldn't want to intimidate the other poets by putting them in your esteemed company.

Joyce Hor-Chung Lau -
Ahem. I guess this is now the time for me to mention that the honorable Fumie is in the running for the recently vacated poetry job at Oxford. Here is the submission that may sway the judging panel:

Who could be averse
To some fumie haiku verse?
Could do a lot worse.

Someone on Windows Live
That's a fine piece of writing.

Joyce Hor-Chung Lau - 14 June, 2009 - Delete
It's true, Fumie. Very difficult to write something that is both a haiku and also rhymes.

Friday, June 5, 2009

"Tiananmen Disappears from Esquire"

After a blogging absence, Joyceyland has returned with a series of postings on both the commemorations and the crackdowns related to the Tiananmen Square massacres of exactly 20 years ago. Here is the first, courtesy of My Friend Who Should Really Have His Own Blog, quoting the Asia Sentinel.

You know it's getting really silly when even fashion magazines feel the need to self-censor.


Sixteen pages of interviews involving the 1989 massacre abruptly vanish

June 2, 2009

The zeal of Hong Kong businessmen of dubious repute to ingratiate themselves with Beijing and trash Hong Kong's claims to media freedom seems to know few bounds. How else to explain the sudden disappearance of 16 pages from the June edition of the local (Chinese language) edition of Esquire, a glossy lifestyle magazine? It appears that the US Esquire, owned by Hearst Corp, has sold its franchise to interests which have no interest in free media but use it to gain advantage in the mainland real estate business.

The 16 missing pages were a series of interviews with Hong Kong personalities, some of whom had been around at the time of the Tiananmen massacre and involved on the margin. They included Esquire's editor back in 1989.

One of the interviews took place on a number 66 bus which runs from Central district to Stanley on the south side of Hong Kong island. This bus runs past the building which is now the Cosmopolitan Hotel, which was formerly the Hong Kong headquarters of Xinhua, the New China News Agency, and the focus of massive demonstrations following June 4. At that time the bus was numbered 64 but in yet another example of business interests attempting to re-write history for financial advantage, after June 4 it was re-designated as number 66.

By all accounts the interviews were mild stuff, even by the undemanding standards of a lifestyle magazine. But as soon the local "big boss" heard that Esquire was devoting space to these interviews he demanded it be stopped. By then it was actually too late to cover up all the traces of its June 4 "issue" except by canceling the whole issue and losing all the glossy advertising. So the June issue's contents page has references to articles which do not exist and a study of the pages numbers shows none between 142 and 157.

This prompted the reporter who did the interviews to write about the issue in her own blog. She expects the sack but, having been promised editorial freedom said she's not quitting. She wrote: "One phone call from the big boss …three hours later, our June 4 feature disappeared completely, like it's never existed." She said a top woman management executive claimed the content was "incitement". But the journalist stood her ground: "They took pages 143 -156 out of the Esquire magazine, but they cannot take the date June 4 off the calendar. Thanks to history, we see the true face of businessmen."

This is the same business family whose failed speculation and refusal to pay their debts cost Hong Kong taxpayers billions of dollars. Esquire is owned by South China Media whose chairman is Robert Ng and in which his daughter is a senior executive. Robert Ng, son of Singapore tycoon Ng Teng Fong, is the person who in 1987 drove the Hong Kong Futures Exchange into bankruptcy by refusing to pay margin calls on huge speculative positions taken through an offshore company he controlled. The exchange then had to be bailed out by the government.

Ng was subsequently about to be arrested by the Independent Commission Against Corruption when then governor David Wilson called a halt to the judicial process. Former diplomat Wilson was far more concerned with political deals than with good governance and the application of the law in Hong Kong.

So Ng was not only let off the hook but survived to become, through Sino Land and other ventures, one of the leading lights in the real estate cartel which keeps control of Hong Kong's biggest industry, by acting as Beijing's political agent, funding pro-Beijing politicians and offering lucrative jobs to former senior bureaucrats.

Bao Pu speaks at the Hong Kong FCC

Photo: Bao Pu answered questions in Mandarin from the Hong Kong press corp. Photo by me.

Bao Pu is the editor of the high-profile and highly controversial "Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang"

He is also the son of Bao Tong, a former aide to Zhao Ziyang, a Communist Party chief who was purged after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. The senior Bao was instrumental in getting Zhao to record details of his life and politics at that time.

The book's Chinese version is sold out in Hong Kong and people are waiting for a reprint. (It is, rather obviously, not widely available on the mainland). The English version garnered a greater response than I expected, given the limited interest Westerners have in internal Chinese politics. It is currently #13 on The New York Times bestsellers list.

Demand was high and the FCC event sold out fast. So fast that I was put on a waiting list. Finally, I finagled two seats -- not upstairs in the main dining room with Bao, but downstairs watching it on a video screen. At least my colleague and I got lunch. Half-way through, several friends stopped by. They couldn't get extra tickets, so stood in the back or sat on the floor. They weren't just journalists, NGOs and politicos. The maid of honor at my wedding popped by, and she has nothing to do with politics.

Bao was introduced by the FCC president, Tom Mitchell (a former fellow South China Morning Post colleague who has now gone to the Financial Times.)

"So, China is busy starting at a big empty square today," Tom started off, to laughter. "Tonight, our Victoria Park will be filled." He announced that Bao Pu was accepted as a Hong Kong permenant resident just last week, despite the highly sensitive nature of his works, and "that said alot about Hong Kong." He also credited the city for giving Bao a base to do his editing, translating and publishing.

Later, Bao would say that the 500,000 Hong Kongers who protested against a potentially censorious "state secrets" law in 2003 had, in their small way, helped his publication, too. Each man who hit the streets ensured that he would have a place to freely do his work. Bao Pu scoffed at the idea of censoring news through the old "state secret" trick. "How can you claim that other people's recollections are a 'state secret' " ?

Bao is a reasonably tall, strongly-built, clean-cut guy with a pleasant face. His English was slow, clear, intelligent, and only very occasionally halting. I have to give it to him for tackling such a complex subject, and doing an open Q&A in a room of hard-hitting foreign correspondents, in a second language. (I could never do that).

He was also refreshingly restrained. (The FCC often gets old pro-democracy stalwarts like Martin Lee and Cardinal Zen, who are very zealous in both their criticism of China and their calls for change. I mean, I love those guys. But Bao was different)

Bao said that, despite the unfortunate end result, many Party leaders really felt they were having a serious discussion about reform. They believed earnestly that, by following doctrine and "standards," they would create a better economic system.

"In their minds, they were defending a truth," Bao said of the CCP leaders at the time. "They felt they had a real, legitimate motive. And Mao's campaign had indoctrinated them from an early time." The Chinese leadership was facing both enormous doubt about itself, as well as a very real problem: a mass, starving, rural poor.

By nature, Bao said, "the Party always seeks total consensus. It's their slogan."

Bao did not go over the details of the massacre, which are a given in Hong Kong: That PLA tanks were used against unarmed student civilians. That hundreds were killed. That this is considered a bad thing. That version is so engrained here that it almost doesn't need repeating.

Bao said that Zhao had spoken of a "Western parliamentary democracy." But he added that he didn't think the "Western" part was all that important. This system could work anywhere.

Bao's views on democracy (possibly echoing Zhao) was that it is an "advanced system."

"The idea that giving everyone one vote is better than letting smart, powerful people decide things -- for the Chinese, this is counterintuitive," he said. "But flawed as it is, there is no better system."

On a lighter note, Bao relayed some of the reaction he had from readers. One said "How Come the Central Chinese leaders are like characters in The Sopranos, with Deng Xiaoping as the boss?" Others said, "I'm shocked at how petty their internal struggles were." (Personally, Marc and I are making our way through our copy now. His only comment so far is that Chinese politics are very dirty.)

There was no official reaction from Chinese government. There often isn't. It's not like there's a black and white public list of banned books and barred people. It's all hints and smoke and shadows. The only response was that they told Bao that now was an "inconvenient" time for him to visit his parents on the Mainland. (His recent visa was denied). And that, recently, Xinhua ran three reports on having to stop "illegal printing" of books, which Bao said was pretty "interesting timing" giving the publication of this particular book.

Bao complimented Zhao on being "straightforward, just laying out the facts without any grand sweeping statements."

Bao himself stuck to the same tact. He was not emotional. He did not cry for revolution. He seemed to be saying "Here are the details. You decide for yourself."

In the end, he just asked for a "restoration of truth." Which is fair enough.


Afterwards, I had a chance to sit down for a casual drink with him and his lovely wife and co-editor, Renee Chiang, along with some other Hong Kong journalists and My Friend Who Should Have His Old Blog. (See below).

Bao is a humble guy. He kept looking down and joking that his three minutes of fame were over. Also, off the podium (and off the record) he had a quiet, somewhat dark, sense of humor. He said the audio tapes -- which have had such an impact on Chinese politics -- were actually re-recorded on an old tape of children's songs and Peking opera, which is how they were hidden for years.

Photo: It's kinda embarrassing how I like having my photo taken with people. But there you are.

Tiananmen crackdown vigil in Hong Kong

I'll write more tomorrow. This is late even for me. But here are a few snapshots from the vigil tonight, which went as well as anyone could have hoped -- it was peaceful, well-organized, solemn, and enormous. The turnout they announced live at the event was 150,000, which might make it even bigger than the original one in 1989. Tomorrow, when I'm back in the office, I'll check the official numbers on the news wires.

I was heartened to see so many young people. Many parents had toddlers up on their shoulders, who were surprisingly well behaved, considering that it was long, hot, crowded and boring (at least for little kid standards).

Not the best shot, but I hope it gives a feel of his size of the crowd. It went as far as the eye could see.