Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Planning the Staycation

Planning the Stay-cation

I should beware what I wish for -- I might get it.
Earlier I complained that I wasn't doing very well in terms of getting writing assignments. Then, I don't know what happened. Maybe all the assignment editors came back from summer vacation? Maybe we had lots of extra space in the newspaper to fill? Who knows how these things work? Recently, I've been swamped.
First was this little Globespotters post about Golden Week and Mid-Autumn Festival. (None of it is news for anyone living here.)
Now I have an article coming out tomorrow on the booming trade in China-banned books in Hong Kong. (Run out and buy the Wednesday IHT, folks!) I have a second one on hold for later, a third one that has to be written, and a fourth that hasn't been reported yet.
By coincidence, I'm scheduled for a six-day week in the office this week. When it rains, it pours. I can't complain. I asked for it.

It would have been nice if the deluge came a little later. I was hoping some of the work would fall in mid-October, since Marc the Metrosexual and I have time off then. I do enjoy reporting and writing, particularly when I have whole days devoted to it.
We're planning a Stay-cation, mostly for money-related reasons. (A "stay-cation" is like a "va-cation," only you stay where you are. It's a relatively new word, probably coined by Americans with shrinking budgets).
In July, we paid off our renovation loan. In August, we went to Europe. In September we paid for new air conditioning. Therefore in October, it's the Stay-cation.
I don't mind. There are a million things I don't do, like go to the gym or the pool, or ride my horses.
I can't complain that I don't have time to do these things -- if I really put my mind to it, I could. (One of my colleagues, who works similar hours, runs marathons) But I often feel overwhelmed and tired, so I don't.
It sounds stupid, but sometimes I like having a few days to run errands and go grocery shopping. On our fridge is a growing list of neglected small tasks. (E.g. buy a new egg timer after Hugo the Cat pushed the old one into the wet sink and broke it. Who can blame him? It was small, cute and egg-shaped. Looked just like a cat toy.)
I also have to get a new phone. My current one is five years old, and even the discount Kowloon taxi guys I use make fun of me for it since it can't take photos.
Oh, also blogging. Poor neglected Joyceyland.
And visiting my grandma, who's been ill.
Speaking of such things, it's been months since we've seen some of our close friends. Maybe we'll throw a dinner party. Marc and I both love cooking, but we usually only eat together at home after my Sunday shift.
Maybe I'll just lie down and sleep a few days.
I'm sure my five days off will go by in a flash.

A gratuitous photo of Hugo the Cat,
playing with a toy his "grandma" got him.
Every day is a Stay-cation when you're
a housecat.

Monday, September 28, 2009

My Morning Sun

I recently discovered My Morning Sun, a blog by my colleague E. Since he was kind enough to link to me, and in the most flattering way, here's my linkback to him.

It's not a new blog (just new to me) and was started when E. was living in New York, before coming to Hong Kong.
I always enjoyed E's Facebook quips, which says alot. Many of the things I read on Facebook I find dull and self-centered. Do I really care that someone I haven't seen for 15 years was late for work? Or tired? And don't get me started on PR people who use FB to send out mass releases.
E's FB-blurbs are at least funny and self-mocking, and his writing works in his longer blog format as well.
Speaking of longer, E. has written about six reasonably lengthy posts in the last week or so -- which I have to admire, since he basically works the same hours I do, and I haven't written forever.
Since mid-September, E has covered a now-defunct alternative music nightclub in Buffalo; Hong Kong taxi drivers; Mid-Autumn festival mooncakes; and Thai travel, including massage, temples, Muay boxing and lady boys. That gives a pretty good taste of My Morning Sun's range.
In his own words: "Given my personality and chief interests, that will probably mean a lot of stuff about TV shows, public transit, food, Asperger's syndrome, media and news, funny stuff I saw on the Internet and languagey things."

Friday, September 11, 2009

Hong Kong journalists beaten in Xinjiang -- even my taxi driver's mad

* Note: The protest is tomorrow, Sunday, at 1pm, starting from the Western police station (280 Des Voeux Rd. W) and ending at the Central Government Liaison office. I won't be able to go, since I'll be at work. But if you do, please wear black.


I was in a taxi a few days ago, and the driver went off about the Hong Kong journalists beaten while covering the Xinjiang unrest.

The subject caught me off-guard --- and the driver was in such a rage -- that I wasn't sure what side he was on at first. I get cabbies of all different political leanings and never make assumptions.

"They should be punished!" he yelled, shaking his fist out the window. "Punished!"

"Who?" I asked. "China? Or the journalists?"

"China, of course!" he snapped.

That was late last week, when there was little political reaction and the details were still sketchy. It was just being announced on the radio, which is what the driver was reacting to.

We chatted about it for a while. While my driver was no media expert, he had a pretty firm grip on what journalist were and were not allowed to do under a free press.

He made the point that, while the HK journalists were not treated well, they were still far better off than their mainland counterparts. He expressed real sympathy for mainland reporters, and said "without a doubt" that most mainland people had little knowledge of their own news.


This taxi conversation meant more to me than the many articles and official statements about this issue. (There are lots in Chinese at the Hong Kong Journalists Association website).

While I think suppression of independent news on Xinjiang is a big deal, I do live in a little bubble of U.S. media and press issues. It’s hard to know if other people care.

That a taxi driver would be so informed, and so emotional, meant it had really hit a nerve with the Hong Kong public.

I didn't mention to him that I was a journalist. I wasn't heading somewhere obvious, like a political demonstration. It really did come out of the blue.


From the South China Morning Post: “Last Friday [Sep 4], three journalists -- TVB reporter Lam Tsz-ho, a TVB cameraman, and a Now TV cameraman -- were tied up, handcuffed, beaten and briefly detained by police while covering protests in Urumqi... Police in the region also briefly detained another three Hong Kong journalists on Sunday. [Sep. 6]”

"They were pinned to the ground by People's Armed Police officers, kicked and punched before being tied up and taken away."

Police should not be tying people up and beating them, unless there is literally no other method of controlling armed, violent, dangerous people. I can’t imagine three Hong Kong TV journos causing physical threat to armed troops. (I remember the Korean WTO riots in Hong Kong. Our police turned non-violent control into an art form. There are ways of handling difficult crowds. This is not it.)

When pressed, the Xinjiang authorities said the Hong Kong reporters did not have the right papers. (Unlike the free world, China requires its reporters to carry special permits.) TVB denied this, and called the Xinjiang official a liar. But, even if some guy was missing a piece of paper, being tied up and beaten is certainly not a punishment that fits the crime. Could you imagine, in Hong Kong, if you went outside without your HKID and some cop kicked the crap out of you?

“The controversy intensified on Tuesday [Sep 8], when Hou Hanmin, director of the Xinjiang Information Office accused the three reporters of inciting protesters in Urumqi.”

This is just, well, crazy. T.V. cameramen are not rioters. They are professionals doing a job, which is to take video. As Hong Kong Cantonese, they have no personal interest in Uiyghur vs. Han conflict in Xinjiang. Seriously, the average Hong Konger would have had a hard time finding Xinjiang on a map a few weeks ago. (And nobody seems to be able to pronounce “Uiyghur” -- I say "Wee-gur".) The cameramen were probably concentrating on getting a few good clips.

As for the word “inciting,” that seems to be a favorite accusation thrown at anyone who displeases security officials. It's like the "state secrets" charge always used for writers.


What was interesting was the political fallout in Hong Kong. Of course, you expect the Civic Party and the pan-Democrats to speak out about this. Same with the HKJA and FCC.

But Cheng Yiu-tung, a delegate to the National People's Congress, said he would demand an investigation and request an apology. And, hey, he’s an NPC comrade.

Michael Tien, another NPC comrade and member of the Liberal Party, said Xinjiang should apologize if an investigation found they had done wrong. He called on Beijing to “get to the bottom of this.” These are not the types usually standing up for press freedom.

Li Gang, from the mainland’s “liaison office” with Hong Kong, said he would pass the message onto Beijing. Then he spouted some of the normal sugar-coated stuff, to reporters on the mainland. “These incidents should be solved harmoniously and rationally.” (As opposed to our usual unharmonious and irrational ways, I suppose._

The SCMP article gave the last word for a former NPC guy, Tsang Hin-chi: “I think the media should tone down their coverage of it - no matter who is right or wrong.... I hope the central government can make a fair assessment after investigating it.”

Let me translate Mr. Tsang for you: Don't say anything till the central government tells you what to say.

It's a good thing Hong Kong never listens.


Ulaca points out this great SCMP headline: “"Parties unite over beating of journalists." Well, given our fractious politics, I’m glad the parties have finally united on something.


The meeting between Hong Kong journalists and a Xinjiang spokesperson reportedly didn’t proceed quite so “harmoniously and rationally.”

First of all, most of them weren't even told of the event. No big surprise, the loyal mainland media were invited, and HKers were not.

When they got there, our famously boisterous media scrum shouted “Shameless! Shameless!” at the officials. They pelted them with questions and demands that they present proof that the Hong Kong journalists had done something wrong.

One mainland official – unused to such uncensored criticism and raw anger – pointed a finger back and shouted “You should apologize! You should apologize!”

Apologize for what? Asking questions at a press conference?

EastSouthWestNorth has a good translation of an Asiaweek (Yazhou Zhoukan) article with all the details here.

Any talk about Hong Kong journalists being targeted specifically is ridiculous. There's no way the average Xinjiang troop is thinking about press freedom, one-country-two-systems, etc. I'm sure the average Xinjiang troop probably doesn't know much about Hong Kong, except that it's a rich city far, far away.
Let me try to imagine it from the Xinjiang soldier's point of view: His city is a disaster. There has been widespread fighting and people dying in the streets. His supervisors have made his mission clear: Kick some butt and restore order.
He sees a bunch of Chinese-looking guys in the press scrum who are obviously not from around here. They're pointing cameras at stuff the government doesn't want filmed. They aren't cooperative and showing their documents. In short, they're not behaving in a way that the Xinjiang officer is used to.
So he does what he's been trained to do, which is beating people up. Frankly, if these were mainland Chinese journos, they would be treated exactly the same way, or even worse.
(The only exception might be gweilo journos. A tall blond guy would be so foreign that troops would be more cautious. Nobody wants to be held responsible for a "foreign incident.") But a Chinese-looking guy speaking Chinese is Chinese; it's not like some Xinjiang officer cares that you're from a "special administrative region" with different journalistic practices.
I'm sure this whole debacle caught the Xinjiang authorities by surprise. They've had enough problems recently... and then this? Why do Hong Kong people keep complaining? Oh, God. Are they going to Beijing for a little journalist beating? It's like they're running to tell on the teacher.
As for only inviting "friendly" journalists to the press conference, or officials balking at questions or criticism -- again, this has nothing to do with the fact that Hong Kongers are involved. I think this is just how stuff works on the mainland.
Is this a "test for one country, two systems?" Only by default. By chance, the journalists who were beaten were from Hong Kong. It's the only reason that this got so much coverage, sparked so much anger, and got so many politicians involved.
I'm sure Chinese journalists who don't listen are rough-housed all the time -- only difference is that nobody hears about it.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Joyceyland, a.k.a. The NYT reject pile

I originally meant the above review for The New York Times travel section, but they didn't want it. I sent it in on spec. That means I wasn't given an assignment first, but just submitted it randomly. That's always a crapshoot, and fair enough. You can't expect editors to pay for and print everything that's emailed to them.

New writers or freelancers sometimes ask me for tips on getting published, or how to guess what editors want. But there's no foolproof trick. No one, not even experienced staff writers, have 100% of their stuff published. (I'm discounting non-paid blogs, of course).

If you're at the top of your field and, say, have your own column, your chances are higher. But I've seen editors shoot down stories from Pulitzer Prize winners.

I've even killed my own stories on occasion. Maybe the idea doesn't pan out, the interviewee cancels, someone else is writing a similar article, or -- ahem -- the PR totally oversells a product or event that turns out to be crap. Anything can happen. If you're sending stuff in freelance, an editor has to justify both the space and expense on his/her budget. (In our work lingo, "budget" is also the term for the list of stories we're publishing the next day.)

That said, I've been particularly unsuccessful recently with the NYT travel section. My humorous review of The London Dungeon was taken down retro-actively. I sent in a half-dozen Hong Kong ideas and only one (buying jade) was accepted. Rules restaurant? Nope. My trip to the Channel Island of Jersey? Nope. (Funny -- New York rejected it because it was too obscure outside of the summer months, and Paris rejected it because it was too common.)

In the bad old days of Globespotters, we posted whatever we wanted. It was started by a bunch of IHT correspondents and editors as a side project. We were paid small monthly stipends, and uploaded articles and photos ourselves. It probably could have used some more copy editing, especially when some of our younger, intern-ish staff wrote, but it was also more personable and fun.

Recently, The New York Times (the IHT's parent company) has taken more editorial control. When our two Web sites merged, Globespotters was handed over to our New York office. It's much better managed. Posts go through the same process normal articles do -- ideas are pitched, accepted/rejected, edited, fact-checked and then posted by someone else. There are word counts, deadlines and schedules. Non-time sensitive pieces can be held for up to six weeks to fill in holes. (That's how most newspaper features departments work).

It's for the better; the site looks good. But I'm also happy to have my non-scheduled, non-budgeted, non-deadlined Joyceyland, where I can write what I want.

Rules Restaurant, London

Photograph from www.rules.co.uk


When we heard Rules advertised as "London's oldest restaurant," we braced ourselves for a tourist trap. There are many such places in the British capital: "Historic" eateries called "Ye Olde"-something that hope that wood paneling and tuxedoed waiters will detract from their mediocre food.
Our expectations were not raised when a British friend sniffed, "But Rules is too expensive to be touristy."

At about 50 pounds, or H.K. $650, per head for a three-course meal (starter, main, dessert and wine), Rules does weed out the backpacker crowd.
It also serves some of the best traditional English food my two guests or I have ever had. (And they’re picky: One is Marc the Metrosexual Chef, the other, a food reviewer).

The menu is filled with old-fashioned dishes like hand-made pies and local game served according to hunting season. The restaurant has its own country estate, from which it sources birds and deer.

My stilton and watercress soup -- which was about 95 percent of the former and 5 percent of the latter -- was sharp with the flavor of the strong blue cheese, and so rich it was like drinking straight out of the fondue pot.

The potted Surrey rabbit was like an English "rillettes." The hand-cut pate -- complete with a layer of yellow fat -- was tempered by an apple chutney.

After those appetizers, finishing the mains was a challenge. Their steak, kidney and oyster pudding was a heavy, saucy concoction wrapped in suet pastry. (What restaurant cooks with suet anymore?) It is not for those with meek appetites.

The smoked Finnan haddock and salmon fish cake, with its dollop of spinach and tomato relish, was wonderfully flavorful. It was miles better than the bland fish pies found at pubs across the country.

The service was perfect. Our waiter was attentive but not intrusive, and less pretentious that one would expect; he recommended a great red that was one of the more affordable on the list.

Rules wins hands-down in the contest to be the most authentically stodgy. Founded in the late 18th century, it is as mantique-y as its patrons.

Old lamps cast a dim, yellow glow on a dining room filled with dark wood, red fabric and an alarming number of dead animals used as decoration.

Behind us on the wall was a mural of a cartoon Margaret Thatcher, outfitted like a warrior with a spear in her hand – in case you had any question about the political leaning of the suits who make up the Rules crowd.

Rules, 35 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London, Tel. 44 (0) 207-836-5316. Open every day at noon. Last orders are 11:45 p.m. Monday to Saturday; 10:45 on Sunday. Dress code.

Friday, September 4, 2009

For you Thai boys -- for real this time

One of the worst things you can be as a girl is a tease -- someone who promises and doesn't deliver.
As a media person, one the worst mistakes you make is getting so caught up in your own preferences that you forget your readership.
Ever since Bangkok of the Mind linked to me, I've been getting all sorts of readers who must come here and not find what they're looking for. I swear to God, it was totally by accident that my last two post names have been "The Toilet Bar" and "Bangkok Boys."
I know what that sounds like. And how disappointing it is when it turns out to be about an old gweilo political cartoonist.
Well, I won't be a tease or a clueless media person any more. Here's something for my new audience.
Janice Dickinson -- "The World's First Supermodel" and authentic crazy person -- has taken Tyra Banks' successful "America's Next Model" idea and started her own reality show. Only it's not just for young women. It's mostly hunky men, probably there for Janice's own enjoyment. Between her Botox injections and tummy tucks, the 50something diva flits around them, yelling at them to take their clothes off and pose. It's amusing at first, at least in manageable 3-minute YouTube intervals.
The below video is overlaid with music and has none of the male models' conversation. Don't worry. You're not missing much. It's not like they're discussing U.S. foreign policy.
So, for Bangkok of the Mind, here is a little L.A. in the Flesh.
P.S. I dedicate this post to Gay Best Friend Gary.

P.P.S. If Mom is reading this -- sorry, sorry, sorry. Joyceyland will resume its normally staid programming next post.
P.P.P. S. If Marc is reading this -- don't worry. Oily, muscular and showy is really not my type. I like metrosexuals, remember?