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Justin Bieber in Hong Kong? Nope it’s a tubby Tory in a suit.

21 Mar

Hong Kong colonial flagI was in Beijing last week (gratuitous photo-porn post coming soon) and had the strangest experience. Everyone was actually pretty friendly. I mean, not bend-over-backwards have-a-nice-day friendly but, you know, civil. I was not shouted at, hockled on or barged out of a queue. It was a thoroughly relaxing weekend.

All of which made me think how parochial and moany Hong Kongers can be, especially on the thorny issue of mainland tourist “locusts”. I’m not saying the big city types of Beijing are representative of the entire Middle Kingdom, certainly they’re not of the tourists who swarm the streets of Tsim Tsa Chui. But Hong Kong’s NIMBY shrillness is increasingly getting on my wick.

Or at least it was, until a couple of days ago when this little rocky outcrop of 7 million people outdid itself. The occasion? Last British governor of the former colony and current BBC Trust boss Chris Patten was in town to open an exhibition at the Maritime Museum. Now we all know colonial era Hong Kong flags are increasingly being waved about by protesters a) to get on the nerves of the Communist Party b) to protest against what many see as an erosion of civil liberties, press freedom and rule of law here and c) because the Union flag is, quite frankly, a design classic. But the bizarre scenes which greeted Patten’s appearance outside the museum last night took the colonial love-in to a whole new level.

I’m pretty sure portly Patten has never received quite so rapturous a reception. He didn’t really know what to do with himself as God Save the Queen started blaring from a nearby loudspeaker and fans holding banners such as “Dear Governor Patten, we miss you so much” and shouting “we love you” jostled to get a view of the tubby Tory. Some had even waited over 3 hours to catch a glimpse of their silver haired hero, who by now presumably thinks he’s some kind of grey-suited rock star.

The irony, of course, as we’ve mentioned many times on the Noodle, is that Britain never made much of an effort while it was in charge here to transition to a system of government democratically elected by universal suffrage. On the other hand, what it did manage was to uphold those precious civil liberties pretty well. Following the recent knife attack on former Ming Pao editor Kevin Lau, two execs from the soon-to-be-launched Hong Kong Morning News were attacked in broad daylight this week by four men armed with iron bars. Hong Kong is an increasingly dangerous place to be a newspaperman.

The saddest sight during the Patten-love in for a definite article pedant like me, however, was one of the banners held up by his adoring fans. “Save us from the hell!” it read. Hmmm. I imagine another might have added: “Look what’s happened since you left us Chris. All our grammar are wrong now!”

Best dim sum in Hong Kong? Lung King Heen

17 Mar

xiao long baoI’m glad I saved Lung King Heen till pretty late on in my Hong Kong sojourn. Like flying business class for the first time, once you’ve done it, everything seems inferior by comparison. I’d hate to have spent the past two years moping about from one ‘sub-standard’ dim sumerie to the next; bemoaning the stolid thickness of the pastry, the prosaic mediocrity of the filling and the sub-standard Ryanair-ness of the service.

As it is I’ve had a blast so far. But good dim sum is not great dim sum and Lung King Heen has brilliantly blown my carefully constructed ‘dim sum quality graph’ out of the water.

On that fateful Saturday lunchtime a fortnight ago we were escorted into a light, airy room – a picture of modest understatement (apart from the silver leaf ceiling) as befits the first and only Michelin 3 star Chinese restaurant in the world.

I’m not one to dwell on surroundings as long as the food is good, but this is one of the nicest dining rooms I’ve ever had the pleasure to park my overfed arse in. Everything from the silver-plated tea warmer to the matching dim sum basket holders, the elegant Chinese tea pots and art deco-like toothpick holders gelled effortlessly. As did the service; less obsequious than the two starred Tin Lung Heen across the harbour and only missing a beat once when we waiting 10 minutes for our menus.

I’d made my mind up to stuff as many different little treats down my cake hole as possible on that, my first and probably last visit. Cheung fan came first – the thinnest, lightest rice noodle rolls I’ve ever tasted. A scallop version slippery and singing of the sea came with a nice bamboo crunch while an earthy mushroom variety was bejewelled with finely chopped carrots and mange touts. Next came ha gao – shrimp dumplings containing huge juicy prawns entombed in ethereally thin rice flour casing. This dish is a kind of steak-frites test of a good dim sum restaurant and it passed with ease. Turnip cake came with the addition of dried scallops (conpoy) and was all the better for it, although I’d have liked the edges to be a bit more crispy.lobster dumpling

The standout dishes came later. Sea bass dumplings were filled with soft, delicate fish and, unexpectedly, chopped okra, which gave the parcels a different texture and helped bind the whole together. From the subtlety of that dumpling we then got a huge garlic kick from prawn spring rolls. Again those monster prawns, fat and juicy and this time wrapped in paper-thin deep fried wantan pastry.It was served with Worcester sauce which was a nice touch to cut through the greasiness of the dish. Xiao long bao followed, the best I’ve had outside of Din Tai Fung – thin casing, and a juicy, umami-packed porky filling, with each bao perched on its own little bamboo gazebo for easy serving.

xlb

The best we had, though, was the lobster and scallop shumai. At one piece for around HK$45 it’s not cheap but if there’s one dish you try off this menu it should be this one. Like a greatest-hits-of-the-sea shumai, juicy chunks of lobster and minced scallops came wrapped in a strange green steamed wantan case topped with another prawn – just in case lobster and scallops weren’t enough seafood for you. Sadly even my oversized gob wasn’t big enough to take this in one bite which led to some rather inelegant spoon-sawing in the basket. But it was incredible.

All told the bill came to around HK$750 with jasmine tea, which for cooking of this quality in these surroundings is not bad. I’d be back in a second but I’ve got some graph rewrites to do first.

You dirty Ho! HK lawmaker gives democracy a kick in the teeth

7 Mar

Those of you (both of you?) that regularly read this blog may detect a certain implicit distrust of the establishment and tendency to side with the underdog in many of my posts.

albert hoWell, in the interests of balance, I’ve decided to focus this week’s rant on former Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho, who decided to do something rather silly during last Wednesday’s budget speech.

Having resigned his chairmanship of one of the SAR’s numerous “pan-democrat” (ie anti-Beijing/establishment) parties following poor performance in the 2012 elections, Ho is now the secretary general of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China.

More importantly, he’s the rather portly and well-tanned member of Legco who helped Edward Snowden escape to victory, or er, to Moscow, during the time the sysadmin was holed up here following his high profile dash from the evil US empire (ie Hawaii, where he lived in relative affluence with his pole dancing girlfriend).

62-year-old Ho, who’s an outspoken pro-democracy and universal suffrage advocate, was photographed in the chamber last week browsing through pictures of bikini-clad hotties on his tablet. All of this as finance minister John Tsang gave arguably one of the most important policy speeches of the year.

Now I’m all for lawmakers browsing the interwebs to buy gifts for their loved ones and I’m sure that all Ho was doing was looking for a nice swimsuit for his niece, or daughter, or … wife’s birthday? Or perhaps his secretary’s.

Anyway, you’ve got to play the game Albert. You can’t be on your iPad when you should be taking notes on an, albeit dreadfully dull 90 minute-long, important budget speech.

It’s what you were elected to do matey. Fannying around, almost literally, when you should be at work is the preserve not of elected politicians but those employed by social media and digital marketing companies.

Your campaigning for greater democratic accountability among Hong Kong’s leaders, including support for the Occupy Central civil disobedience movement which is pushing for true universal suffrage, has been rather undermined by the fact you couldn’t wait 90 minutes to look at some fanny.

What Ho should have been doing was taking apart Tsang and his “fiscal advisors” dire warnings that Hong Kong could face a structural deficit of HK$1.54 trillion (£115bn) by 2041, miring the place in Greek-style levels of debt.

Now Hong Kong is, I believe, the only country/state/call-it-what-you-will which actually runs a budget surplus. Yup a surplus. Every year it gravely predicts a deficit – the last fiscal year a HK$3.5bn one (£269m) – but each year lo and behold a surplus appears. This past fiscal year it was a whopping HK$64.9bn (£500m).

The reason? It makes the US seem positively generous with welfare and social spending. Yes the SAR is starting to increase spending on the poor and ageing but it’s still a pittance.

For years the government has relied on good old Confucianism to ensure families look after their elderly members and it still allows a fifth of its population, over one million people, to struggle below the poverty line – with tens of thousands ‘living’ in cage homes little bigger than a coffin.

So should we believe the dire financial warnings from the government? Nope, I smell vested interests trying to scare the populous and justify continually, shockingly, low welfare spending.

I’d love to think the pan-democrats could effect some serious change in this regard, so come on guys, do it for the Noodle. It’s my way or the Ho-way.

Hong Kong’s press freedom knifed in the back

27 Feb

It’s a rather sombre Noodle entry this week after the shocking news that former Ming Pao editor Kevin Lau Chun-to is in critical condition after being attacked near his home by a knife wielding motorcycle “hitman”.

For those not familiar, Lau was recently removed from his role as chief editor of the independent Chinese language daily and replaced by a pro-Beijinger in a move widely seen as yet another attempt to muzzle Hong Kong’s press freedom.

Just last weekend 6,000 protestors gathered in the wake of Lau’s demotion and a growing sense that Beijing is increasingly interfering in their SAR’s affairs in a way which is undermining the “one country, two systems” ideal HK was founded on post-97.

Ming Pao has apparently put up a HK$1m reward for info leading to the arrest of Lau’s attackers, who struck around 10.30am on Wednesday as he was walking from a breakfast eatery in Sai Wan Ho Street, Shau Kei Wan.

The 49-year-old was apparently slashed three times by the motorbike passenger, once on each leg and another cut exposing his chest cavity and lungs.

Police “sources” told the SCMP “it was a classic Triad hit”, intended to “warn him”, and presumably any other outspoken journalists in Hong Kong.

So is it really a Triad hit? And in that case, are the Triads now carrying out the will of the Communist Party?

Getting local gangsters to do their dirty work would certainly enable a canny bit of plausible deniability on the part of the latter. Just as it manages to keep arms length from any cyber incursions on foreign targets, so using the HK underworld as a proxy would keep Xi and co’s hands nice and clean, whilst scaring the crap out of outspoken local editors (if there are any left).

It’s not a given though. The criminal underground gangs of Hong Kong have historically been fiercely pro-China (ie anti-British/Russian/American etc) but not necessarily pro CPC. Is it simply that, like most local businessmen, Triad leaders don’t want to see the press rile their Beijing-allied business interests?

Or is this all just a massive bit of misdirection? A third party using the MO of the Triads to confuse the cops….

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club had the following statement:

The Club reiterates its view that the growing number of attacks against members of the press in Hong Kong needs to be taken seriously by the local administration. Hong Kong’s reputation as a free and international city will suffer if such crimes go unsolved and unpunished.

No shit. There were 18 attacks on HK hacks in 2012, compared with one or two assaults in previous years, according to the HK Journalists’ Association. It’s still low compared to some repressive regimes, but then, Hong Kong is nominally a rule of law kinda place.

Either way there’s about as much chance of the perp being caught as charismatic CY Leung hosting his own prime-time BBC1 chat show. No-one really wants them caught, despite the tough words of the SAR government. Imagine the face-loss involved in HK and Beijing if they were? The police are clueless and incapable, even if they wanted to. Whoever did it probably slipped over the border many hours ago.

So where does that leave Hong Kong and its rapidly diminishing press freedom? Well, it’ll certainly be a few more positions down on RWB’s Press Freedom Index this time next year, that’s for sure.

I said last week that self censorship was the most insidious type of censorship because it’s virtually impossible for the public to find out how or why a story has been altered or spiked to suit the political leanings of its editors. Well, with the added incentive of “not getting knifed”, I’m pretty sure from now on there’ll be more journalistic punch-pulling going on in Hong Kong.

The brilliant thing about creating a climate of fear is that you only have to sanction something like this once and human nature will do the rest.

George and the locusts, coming soon to a former colony near YOU

20 Feb

george osborneThere’s probably something about living in the shadow of the world’s most populous nation and pre-eminent global authoritarian one-party state, that can’t help but make one a little jittery. At least, that’s my over-simplistic explanation of why Hong Kongers seem so quick to mobilise in protest. Last week all the fuss was about the not-so-subtle erosion of the SAR’s enshrined press freedoms while this week the news cycle has been dominated by a rather ugly anti-mainlander rally.

In the sort of irony bypass that’s become wearingly familiar to anyone following public protests in Hong Kong and China, around 100 locals paraded the streets of Tsim Sha Tsui on Sunday waving anti mainlander banners and scuffling with passers-by. The reason? They believe HK is full up and can’t take any more of these rude, uncouth big spenders from across the border. They conveniently glossed over the fact that tourism makes up a decent wodge of Hong Kong’s economy (around 4.5%) and that they were being pretty rude and uncouth themselves on the Sunday march, shouting slogans like, “Go back to mainland China”.

The Communist Party of China has spent the past 60-odd years carefully constructing the narrative that the Middle Kingdom and its territories (Taiwan, Tibet etc) belong to a unified Han race; a kind of master race of the East rising once again to its rightful place at the centre of the universe. I guess Hong Kong didn’t get the memo. Want some more irony? The protesters also shouted the word “Shina” at mainland shoppers on Sunday. That particular moniker was last used by imperial Japan back in the day as a derogatory word to describe China. Want another? The Sunday protesters were apparently carrying British colonial-era Hong Kong flags to signal their otherness from the mainland.

You’ve got to hand it to the protesters, they’ve managed to do the unthinkable and actually arouse some sympathy for the hapless ‘locusts’ caught in the crossfire. All that those bum bag and velour leopard skin onesie-wearing gits want to do is spend a shedload on some gaudy luxury goods, jump a few queues and act rather unsympathetically to their surroundings, which is not strictly speaking illegal. As I’ve said before, Hong Kong has made a rod for its own back in allowing developers to build luxury shopping mall after luxury shopping mall to attract these tourists. It’s no wonder why the SAR is so limited when it comes to theatres, arts spaces and non-tourist oriented shops/bars/anything.

Go George!

I have a theory about this particular protest. I reckon it was incited by the UK Chancellor as a classic bit of magician’s misdirection, so he could slip into the country almost unannounced this week. Now I’m not quite sure why gorgeous George has decided to make a speech about the UK economy from Hong Kong today, unless the rationale was that the last remaining group of people on the planet who might not be tempted to give him a good shoeing are the Mr and Mses of the British Chambers of Commerce here.

Or it might be that only local business leaders in Honkers are predisposed to take George and his ridiculously high fringe line seriously. “Balanced economy? You don’t even have a balanced haircut mate.”

Anyway, Lord Gideon of Tatton has shared his message that the UK economy might just be ever so slightly too reliant on consumer spending and the City of London. So well done there, exactly what every economist worth his salt, and the Governor of the Bank of England, has been saying for rather a long time now.

Still, thumbs up for getting there in the end chancellor. You can go back to the UK now, and while you’re at it can you take some of these revolting Chinese with you? We’ve got enough take-aways here as it is.

Hacked off in Hong Kong: the slow painful death of a free press

14 Feb

hackDo you hear that? That’s the sound of 1,000 Old Etonians shouting “I told you so!!” at the top of their over-privileged lungs. Why? Because of what’s happening to Hong Kong’s much cherished press freedom.

This week two reports were published and the verdict was in – this former colony can no longer be said to have a free press. There were always suspicions and concerns that Beijing would come to influence the media here post-97, but it only influences in the way that George Best drove under the ‘influence’ of alcohol – let’s be honest, it’s pretty much rolled up the white flag.

The first report, Reporters Without Borders’ annual Press Freedom Index, now puts Hong Kong in 61st out of 180, three points down from last year, below those democratic bulwarks of Burkina Faso, Moldova and Chile. To put this in perspective Hong Kong was 34th in 2010 and 18th in 2002. So what went wrong?

It’s certainly not the fault of the hacks. Well, not most of them. Many still maintain the proud tradition of holding the authorities to account and speaking the truth – which was to be fair  a hangover of the colonial days – or at least they try. Local radio host Li Wei-Ling, who has been described as “critical” of the local SAR government, was sacked this week after nine years in her role in what she claims was a deliberate attempt to muzzle her.

No, the problem lies with vested interests. Reporters Without Borders had this to say:

The Chinese Communist Party’s growing subjugation of the Hong Kong executive and its pressure on the Hong Kong media through its “Liaison Office” is increasingly compromising media pluralism there.

The problem is that Hong Kong media is owned now almost entirely by businessmen with vested interests in China. In fact, more than 50 per cent have been given seats on major political assemblies, the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). Add this to the fact no-one wants to piss off the big bucks advertisers from the mainland and you’ve got a recipe for a fourth estate not fit for purpose.

It’s not that the media is always Beijing’s lapdog – the SCMP today reported, for example, that the Town Planning Board is about to give the Chinese PLA a piece of prime harbour front land on which to build a “military berth”. However, the issue is that as readers we don’t know how much self-censorship goes on. This is the most insidious form of censorship, not like the blatant stuff that goes on the mainland, where this week the Ministry of Truth issued an order for all websites to censor the Reporters Without Borders story. This Register headline neatly sums up the irony: the censors effectively censoring a report about censorship.

Another scathing report out this week, from the Committee to Protect Journalists, quotes award-winning former SCMP hack Paul Mooney on the issue of self-censorship.

“The problem is that people on the outside can’t tell what’s being censored on the inside. What outsiders can’t see is what is being ignored, spiked or rewritten in order to play down critical stories,” he said.

The CPJ continues:

Mooney built his career on investigative and human rights reporting but during the last nine months of his employment, he had only two news stories in the newspaper, and one of them was about pandas. “I don’t believe the China editors rejected all my story ideas. I think [Wang] Xiangwei told them not to take anything from me,” he said. 

Wang Xiangwei, for the record, was the SCMP’s new editor at the time, the first mainlander to be put in charge of the venerable old rag in its history, in itself an ominous statement of intent.

Hong Kong’s press freedom is enshrined under the Basic Law, the mini-constitution drawn up as part of the UK handover deal. However, it very soon won’t be worth the paper it’s written on, and thousands more former colonisers will have the self-satisfaction to know that it was they, not the current shambles, who were in charge during Hong Kong’s true glory days.

Luang Prabang: waking the Sleeping Beauty of Asia

6 Feb

luang prabang umbrellaLove or loathe China, you’ve got to hand it to ‘em, they know exactly how to plan a major holiday season. Celebrating the lunar new year means you get to take a few days off in arguably the most depressing months of the year: January and/or February. Now as much as staying in Hong Kong and watching the fireworks explode over the harbour appealed, I’d already seen a TV news mock-up of exactly how they’d look about a million times. So where to?

Laos is the only landlocked country in southeast Asia. A tiny, mountainous land jammed in between China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. Often overlooked by travellers in need of a Thai green curry fix or those who fancy staring at the unmarked graves of Khymer Rouge victims, it’s still mercifully under-developed. I can’t attest to anywhere else in the country, but Luang Prabang, in the north, is the most charming little Asian city I’ve ever been to. Honest; I do not use the ‘c’ word lightly.

sunset luang prabang

It was part of French Indochina, but has been wonderfully preserved by a combination of UNESCO and the strict oversight of a single party socialist government – the sort that seems so beloved of countries round those parts. Colonial buildings are filled with craft shops, cool bars and great restaurants serving genuinely delicious (not ‘I’m-only-eating-this-crap-because-it’s-authentic’) grub. There is a strict curfew which kicks in about 11.30pm – unless you head to the out-of-town bowling alley – but even this didn’t put me off. After all, there’s always getting hammered in your hotel room watching News 24.

Thanks to its geography, everything we ate was local and organic (pesticides being too expensive for farmers to use and transport infrastructure basic to say the least) and bloody great. Cooking oil was, or is, expensive in Laos so the cuisine is more about grilled, steamed, or stewed things rather than sautéed, or deep fried.

Local lightly spiced sausages and cured saucisson (cheers France); grilled game, buffalo and river fish know generically as ping; meat or fish stuffed into bamboo with egg and aromatics and steamed to a kind of savoury custard; soups and stews flavoured with local basil (very aniseedy) lemon grass, ginger, lime leaves and local bitter greens; laab salads; and the ubiquitous jaw beong, a fiery-sweet local chilli jam mixed with buffalo jerky that did wonders for my lunchtime chicken baguette. It was all brilliantly fresh, zingy and cheap – even in some of the town’s most expensive restaurants a meal never came to more than £20 a head with booze. On the last day we discovered this list of delights is only skimming the surface of a huge variety of indigenous dishes – understandable give the country boasts over 100 ethnic tribes.

ping laos

Some-ping

As the former royal capital and an intensely religious place, Luang Prabang has some great sightseeing fodder, including over 30 monasteries – the best of which is Wat Xieng Tong, built in 1561. These manage to blend effortlessly with the low rise white washed colonial buildings and the generally laid back, smiley vibe from the locals to create a place rightly described by the French as La Belle Endormie (Sleeping Beauty). Even with the in-pouring of hocking, obnoxious Chinese tourists from across the border – who, our taxi driver told us, were banned from driving in the town last year because they blocked all the roads – the place was still a joy.

IMG_2561

Xieng Thong monastery

So make sure Laos, or at least Luang Prabang, is on your next Asia trip. I don’t exactly agree with one-party states but this is one of Asia’s poorest countries and tourism a fast-growing industry so you could do worse than come over and sink a few Beer Lao in the spirit of foreign aid.

More smug photos to follow:

beer lao

pak ou caves

Pak Ou Caves

cat luang prabang

 

luang prabang

 

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Sunset over Luang Prabang

 

dragons

Best beef brisket noodles in Hong Kong: Kau Kee

29 Jan

kau kee noodlesRight, we’ve slurped our way through the best ramen in town and chomped down the tastiest wantan mee Hong Kong has to offer. Now it’s time to hit the motherload. The final part of this culinary triptych: beef brisket noodles.

I have to admit to having lived nearly two years in Hong Kong without trying beef brisket noodles, which is tantamount to treason here. I’ve tried beef noodle dishes in the past in Taiwan and found them to be too sweet, woefully lacking in punch and, obviously, the porky hit that makes ramen so moreish. But done well these little babies can hold their own against all-comers in the soup-noodle world. Classic beef brisket noods don’t have thekau kee complex aromatic broth of that other famous beef soup dish, Vietnamese pho, which makes the quality of the beef and the noodles all the more important. But done right it’s a thing of beauty. A heartwarming blend of meltingly soft beef belly, refreshing, delicately scented soup and springy noodles.

I’m afraid any of you looking for some little out-of-the way undiscovered noodle shack previously hidden from Google’s prying search spiders and the evil clutches of CNNGo reporters are likely to be disappointed. Sister Wah (Wah Jeh) and Sang Kee are both close seconds, but my top tip is, surprise surprise Kau Kee on Gough Street.

This place has been in business for nearly a century and I’ve never walked past without noticing a queue of eager punters waiting outside. Luckily service is brusque and diners get in, slurp down and get out pretty quickly. The menu is quite long but basically boils down to two options, do you want beef brisket in clear soup or beef tendon (a slightly fattier cut) in curry soup? Each comes with either rice noodles, vermicelli-style noodles, flat noodles or e-fu noodles, which are about the shape of tagliatelle.

kau kee noodles

We got curry with flat noodles and beef brisket clear soup with e-fu in the end. Stunning. Soft beef, gently aromatic soup and al dente e-fu noodles in the one bowl and powerful curry-flavoured beef with softer and thinner noodles in the other. On balance I think the original clear soup and springy e-fu is my favourite. Beef, soup, noodles, and a scattering of spring onions. Simples.

You can get in an out for around HK$40 a head too. If you can avoid the lunch and evening queues, I’d recommend you go this very minute before the place gets priced out of the area like every other central Hong Kong eatery. Whatever you do don’t put it off for two years like an idiot.

Kau Kee; 21 Gough Street, Central, HK
(+852) 2850 5967

China readies army of Stephen Hawkings to take over the WORLD

15 Jan

eggChina’s insatiable desire to be number one at EVERYTHING just took a turn for the creepy after it emerged a Shenzhen firm could be gearing up to offer parents an embryo screening process – allowing them to choose their brightest heirs and ditch the thickos.

BGI is apparently mapping the genes of maths geniuses and comparing them to a sample from the general populous in a bid to work out which genetic building blocks make them so clever.

This will be done by its Cognitive Genetics (CG) division. However, the resulting info could theoretically be used by another of its divisions, which currently provides genetic screening for birth defects, to allow parents to choose the ‘smartest’ embryos.

While this might all sound quite frankly chilling to many Western parents, it’s likely to be snapped up by ever pragmatic Chinese mums and dads to-be keen to maximise their RoI when it comes to procreating.

For the government too it has already become a major area of investment for Team China – the China Development Bank has apparently signed off $1.5bn in “collaborative funds” to BGI over the next decade.

The race to be first dominates everything in Chinese life. It’s there in mainlanders who take queue jumping in shops to an art form; in scalpers who sell tickets outside of China’s hospitals so you can see a doctor before the other shit-munchers; and in impatient air travellers who’ve unbuckled and begun rifling through the overhead compartment barely seconds after the plane has landed.

But it’s most strongly manifest in the Tiger mothers who fill their children’s every waking moments with study, hobbies and other ‘self-improvement’ activities designed to get them into the best school/college/university/job.

They’ll then be on hand a year or two later to choose a husband/wife for their little one, making sure to find the best deal, the one that offers the best chance of business and financial prosperity.

It’s a never-ending, unwinnable rat race which prioritises the acquisition of wealth and status above all else and turns humanity into one seething money-grabbing mass. Fuck joie de vivre, this is living life like a shark – stop moving forward and you die.

That’s probably what was on obstetrician Zhang Shuxia’s mind when she abducted seven infants between 2011 and 2013 and sold them to traffickers in Shaanxi province.

Zhang was given a suspended life sentence by a judge at Weinan Intermediate People’s Court’s this week after being found guilty of “violating professional and social ethics”.

Yes, apparently there are officially still ethics in China, although only ones sanctioned by the Party – itself still an ungovernable black hole of corruption.

“Zhang used her position as medical personnel to fabricate reports about the infants, saying they suffered from birth defects or diseases that were hard to cure,” the court ruling said.

She then abducted and sold the babies like a real life Goblin King.

Bad things happen all over the world and greed and covetousness are part of human nature.

But when a country of 1.4 billion people accelerating out of hardship and poverty at the speed of sound develops a moral vacuum of this size and scope, it’s time to get a little bit scared.

A Noodle abroad: Thailand versus Cambodia

7 Jan

lanternsHow did you spend your New Year holidays? For me it was a return to Thailand and Cambodia on a whirlwind six day trip. It was a tale of two countries which bloody hate each other but have a mutual friend – the big spending flabby white tourist.

Mutual mistrust and hostility have characterised relations between the two countries since the time when they weren’t nation states at all but the kingdoms of Siam and Khymer.

The animosity is still invoked by modern day politicians to rally the people of both modern states and popularise their policies – most recently evident in a century-old border dispute which was finally resolved last year by the UN.tuktuk bangkok

In many ways Thailand is a canary-down-the-mine portent of what might be for neighbouring Cambodia – a country decimated by the bloody tyranny of the Khymer Rouge in the ’70s and the decades of instability that followed.

But after revisiting both places, I rather hope that doesn’t happen.

Yes, Bangkok has built up and out massively since even a decade ago. Skytrain, MRT, airport rail links and other big infrastructure projects have brought it well and truly into the 21st century, thanks in no small part to a steady stream of tourist cash.

soi cowboy

Soi Cowboy – Bangkok

Yes, its people are friendly, its beaches lovely (even though they’re packed with dreadful Russian oligarchs and their trophy wenches) and its 5-star hotels cocooned us in air-conditioned comfort.

But if I had the choice I’d probably go back to its near neighbour. I’ve said it before but Cambodians haven’t yet been worn down and made cynically acquisitive by a never-ending barrage of rudeness from arrogant tourists.

The service industry may be haplessly incompetent in some of the bars, restaurants and hotels you visit but just get over it; you’re paying a fraction of the cost you would elsewhere and there’s always a sincere smile when all’s said and done.

Plus Siem Reap*, our base for exploring the epic Angkor Wat, is possibly the nicest SE Asian town I’ve ever visited. Lovely low-rise colonial-era buildings housing cafes, bars and decent restaurants, and a main entertainment thoroughfare called Pub Street. What’s not to like?

Well, Korean and Chinese tourists who treat the whole Angkor wonderland like a theme park, for one. On my visit they managed to shout, bawl and litter their way around the temples like neo-colonial overlords, getting in the way of any good photo opportunity and turning a place of beauty, wonderment and silent contemplation into downtown Shenzhen.

That said, witnessing a tour group in which some of the girls are dressed in boob tubes and ripped jean hot pants only serves to highlight the gentle dignity of the Khymer people.

So tip big – they locals your money more than Thailand – and enjoy it.

*(Siem Reap means “Siam defeated” in Khymer … told you they didn’t get on)

lanterns

Ko Samed beach, Thailand

tuktuk bangkok

NYE tuk-tuk-ing, Bangkok

angkor wat

Angkor Wat

angkor wat

Bayon

Bayon, Angkor Thom

bayon temple

Bayon temple

Ta Phrom

Ta Phrom

Ta Phrom

A bit more Lara Croft action, Ta Phrom

pub street

Better…

angkor night market

Electro Siem Reap

pancake stall

Always time for one last pancake…