Shenzhen & Hong Kong TV

You can be forgiven for never having heard of Shenzhen. Before Deng Xiaoping created this Special Economic Zone at the doorstep of Hong Kong in 1979, it was just a series of sleepy fishing villages known as Bao’an County with a population of 300,000. Now it has a population of 10 million. Below are a couple of photos shot from the same vantage point shown by Jeffrey Sachs in his excellent recent presentation at LSE about the challenges facing the world.







If you’re a sucker for this sort of thing here are some more before and after photos.

Made in China could almost be translated as Made in Shenzhen. The city’s economic output – US$260 billion in 2014 – exceeds that of Ireland. And it’s not just low-end textiles and consumer electronics anymore. The HQs or major production sites of Huawei and ZTE (ICT hardware), Tencent (online markets/social network), TCL (manufacturer for Samsung), Foxconn (manufacturer for Apple), BGI (gene sequencing) are all scattered around Shenzhen.

When I asked my colleagues for recommendations about where to visit they looked at me with baffled disbelief, as might a Londoner asked to recommend a itinerary  in Thamesmead (“Isn’t that where all the BNP-types hang out.”) Many of them hadn’t been to the Mainland for a decade. Hong Kong’ people’s disdain towards the Mainland has the weirdest manifestations. There are running riots in the North of Hong Kong because poor mainland shoppers and wholesalers cross the border to pick up safe, non-counterfeit goods from HK, while Westerners like me skip over to do the opposite. On Chinese social media wags urge are urging Chinese shoppers to be noisier and trashier and awarding bonus points if they can reduce HK’s sensitive souls to tears.

Shenzhen is jammed right against the north of New Territory about 25 miles away from central Hong Kong. You get there on the MTR and walk across the border to catch the Shenzhen tube on the other side. And it is a proper ‘border’. You have to go to the bank and convert your Hong Kong dollars (pegged to the US dollar and issued by the private sector banks like HSBC) into Yuan notes from which Chairman Mao’s face beams at you. You buy a visa (price varies with nationality so avoid using US/UK passport if you have the choice), clear immigration and find your phone and bankcards either crash or charge foreign usage fees.

ShenzhenOCTThe shot on the left, taken in Shenzhen’s OCT quarter, shows the absence of the city’s dark satanic mills. The sculpted waterfall sits in a boulevard with decent cycle facilities a ‘local’ market selling curios like impossible Rubix cubes with 25 cubes per face, retro radios and freaky T-shirts.

Shenzhen’s not all like that, the sprawling Lianhuashan park was visibly poorer – it was crammed with young workers flying kites, courting, playing ball with their 1.1 kids and generally taking a break from their gruelling six day working week. Everyone speaks in different languages since they had flocked to the city from all corners of China. I seemed to be the only Cantonese speaker here (I wish). But so much of the city is either being built, or taking a pause from being built, while the property development company’s hyperventilating balance sheet takes a breather, that it lacked any sense of place. It doesn’t seem to have a proper centre. I wondered around for over an hour for someplace to have a coffee.

ShenzhenCentreThe photo to the right was taken in Citizen Square in the middle of the afternoon. The huge open space had occasional clumps of people gathered around un-Chinese street entertainers. I watched a twenty-something wearing a ‘Punk Girl’ T-shirt, but looking anything but, play folk guitar. The biggest crowd (though modest by HK standards) was in a shopping mall housing the three-storey Book City. That sort of says it all. Hong Kong people had written Shenzhen off as somewhere poor where you go and have a massage, buy cheap furniture or knock-off electronics (they’re already selling iWatch lookalikes; though sporting an Android OS) while Shenzhen this city of swots is quietly reinventing itself as the high end manufacturing / services hub of China.

My flat’s TV has just four terrestrial channels. Not much is broadcast in English and I am one of the five or so people that still watch ATV’s World channel. (A pollster tells me in typical pollster fashion that when offered the option 93% of his Hong interviewees prefer to respond to telephone questionnaires in Cantonese, and the remainder are split between between Mandarin and English.) Because of the collapse in TV viewing figures there are hardly any adverts, despite it being a so-called commercial TV channel. Perhaps, as a consequence, the distinction between advert and programme has all but vanished. My favourite programme is a travel show presented by two Chinese-Australian bimbos. They waltz around Southeast and South Asian countries. Each episode has them sampling food, experiencing some mildly extreme sport, checking out the wildlife before being exposed to some existentialist dilemma: “Should we try the ‘erbal all-over body rub or the Ayurvedic treatment.” The results are invariably – “totally awesome.” There is a fantastic world devoid of Pol Pot, Agent Orange, Tsunami and the Myanmar junta – an Asia I’m so looking forward to exploring.

NorthPointScaffoldA couple of people have been concerned about my safety and darkly muttered about the triads and crime. They’ll be relieved to hear that there were just 27 homicides in Hong Kong last year – a number ‘Godfather’ Al Pacino could cheerfully despatch and dismember over lunch. (Two of last year’s murders in HK were by an English banker.) This compares favourably to UK’s 600 murders last year. More distressingly there were 1000 suicides last year in Hong Kong. So dear family, the greatest threat I face is probably myself, followed by other English people. Hong Kong feels an incredibly safe place to live….unless you’re a construction worker. Check out the 10 storey bamboo scaffolding to the left. And it’s all held together by plastic ties and duct tape. The cost of installing solar PV in Europe would plummet if we did the same thing. Now there’s a thought.

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Learning Cantonese

It’s my fourth week of learning Cantonese. There are two schools of thought about how easy it is to learn Cantonese. There are some people (my Cantonese tutor) who say it’s easy to learn. There are others (the rest of the world) who say it’s very hard. My tutor explains: “The grammar is easy. The future tense is the same as the present tense so no need to learn different verb endings.” That’s nice to hear but there is a good reason why English has the future tense; it’s actually quite useful being able to tell her whether I have done my homework or will do my homework.

And then there are the tones. To give you some idea about their perverseness listen to this exposition of the six tones. Or you could listen to this one instead, espousing Cantonese’s nine tones. (Hang on, didn’t the other chap say there were just six.) I have a theory: there aren’t actually any tones and they’re just a concoction to make Westerners sound stupid. The Chinese instead use subtle smiles and winks to separate homonyms.

I’m not trying to learn the script. But it fascinating when you walk around and look at the beautiful traditional Chinese calligraphy. Each character depicts a single syllable. This is a terrible way of coding data. This means an educated Chinese reader needs to commit to memory several thousand characters to read a newspaper. Characters are by necessity complex because they have to cram all the different permutations of theoretically possible syllables: a starting consonant, a vowel sound, a tone and an ending consonant into a single character. We’d have never won the second world war if Turing had had to hack Japanese language codes, instead of German.

As a result you need an awful lot of strokes to depict relatively simple concepts. The characters for London need 11+14 strokes in classical Chinese 倫敦. In English we can write it with just 12 strokes. And as a bonus we can pronounce it from just looking at the letters and knowing what sounds to make even if you had never seen the word. One of the reforms made by Mao was to create simplified Chinese so that (伦敦 is London with 7+14 strokes) words are easier to write, but not much easier to read.

My progress is painfully slow. At my last class my tutor remarked something to the effect of: “I have a suspicion you are not significantly less intelligent than my other students. But you seem to know so little, I can only assume you are not putting the time in to between lessons to learn the vocabulary and tones.” Not the most motivating of conversations but she’s right. Even cramming half an hour each morning before work I’m still forgetting the most basic of words. Just one more week to go before the course finishes!

MTROne thing that has changed in my life is I’m not cycling everyday to work. Very few people commute by bike on Hong Kong Island. Partly this is just people being economically rationale. Hong Kong’s underground system – the MTR is outrageously good and jaw drop-ingly cheap (my daily commute of four miles costs the equivalent of 55p each way). And partly it’s the Hong Kong people’s extreme intolerance for any type of hazard or discomfort. My colleagues all drink bottled or boiled water, despite the measured drinking water quality being one of the best in the world. And they use the MTR because the experience is so civilised. The photo shows people queuing for the MTR during rush-hour. I’d like to draw your attention to three things: first off everyone is patiently standing in the assigned space waiting for the MTR to arrive, secondly staff (in the friendly yellow MTR colours) are there to help and thirdly every single person on the platform is looking at their smart phone. Yes, they have the phone reception underground. And I wish they’d get rid of it. No one speaks to each other on the MTR (except on the phone). Instead they can manifest an extreme HK solopcisim – they wear filters over their mouths and nose, earphones shield their ears and smartphones screens restrict their field of view. Only the inner world exists. The main theme of my job currently is sustainable consumption. But what hope has the environment got if it is no longer being perceived.

HongKongParkInstead of cycling, to get some exercise I walk the first two MTR stops to Admiralty through the botanic gardens and zoo which houses a whoop of gibbons, the noisiest and most agile monkey in the world, and watch twos and threes of people practising Tai-Chi near the gurgling fountains. Then I swerve around the old Government House which serves as the residence for CY Yeung the city’s chief executive, and finally cross the gorgeous Hong Kong Garden which has become my favourite park in the world. It’s a tiny oasis of nature amidst the downtown skyscrapers. This can’t be the same park that inspired Siouxsie & the Banshees to write their similarly titled song. I walk past the aviary with hundreds of species of bird (nice to see such variety flying around and not just in the canteen being eaten), squads of impossibly thin western women-that-workout-&-then-lunch racing up and down steps with the femininity of Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 being megaphoned by their Australian trainers, behind a manufactured waterfall that must have served as the backdrop for a million wedding photos and finally through the obligatory shopping mall to Admiralty MTR.

NespressoThe other thing I missed coming here was decent coffee. Maya awarded herself custody of the Nespresso machine despite my protestations she also had the TV, car, house etc too. But luckily the IFC shopping mall in Hong Kong harbour has a Nespresso outlet for capsules that I presume are couriered from Italy in judging by their cost. In combination with my office’s Nespresso machine I can get good coffee.

New_Terr_waterfallI was getting a little nervous I would forget how to cycle. It’d been six weeks since I’d last got on the saddle. This is the longest period I’ve not cycled since I was fifteen when my leg was in plaster. So, instructed by my Lonely Planet guide, I headed to the Tai Po Market in the New Territories where you can hire bikes and cycle off into the near-by national parks. Tai Po has a pretty extensive and heavily used system of bike trails criss-crossing the town. Within half an hour it’s possible to get to the Wilson Trail and walk to the most idyllic series of waterfalls and pools. See the selfie.

Anyway till next time…when I can tell you about my trip to Shenzhen. Happy New Year & Joi-gin.

Prashant, February 2015


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Arriving in Hong Kong

SheungWangPrashant in Hong Kong….for half of you this will be a “What the Hell….”moment and the other half will be wondering why it’s taken me so long to write. This is my fifth week away from the UK. I’ve been working for three weeks but more about that in a later letter.

I’m staying in a small studio apartment in Soho….the HK equivalent to London’s Soho I guess. My home, unusually for somewhere so central, is just three stories and there’s a bust of Sun Yat-Sen, the famous Chinese nationalist over my door.

It’s quite possible this is the HK equivalent of a blue plaque since tourists are constantly gawping at my room. One even peered in and asked why I lived here with my curtain open. “Was I an artist?” she asked. Do I look like Tracie Vermin?

The neighbourhood is very westernised. Nearby there’s an M&S Food store stocked with air-freighted ready meals a few doors from the Yorkshire Pudding boozer. I do mean Western rather than British. Just recently the newspapers announced the number of French people in Hong Kong exceeded the number of Brits. I think we have Sarkozy and Hollande’s mismanagement of the French economy to thank for the diaspora. Anyone who’s strolled around Hampstead Heath will understand when I say how much this makes me feel at home.

HK_SkylineHong Kong is very steep. My phone tells me I walked the equivalent of forty flights of stairs climbing up Victoria Peak. I live close to the escalator system. This consists of half a mile of linked walkways that climb from sea-level to the Mid-Levels. It’ll take you about twenty minutes to be lifted their full 135m rise. Everyday 50,000 use the system. After the escalator there’s another two kilometres of steep walking to leave the city to reach the Peak. But the views at the top are spectacular. Of course life isn’t just about views. There’s of course a shopping mall at the top including some surprisingly good value clothes shops.

VictoriaPeakBSideBut the most surreal thing after the climb is the other side. You hit the wilderness of Pok Fu Lam country park. This isn’t country park meaning a designation of land that allows rich squires to protect their views and maintain the sanctity of their golf courses. [Though HK does have its share of golf courses and squires.] This is proper wilderness…they’d be tigers here if they hadn’t all found their way in the cooking pot. This photo was taken less than forty minutes walk from where I live. The Big Wave Bay beach scene overleaf was taken a short MTR and bus ride from my house. The beach comes complete with surfing Ozzie’s.

RepulseBayI haven’t really worked out what takes Hong Kong tick. It feels preposterously prosperous. There’s little litter, people are polite and they queue nicely for the tube even in the rush hour. And the public services work well. To give an example, like everyone else, I have to obtain a HK Identity Card from the Immigration department. The website is easy to navigate, and it takes ten minutes to fill the forms. I was offered an interview slot in the early afternoon in a conveniently located office (as opposed to Croydon’s Lunar House). I took a flask of tea and lots of reading and told my colleagues I was unlikely to make it back to the office. But I was in and out of immigration within 20 minutes. In that time they undertook two speedy interviews, scanned my finger prints and took my photo. They promised my photo ID would be ready in a fortnight – and I am sure it will. My medical check was similarly efficient.

TradeDeficitSo things work. But what do people do in this tiny 1000 square kilometre state? There’s no agricultural or extraction sector, the territory’s people are too highly paid to support manufacture too. Instead, the economy is dominated by trade and professional services and the property market. The photograph shows cranes loading piles of containers that look like lego-bricks onto lines of impatient ships. But each brick is a 40 tonne container. “Made in China” is despatched from Hong Kong.

ZeroCarbonBuildingI have never known anywhere with more estate agents than Hong Kong. No one, except for rich speculators, can afford to buy in HK – so everyone rents. Estate agents thrive in this environment of one-year leases, since they CAN help themselves to one month’s rent as commission. And of course there’s shopping. Miles of it, layers and layers of it because HK is fundamentally a 3-d city. Megabox is a 19 story building with several floors of clothes and other high value impulse purchase shops, followed by several levels of IKEA, a floor of cinema, an ice rink, then foods courts and a gym at the top. The photograph was taken from one of the Megabox’s terraces and shows the Megabox’s antithesis HK’s largest zero carbon building. This has building integrated and non-integrated PV panels, a trigen power plant to provide cool air (fuelled by biogas) when the natural ventilation and large fans are insufficient and a waste-water treatment.

Prashant (January 2015, Hong Kong)



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Hi there. This is Prashant Vaze’s website. I am interested in environmental issues, consumer affairs, economics and various geeky things like data and programming.  I  live in Hong Kong.

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