Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Hong Kong and British Colonialism

The Hong Kong Island skyline really is quite stunning, particularly on a sunny day.  It is very hot on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront.  I was running by and just snapped a few photos without stopping.   Hong Kong Island is just one big rock.  Yet so many high rises have been built on the edge of the water.  Many of them are actually sitting on reclaimed land, which means they are standing in what was part of the harbour.  Yet so many of them break the silhouette of the rock.  

All these, the buildings, the reclamation, the city, the people, the wealth, the relatively inclusive and open political institutions and economic system, the many companies, the schools, the universities, the hospitals, …, would not have happened without the Opium War, without the British occupying Hong Kong for more then 150 years.  

Yes, many would argue that it has been the millions of Chinese who worked so hard to build Hong Kong.  But without the British making Hong Kong a colony ruled, more or less, by law, would it have attracted so many to come to do business, to live, to escape from the many turmoils in China, to build, to teach, to make Hong Kong great?  

Certainly the British imperialists did it for their own benefit, not for ours.  But we enjoy the side-benefits nevertheless.  Dare I ask the question: shall we be grateful if the benefits are un-intended?  Mind you, some of them British would claim that the benefits are intended.  

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Relationship of Power and Privilege

Much has been said about the relationship of power and privilege in service-learning.  Those students providing the service are in a position of power and privilege in relation to the people that they serve.  The two sides are not equal.  For example, the students tend to be comparatively more educated, healthy and affluent, enjoying higher social status, more freedom of movement, and better outlook in life.   It is, of course, a great opportunity for the students to learn.   But students are not always aware of these relationships.  And even when they are, they may not have the skills to analyse the specific relationships, the implications on their interaction and conduct themselves properly.  As a consequence, the students often do not learn as much as they could.  Worse, they may draw the wrong conclusions and cause offence unintentionally.  We cannot blame them.  They are students after-all.  It is the responsibility of us teachers to guide them.  But are we always capable of doing so?

For example, some students conclude that at least part of the reason that people living in the slums is that they do not work hard enough.  Some derive a lot of satisfaction from giving small gifts to the under-privileged.  Others use gifts to compel the under-privileged to change their behaviour in the way they expected.  Some treat the under-privileged only as research subjects.  With presumably good intentions, they contribute to perpetuate the unequal power and privilege relationship, and worse, abuse that relationship.  Sad to say, some of the teachers do not behave any better.  I feel a great responsibility towards my students as well as fellow teachers.   We encourage people to get involved.  But are they ready? 

On the other hand, often the people that we are supposed to be serving turn out to be more agile, physically stronger, and be able to function under difficult environments (such as extreme heat or cold) than our students.  It is often because of the harsh conditions that they are living under.   Mentally too, I suspect they may be more resilient.  It is often said that suffering builds character.  If it is true, then the people our students serve have much to teach our students (and us teachers) in resiliency and character.  When I think of how fragile some of the young people today can be, service-learning takes on additional importance as part of whole-person education.  

So the traditional view of a one-sided power and privilege relationship in service-learning may not be complete.  Complex as it is, there is even more to it.  As a human being, I feel I have to face up to it whether I want to or not, because it affect my relationship with everyone I come into contact with, not just in service-learning.  

I started to get involved in service-learning wanting to do something good. Little did I realise I would be learning so much about life from it.  God is gracious and He has been leading my every step.   

Friday, May 18, 2018

Computer Games for the Elderly

What can we do for the elderly?  Many of them languish in nursing homes when their families cannot take care of them.  Even the best nursing homes do not have enough manpower to keep them engaged sufficiently.  So many of them just sit all day, lacking the stimulation to be active, deteriorating faster than necessary.  

One of our service-learning projects aim to use technology to keep them engaged.  The team is led by a young teaching fellow who is an expert in computer games.  In addition to research and teaching, and to develop innovative computer games for young people, he is teaching a team of our students to develop computer games and gadgets to engage the elderly, to give them appropriate stimulation to move, to engage, to retain flexibility and mobility.  

Some of the games encourage the elderly to learn hand gestures that gradually reveal a pleasing photograph on screen.  They were actually originally designed for handicapped children in a special school. They worked.  Someone then pointed out that the elderly face similar challenges of fine movement, and can benefit from similar games.  So the team made adaptations to the games and tested them with the elderly in a nursing home.  

We solicited the help from an organisation specialising in helping people like us understand the constraints on the elderly to get our students to learn to work with the elderly.  With purpose-designed equipment, the students experienced walking with their backs bent, and loaded down with heavy weights, to appreciate the difficulties that they elderly are challenged with.  

Then the students went back to the drawing board and the workshop to design games and gadgets that would be attractive and appropriate for the elderly.  Instead of the keyboard, mouse, joystick, etc., they created large buttons, soft cuddly ears, and other gadgets for the elderly to control the computer games.  

We even engaged a team of primary school students to work with the elderly, to teach the grandpas and grandmas to play the games. The seniors love the kids.  There are, of courses, hiccups and failures along the way.  But by and large the children, our students, and the elderlies enjoy the experience.  Not only that our university students are learning to engage the elderly, the primary school students are getting their taste of the satisfaction of feeling useful in community engagement.  We hope that this will stay with them as they grow up.  

We keep telling our professors and students that what they do have to be befitting their status as university students.  That they have to make use of the knowledge and skills learned in university.  That the projects have to be challenging enough.  That the projects have to truly benefit the people that the serve.  That they have to learn something about themselves, the people that they serve, and the community.  I think they have succeeded in this project, and we look forward to more.  

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Study of Chinese History

Some pro-establishment types in Hong Kong are arguing that students should be required to study Chinese History as a subject for the open examination upon secondary school graduation - the so called DSE.  The premise is that study of Chinese History will compel students to be more “patriotic” - what they actually mean is to be more supportive of the establishment in Mainland China.  

I am rather skeptical of that premise. 

I love Chinese History.  I got an A in Chinese History in the open examination in 1973.  Of course I studied hard.  Not because I had to, but because I truly enjoyed it.  I am truly curious about what happened and why.  I read Chinese History as fascinating stories.  I still do.  

Going back 2,000+ years, there was a fascinating burst of creativity in the Spring-Autumn Period, when Confucius (孔子), Lao Zi (老子), Zhuang Zi (莊子), Mo Zi (墨子) and many others speculated on those philosophies that still permeates the way we believe, think and behave even today.  I want to know why and how it happened, and why it has not continued.  

So many foreign peoples were absorbed into and enriched the Chinese people, again and again.  Many people who consider themselves Chinese these days are actually descendants of the sworn enemies of the Han people (漢族), such as: Xiongnu (匈奴),  Jurchen (女真), Khitan (契丹), …  Their ancestors should be turning over in their graves now, if they know what is happening.  

I memorised the names of all 10 emperors of the Qing Dynasty because they had very different characters and achievements - or non-achievements.  I wanted to know how they turned China from one of the strongest and richest countries in the world in the late 1600s into one of the weakest and poorest in the 1800s - in less than 200 years.  They have committed a terrible crime against the Chinese people and I want to hold them responsible.  

It is equally important how Mainland China and Hong Kong went into radically different paths after the Second World War.  In Hong Kong we have been building a relatively open and inclusive society, where practically everyone has access to a reasonable education, where the law is respected, where people wait in line for the bus, where we can worship the gods of our own choosing, where people can come and go freely, …, despite a few hiccups.  

While in the mainland there have been famines caused by terrible economical policies, repeated violent political struggles against one faction and then another, the Great Leap Forward which was nothing but, the terrible terrible Cultural Revolution from which the country has not yet full recovered.  It is only since the reform set in motion in 1978 when things start to stablize.  Even now there is endemic corruption, people are still being sent to jail for political dissent, practicing religious beliefs, and simply for speaking up and trying to discover the truth. 

Studying history has helped me understand what went on before and why, that China does not have to be in this position, that China does not have to remain in this status, that China can be more open and inclusive, more like Hong Kong.  Does studying Chinese History help people understand China better?  Definitely.  Does it make people love the current establishment more?  I doubt it very much.   Unless if what they mean by Chinese History is actually party propaganda.  Now that is a totally different matter.  

Friday, May 11, 2018

Death trap on the street

On of these days, someone is going to be looking one way and walking the other, or perhaps watching the small screen on the smartphone, or simply distracted, 

and walk into the guillotine.  

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Common People’s Hong Kong - Shum Shui Po

There is a Hong Kong where rich people haunt.  There is a Hong Kong of tourist attractions.  There is a Hong Kong where mainland shoppers frequent.  There is also a Hong Kong where real people live, shop, and … simply survive..  Shum Shui Po is such a place.  

One can start with Tai Hang Sai Estate (大坑西邨), one of the oldest surviving public housing estates, with the oldest building built in 1965.  Most residents who can afford it have covered the original balcony with windows, leaving dark gaping holes where the original balconies are.  Even though I am not quite sure whether it violates the building code. Most people can afford air conditioners now. Some even install the more expensive split-type.  So even public housing tenants fall into different classes.  Some people continue to dry their wash in the street.  

Right at the estate is an area with open air cooked food stalls.  Here you can get congee, fried eggs, coffee, or dim sum for breakfast, noodles for lunch, stir fry and other regular dishes for dinner.  All at a reasonable price and reasonable quality.  

Then one can cross over to Shek Kip Mei (石硤尾).  The original resettlement estates (徙置屋邨)  to settle those who lost their homes in a huge fire in the shantytown in 1953) have all been torn down, except one saved for special purposes.  The newer public housing are much taller than those in Tai Hang Sai.  

Along Nam Cheong (南昌) Street, a whole block of old buildings has been bought up by a real estate developer, destined to be torn down to be replaced by much taller, and much more expensive private housing.  Many tenants have been forced to sell, for a sum which will not be enough to enable to buy an apartment in the same area.  A common story in Hong Kong.  

Further down Nam Cheong street, there are a couple of old pawn shops (當鋪).  One distinctive feature is their bat-wing signs.  Presumably it is because the Chinese character for bat () sounds like the word for “blessings, or rich ()”.  The other feature is that the pawn broker sits behind metal bars 3 feet above the customer, presumably so that the customer cannot threaten the broker, and to make the customer feel inferior.  

Nearby are at least 2 snake soup (蛇羹) shops.  The snake soup is supposed to be very good for the body, particularly in the cold winter, and very delicious.  They used to also sell you the gallbladder of the snake (蛇膽), taken directly from the snake when the snake was alive.  It seemed to have been banned.  But my favourite is actually the glutinous rice with Chinese sausages (臘味糯米飯).  

Ap Liu (鴨寮) street, full of all kinds of electronics and related stuff, is also right there.  Here you can buy SIM cards for many countries.  Unfortunately, not for Rwanda, apparently.  

Brother Ming’s (明哥) restaurant used to be on Pei Ho Street (北河街), hence the name of the restaurant.  But he has been forced to move to Tai Nam Street by exorbitant rent rises.  He is famous for giving away free food to the poor.  

Around the corner is Pei Ho Wet Market, where you can get all kinds of seafood for a reasonable price.  Even live grouper from Philippines, Indonesia, …

There are at least 2 temples nearby.  At the San Taizi Temple (Third Prince Temple, 三太子, 哪吒), many gods are worshiped.  One specializes in giving benefits for academic studies.  Many people have deposited their wishes here: good results for the open examinations, “my son must get into xxx (an elite school)”, …

There is also a Tin Hau Temple (天后廟), one of 300+ in Hong Kong.  Tin Hau specialises in protecting fishermen, which was much more important in days past, hence they are so popular.  Nowadays she grants all kinds of wishes.  And other gods are also worshiped, to broaden the appeal, I suppose.  One can draw a fortune stick (求籤), which carries a number, which links to a cryptic poem which tells you fortune.  

Then there is the shantytown under the highway flyover at Tung Chau Street (通州街).  Here people who cannot get into public housing and cannot afford (or tolerate the poor condition of) subdivided flats build little sheds.  The government has been trying all tricks to remove them, dismantling any unoccupied shed and fencing up the space.  But where are they supposed to go?

This is real Hong Kong, away from the glamour, tourists and mainland shoppers.  

Friday, May 04, 2018

Evolution: Random or Determined?

Went to a talk by Prof. Simon Conway Morris of University of Cambridge. The title of the talk was “Evolution: Random or Determined”. He did not address the question directly.  His theme, it seems, was that a lot of behaviour which seems to be nascent versions of human behaviour are actually quite different.  The implication appears to be that evolution is not random, that humans evolve in a determined way.  

Many animals seem to use a form of rudimentary language, which is very different from the very complex human languages.  When a person tells a dog to “walk”, the dog will go walking.  But a human associates a lot of context and meaning with a walk, which hardly seems to be the case with a dog.   A human taps rhythmically and automatically to music, which no animal seems capable of doing. 

Humans seem to read each other’s minds instinctively.  But no animal seems to be able to do.  He asked that question: what makes us humans so radically different from other animals?  

It is quite an interesting and thought provoking talk.  I am glad I took the time to go, even though I am extremely busy.  I have to give my own talk at our Book Club on the Protestant Reformation tomorrow evening and I am still preparing for it.