30 October 2012

Hong Kong in 3 Acts

A brief history of Hong Kong in 500 words or less.  My sister, Valerie, an adjunct professor of English, gave me that assignment. “And don’t forget to make me laugh,” she directed. What’s funny about Opium Wars and flags? If anyone knows Valerie, they know she can find the humor in history. Me? Not so much, but I’m handing it in anyway, as it counts for half my grade this semester.

The Chinese consider the Opium Wars to be the beginning of their modern history. Therefore, my three-act history of Hong Kong Island will skip the B.C. building years of the Great Wall and pass over the years of the Silk Road to begin with the end of the last dynasty of China: Qing.

Here’s the dope on Hong Kong:

Act I: Lotus Eaters
1800s England-China trade relations were unbalanced. England bought more from the Qing Dynasty of China than it sold to it. To correct the imbalance, the Brits started selling opium to their masses. In order to control the spread of tar, the Chinese confiscated (read: stole) the British imports. The Brits didn’t care so much that the Chinese wanted to control the dream stick, what they did object to was the seizure of their ships. War erupted in 1839 and lasted until 1842. The Opium War was a violent conflict fought for better diplomatic relations, trade, and the administration of justice. The dynasty lost. It signed the Treaty of Nanking and ceded Hong Kong Island to the Union Jack.

John Quincy Adams had this to say about the Opium War: The cause of the war is the kowtow - the arrogant and insupportable pretensions of China that she will hold commercial intercourse with the rest of mankind not upon terms of equal reciprocity, but upon the insulting and degrading forms of the relations between lord and vassal.

Like Hollywood blockbusters, wars seem to come in pairs. A second Opium War ran from 1856 to1860. The previous treaty failed to meet England’s objective. After, Hong Kong remained under the Khakis’ rule. In 1898, the Brits leased the island from the Chinese for 99 years. When the WWII broke out, the Japanese occupied the island. In China, the prequel to WWII was in the 1930s, when a conflict with the Land of the Rising Sun had thousands fleeing the mainland for protection on the island. By the end of WWII the population of nearly two million Hong Kong citizens had dwindled to just 600,000.

In 1946, the Union Jack once again rose over the island. Hong Kong began its rise. Population, production, and prosperity grew. So, too, did the number of refugees from the mainland escaping the civil war between the Nationals and the Communists.

Act II: The Good Earth
History is lousy with civil wars and conflicts. With international battles behind them, Hong Kongers under British leadership focused their attention on peace and prosperity. The 1950s were a time of growth. Textiles, printing, and light industry on the island put people to work, money in pockets, and babes in arms. Through the years, there was some civil discord and workers’ demands for better pay and conditions. Riots broke out in the late 1960s fueled by China’s Cultural Revolution, but by the 1970s, living conditions improved and unrest subsided. Hong Kong became a powerhouse in the region and established itself as the “Asian Tiger.”

As the island developed, Sino-British talks of the future of Hong Kong increased. The 99-year lease would expire in 1997. A Joint Declaration was signed, stating that Hong Kong would be part of the communist-led country but retain its capitalist economic system and keep its somewhat democratic political system for 50 years after the handover.

Then, in 1989, pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square were massacred. Talks of democratic safeguards for Hong Kongers took urgency.

Act III: Joy Luck Club
In July 1997, after 150 years under British rule, the Union Jack was lowered and the island fell under Beijing’s control. In a ceremony marking the handover, the new Bauhinia Orchid flag was raised with the help of a fan to blow it so it so it would fully unfurl and majestically wave. With the British governor out and its new director, or Chief Executive, in, Hong Kong was open for business.

Under the “one country, two-system rule,” Hong Kong was declared a Special Administrative Region (SAR). Although the 1st Chief Executive was hand-picked by Beijing, elections were held for a new Legislative Council (LegCo). Pro-democracy candidates took the majority of seats and still hold the majority today.

As with any fledgling government, breakouts occur. Citizens take to the streets every July to mark the anniversary of the handover and there’s a separate date on which citizens remember the slaughter in Tiananmen Square. Mass protests erupted after Beijing introduced an anti-subversion law, Article 23, in response to the Falun Gong spiritual movement. Pope Benedict XVI appointed an outspoken advocate of democracy as cardinal to Hong Kong’s Catholics, and Beijing issued a strong warning for the leader to stay out of politics, which sparked a rally for full democracy. Last month, tens of thousands of demonstrators marched against a Beijing-backed moral and national education curriculum.

Protests and pro-democracy demonstrations can only last for so many years. According to the Joint Declaration, 50 years after the 1997 handover, Hong Kong will lose its SAR status and become just another city in Communist China. Rallies and sit-ins are sure to continue until 2047, when a new flag will fly over the island.

27 September 2012


Scorching headlines from around the world read of crises, violence and nuclear threat. It’s all so gloomy I’ve been switching to other channels and brushing past newsstands without even a glance at the latest Hello! cover. But just the other day I froze in my tracks when I saw Singapore’s banner news.

The tiny island nation figures big on a global scale. By the estimates of Citibank Private Wealth and Knight Frank, an international property management company, Singapore’s GDP per capita is the highest in the world. That makes it the world's wealthiest country! It is banking on that status through to 2050.

Wealth isn’t the only nugget of news from the city-state. According to the Happy Planet Index, Singapore pays dearly for their prosperity. The HPI ranks the Lion City a lowly 90th out of 151 counties in the world.

I think Gunter Grass said it best: Melancholy and utopia are heads and tails of the same coin.

Or was it Albert Camus when he wrote, “Utopia is that which is in contradiction with reality.”

This is my final blog posting from Singapore. I’ll be leaving the Strait Life in Singapore for the Mid-Level Life in Hong Kong. Stay tuned for a brief history of the Fragrant Harbor.

15 August 2012

Raemarks Index

9 August 2012 marked Singapore’s 47th year of independence. To celebrate the nation’s birthday, the government hosted its annual National Day Parade. The military marched, dance groups performed, and songs about Singapore were sung.

Number of National Day Parade participants: 2,000
Number of National Day Parade grandstand spectators: 30,000
Estimated amount spent on fireworks display: $1,000,000
Total population of Singapore: 5,183,000
Singapore citizen population: 3,257,000
Cash bonus the government gives a family for giving birth to a
1st or 2nd child: $4,000
Cash bonus the government gives a family for giving birth to a
3rd or 4th child: $6,000
Approximate number of private cars on the road: 570,240
Cost of a government-issued certificate that entitles a driver to own a car below 1600cc: $73,501
Cost of a government-issued certificate that entitles a driver to own a car above1600cc: $94,502
Number of athletes who competed in nine different sports in the 2012 Summer Olympics: 23
Singapore’s total medal count at the 2012 Summer Olympics:
2 Bronze

For each National Day Parade, the government issues a new theme and commissions an official song.  This year's theme was Loving Singapore, Our Home, and the offical NDP song was "Love at First Light". On National Day, Singaporeans from all walks of life were “to reflect on what it means to love our country, what we appreciate about Singapore, and how each individual can express their love for the nation.”

Some creative citizens did just that. They expressed their love for the nation through song. "National Night" raps that citizens should go all the way. For years the city-state has had a negative birthrate. The Mentos-sponsored tune sings for citizens to do their civic duty by performing in the bedroom - no brith control, please!  The unofficial NDP song is officially popular.
Number of "National Night" YouTube video hits: 339,890

27 April 2012

Hereafter Today, Gone Tomorrow

Confucius says: We should keep the dead before our eyes, and honor them as though still living. The Chinese do just that every April during Qingming, Tomb-Sweeping Day. It is an occasion for the living to remember the dead. Families gather in cemeteries to tidy the tombs of their ancestors. Descendants provide support and comfort to their dead relatives in the afterlife by offering them food and drink and by burning incense. They also burn paper play money and other items made from paper such as clothing, jewelry, houses, cars, appliances – even iPads! It is believed that the family will have a prosperous year if they follow this custom. Qingming is an ancient tradition that dates back to 770-476 B.C. This year, the tradition will die for many Singaporeans.

Dental Stuff


Paper Money



iPad and iPhones


Haunting news in the city-state is the government’s plan to pave over another cemetery. Bukit Brown cemetery, one of the world’s oldest and largest Chinese graveyards outside of China, is slated for destruction. I first mentioned Bukit Brown in my blog entry, Rent in Peace. It is more than a cemetery. It is a nature preserve where gigantic, mature trees provide homes for a variety of birds and shade for nature lovers and joggers. It is an enchanting heritage site where the jungle entangles elaborate graves - some dating back to the1830s. The
government will move this heavenly earth to make way for an 8-lane highway and public housing.

Brave souls have signed a petition to save Bukit Brown. In a country where it isn’t customary to lobby the government or speak out against the word of law, it is unlikely there will be enough signatures to bury the project. Earlier this month I returned to the cemetery as the sun was rising. A rooster was standing on a tomb heralding the new day. The agency in charge of the 5,000+ exhumation, the Land Transport Authority (LTA), had a banner stretching across the entrance with an office trailer underneath. The LTA will cover the cost of the removal, the cremation, and the columbarium at the only cemetery still in operation: Choa Chu Kang. Or, if the family prefers, the LTA will scatter the ashes at sea when it is convenient for the agency. If the living isn’t happy with the government options for the dead, then the family is expected to pay for the removal and all costs that arise from it.

My recent outing to Bukit Brown coincided with Qingming. It is inspiring to watch families celebrating on the tombs of their ancestors. After they weed and scrub clean the gravesite, they layout the food: chicken, oranges, rice, coffee, etc. To entice their ancestral ghosts to the feast, they burn joss stick (incense). One-by-one the relatives kneel before the headstone and pray. Next to the tomb sits the stack of paper joss (paper offerings) with the paper play money fanned throughout the pile. It is set aflame. Once the flame dies down, the family gathers around it and throws paper strips in the air while shouting “Huat! Huat! Huat!” Prosper! Prosper! Prosper!

The colorful paper mound turns to ash in seconds, but one color in Bukit Brown cemetery remains. Red-tipped sticks marking the graves slated for removal and red-slashed tree trunks marking the fall.

01 April 2012

People Eating in Singapore

What is Singapore’s favorite pastime? Shopping? Soccer? Chewing gum? One day in the city-state is all it takes to discover that the favorite pastime is eating. From high-end restaurants to common hawker centers, exotic foods are served – turtle soup, chicken feet, and the politically incorrect shark fin soup. Out of all the strange and wonderful concoctions I’ve tried, Soylent Green is my favorite.

The island nation is hot and crowded. Every day the temperature promises to reach beyond 80-degrees with 100% humidity. 4 million people live in an area roughly three times the size of Washington DC and the population is growing. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. Thank goodness Soylent Industries has created a delicious and nutritious cuisine. It is a real people pleaser here and is almost as popular as the country's signature dish, chicken rice.

Soylent Green is best compared with tofu. It comes packaged in a block, but is green and stiff. People prepare it in all the same ways as tofu. But where tofu lacks backbone, Soylent Green has a full-bodied flavor which is head and shoulders above its distant cousin.

I will miss Soylent Green when I leave Singapore. But who knows on what distant shores it will one day appear. Soylent Industries’ officials boast they have an endless supply to feed the world. As long as the population grows, so will its product. Soylent Green is people.

28 February 2012

Walk This Rae

A friend of mine was planning her first trip to New York City and asked me what she should do to not seem like a tourist. That’s easy. All she had to do was dress from head-to-toe in black, never make eye contact, and be prepared to hear fuckin’ in everyday speech.

When I was preparing to move to Singapore, the thought of looking like a local didn’t cross my mind. No one was going to confuse this Caucasian Midwesterner of being remotely Asian. Just because I didn’t look like a native didn’t mean I shouldn’t act like one. As an American expatriate it was important for me to learn and adopt local laws and customs. Some actions I was happy to follow like no pointing, never leaving chopsticks resting in a bowl of rice, and not think it rude to slurp hot noodle soup. Other actions, however, I am far too considerate to abide.

About three times a week I grocery shop. Rather than stock up with a trip or two a month, I prefer to shop as I need things. Whenever possible, I walk to and from the stores. Not too long ago I was walking home from the store with a bag in each hand. I was walking along a 3-foot wide passage between two apartment complexes lined by a fence on one side and a cement wall on the other. A woman was approaching in the opposite direction. As we got closer I squeezed my bags tighter to me so we could pass without touching. She shuffled as far left as possible and I shuffled right. All of the sudden, from behind me a man tried to pass by my right side, knocking me with such force that my body and bags smacked into the passing woman. The Englishman took a few steps before turning around to face me. He said, “I’m sorry. I guess I’ve been in Singapore too long.”

Walking in the city-state is a contact sport. The society’s deep-seeded belief of kiasu (do whatever it takes to “win”; never lose face) extends to sidewalks. They never give way; never surrender. Whenever I approach two or thee locals walking side-by-side on a sidewalk, they’ll make eye contact as they remain in their positions forcing me off the sidewalk and often times into the street. It isn’t because I am an American, a woman, or because I wear wingtips with dresses. They're equal opportunity sidewalk hogs sparing no man, woman or child no matter race, religion or nationality. Forget a Mexican standoff. This is a Singaporean standoff. A success on the sidewalk is a success in life.

Native New York pedestrians don’t play that game. Locals wake up feeling 10 lengths behind. They don’t have time to horse around. In order to keep pace, they find the holes in the packs and walk between and around to get to where they are going with as little resistance as possible. NYC isn’t called The Big Apple because they play chicken. The moniker comes from horseracing circles of the 1920’s. A thoroughbred’s greatest treat was a big apple. Arriving without incident at one’s destination is the New Yorker’s greatest reward.

There is no moniker for Singapore. If I had to create one by picking a fruit I’d call it The Big Durian. In Asia, the durian is known as the “King of Fruit.” It is larger than a cantaloupe, but smaller than a watermelon. The outer skin is thick and thorny and the flesh inside is creamy rather than juicy. It has a warming effect so it is advised not to be eaten while drinking coffee or alcohol. Because its overpowering odor is similar to a rotting corpse, it is banned from most public buildings and apartment complexes. Taking a durian on any public transportation carries a $500 fine. Singapore is hot and the pedestrian’s prickly, king-of-the-hill attitude on the city streets really stinks! SGP. The Big Durian.

Many seasoned tourists don’t want to look like tourists when they visit foreign cities. When I’m on the streets of Singapore, I don’t mind being polite and standing out as a newcomer. If anyone plans to visit and wants to know how to behave as a local, it’s easy. Be the cock of the walk.