Purpose one: writing a travelogue to describe my various trips.

Purpose two: muse.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Saigon Scooters

The scooters in Saigon are driven along the same principles, and thus approximately the same speed, as bumper cars. Looking to the sides or backwards is not done, so the horn functions as an important, low-tech proximity indicator.

Pictures or words won't do it justice, so here are a couple of videos. They are noisy, so check your volume.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Serenity in Saigon Temples

I saw a couple of temples in Saigon today, and had the most serene experience so far. The temples in Hong Kong were impressive, more for their size and design than the peace and solemnity one would expect to find at a temple. The Taoist temples weren't full of tourists, but still bustling with locals that were visiting in a worshipping capacity. That seemed to involve as much hanging out as praying or meditating. Kind of like a modern American church.

I'm no expert, but I find buddhist worship confusing. As I understand buddhism, it's different from most other religions in that it preaches internal spirituality. A sort of extreme existentialism without a divinity. Yet the buddhists are clearly worshipping Buddha. If Buddha himself was a buddhist, surely he did not advocate this type of worldly behavior. Offering incense and other little items such as fruit seems not just orthogonal, but downright opposite to what he taught. I don't see how he could have condoned offerings, a direct execution of gain and loss.

There must be a wide-spread need to worship, since the buddhists seems adamant about worshipping Buddha, whether that is buddhism or not, as he himself taught it. It also seems that all religions suffer from perversion.

The inside of Vinh Nghiem was quite impressive. There was a ceremony going on, and I was not comfortable taking pictures. You can see some here.

The Vinh Nghiem temple and another I went to but didn't get the name

Inside the Jade Empress Pagoda. Small yet elaborate.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta

I stole that title from Kate Braverman. I don't have tall tales, but I did get to hold a Python, navigate small canals and see the sunrise over the Mekong.

I also tried some coconut candy. It was sweet like pineapple and creamy like Danish butter -- quite a treat.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Hong Kong Stats

Leaving Hong Kong with such an impression of perfection, I decided to look up some stats. I compare some data between Hong Kong, USA, Netherlands and China.

I won't fill up the blog with the numbers, but here are some observations.

Hong Kong does best for health and safety. Life expectancy is the highest there, its infant mortality is lowest, and its death rate is also the lowest. The death rate is a crude but useful aggregate indicator of things like fatal work accidents, traffic safety, violent crime, etc.

The USA was richest in purchasing power of its residents, but Hong Kong was close behind, higher than Netherlands.

Literacy and education is better than China, but not as good as USA or Netherlands. It's a little tricky to evaluate these things as 'literacy' is defined differently in different countries.

Hong Kong has by far the highest Gini coeffecient, measuring income inequality (crudely). This is in line with my own observation. I didn't see a lot of outright poverty; you'll see more homeless people in San Francisco or Seattle than in Hong Kong. However, a lot of low-level positions that are being automated in the West are still done by people in Hong Kong. You see a lot of parking attendants, receptionists, footmen in lobbies, street cleaners, etc.

I'm not sure if this is good or bad. Low-level jobs are good as gateways to the job market. There's also an advantage to immigrants. It's better to be cleaning in Hong Kong than unemployed in the Phillipines. Unemployment is at or near the natural rate even in a recession year. Still, if there is a class of people stuck in low-level jobs, that would be sad.

Finally, Hong Kong has an extremely low murder rate, #4 from the bottom, with only Japan, Saudi-Arabia and Qatar ahead.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Hong Kong's Fabulous Foods

For me, traveling is very much a culinary experience. A major reason I like Hong Kong so much is the food.

You can evaluate foods in two ways: 1. What's the best food you can get? 2. What's the average or consistency in food quality? Hong Kong has excelled by either measure: I've dined at a couple of the best restaurants in the world, and I have not had a bad meal.

Service has been a bit of hit and miss. Asian service seems to be hands-off, to the point where you need to flag the waiter to do the ordinary parts of a dining experience, such as ordering or paying. Language problems can amuse, as for instance the vegetarian restaurant offering me chicken, ham, sausage and seafood, neither of which I wanted.

Luk Yu teahouse has been my favorite -- authentic, friendly service, and the dim sum is the best I've had

Monday, March 23, 2009

Fairytale City

Hong Kong from Victoria Peak

You walk down an immaculate street, wondering if you can make your itinerary for an ambitious day. Your shoes never stick, you see no discarded paper cups, no errant paper blowing in the wind. The tiles are even and none are missing or cracked.

You come through a beautiful park with green shrubs, colorful flowers and an elegant fountain.

Fairytale Fountain

You descend into the metro station on a ramp that is smooth and shiny like marble. You get to the sprawling underworld with several levels and halls leading in all directions. Bilingual signs everywhere guide you to where you need to go, past neat shops and automated ticket dispensers that always work.

The train arrives on time a few minutes later, and you get into a car with clean, comfortable seats. The train moves quietly and fast, and you get to your destination as scheduled.

Again using the helpful signs, you exit the metro station by one of the numerous ramps within a block from where you need to be.

You get to the teahouse you want and a friendly waiter seats you and immediately serves you refreshing tea. You feast on sumptuous dim sum and other little meals until you are fat and happy.

You go outside and hail a cab. You get one immediately. The cab driver is polite and turns on the meter automatically. You drive down an even road with no cracks or potholes. The markings look like they were put there yesterday.

As you drive past the Louis Vuitton and Gucci stores, you notice that while it's a crowded city, and there are people everywhere, the traffic moves and you are never stuck or crammed.

You get out by the harbor to wait for the ferry. Unsurprisingly, it departs on time a few minutes later. The ocean air hits your nostrils and you get an incongruous whiff of sewage. As the ferry carries you to another scenic island, you take in the view of the stupefying expanse of high-rise below the green hills.

Fairytale Ferry (I cheated here: of course the commuter ferries didn't look like this)

You get off the ferry and walk down a lavish promenade. You are getting a little tired, so you take one of the ubiquitous escalators up the hill to your destination. You notice the handrail looks new and its motion is perfectly synchronized with the stairs.

At the top, you turn around to enjoy another arresting view of Fairytale City. You are well ahead of schedule in this town where everything works and everyone hustles. You relax and enjoy.

You are in Hong Kong.

Fairytale Flowers

Cleaning Fairytale City

Fairytale Paths and Staircases -- notice the perfect tile work

Sunday, March 22, 2009


Today was temple tour. I visited Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin, Fung Ying Seen Koon and Ching Chung Koon. They were each sprawling compounds with many buildings, lakes and gardens.

Garden Pagodas at Sik Sik

Bonsai at Sik Sik

Pictures from Ching Chung Koon

Taoist Murals at Fung Ying Seen Koon

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Today's Word: Opulent

Adjectives come to mind like raindrops as you bum around Hong Kong. Today's word is opulent.

Fountain and Walkway at base of Central Plaza

Bank of China

Flower garden at the top of Victoria Peak

Judging from the designer furniture on display, the inside of Hong Kong homes are as luxurious as the outside. I realize this is a poor indicator, but somebody must buy this stuff.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Elliot, Forgotten Father

Charles Elliot

I was at the Museum of History today. I found the presentation of Hong Kong history to be really good, and the interior was characteristally elegant and clean.

One thing that struck me in the presentation was the somewhat dichotomic approach to figures and events, in the sense that something or someone either failed or succeeded. For instance, both posters and movie presentations referred to Macartney as having "failed," where a Western account may just have said that he had an impossible task and did as well as he could under the circumstances.

It was not surprising, but still disappointing, Elliot should receive such little attention. If Hong Kong has a founding father, it is Charles Elliot. (Not to be confused with the bigotted Eliot that came to Hong Kong much later). Elliot not only was the first to suggest Hong Kong as a suitable location to the Colonial Office, he also defied orders and stipulated its cession at the first convention with the Chinese. He was also the commanding British officer taking possession of the island.

Elliot is a fascinating figure. Although his appointment to China was nepotistic, he dispatched his duties with energy and compunction. Like a 19th century Picard, he acted judiciously, taking his office seriously while maintaining respect for the local population and a policy of peace and restraint.

A case in point is when Dent was stuck in Canton just as hostilities were about to break out. With just four sailors, Elliot proceeded to enter Canton, outmanouvering a small fleet of junks trying to block him. He hoisted the flag over the super-intendent's office, indicating official UK presence and thereby showing government support for the compatriots and making the issue international. It is unclear what would have happened to Dent with a less dutiful plenipotentiary, but Elliot's actions were surely both daring and keen.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Hong Kong First Impressions

One word: splendor.

Everything is big, posh, clean and well-maintained.

The skyline goes on forever. Manhattan got nothing on Hong Kong.


Here's one little detail from Hong Kong's cityscape. The square where this tree grows is quite big, squeaky clean and I saw no cracks or bulges in the pavement (it probably helps that it never freezes here). Notice the plants in front of the sushi shop. They were real plants and lined up all along the marble facade.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Travel Preparation Tips for China

Here are three important things I learned in preparing for my China trip.

1. The most useful site I used for research: Seat61. It mainly contains information about trains, such as time tables, description of the classes, where to get tickets, etc. I'm counting 18 Asian countries in the index, and the other continents are also represented, with an emphasis on Europe. While it's mostly about trains, other information for each country is also summarized, such as visa information, currencies, etc. There are links to many other informational sites, including embassies and booking sites.

2. Using an agency for getting the Chinese visa. At the consulate, I was blocked by onerous documentation requirements. They wanted to know my booking arrangement for each day and night I will spend in China, something that would have been literally impossible in my case, since land-based traveling can only be arranged within a few weeks of the local trip. After a recommendation from some friends, I used the agency instead and it was smooth sailing.

3. Vaccinations: If you want inoculation against Hepatitis B, start more than one month before the trip. It's a three-step vaccination process, and the second injection needs to be administered one month after the first. Getting just the first injection does not give any immunity, from what I was told.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Mirror Metaphor Mystery

I'm reading a Chinese short story collection which includes the story "The Floating City" by Xi Xi. I'm sure "The Floating City" is a metaphor for Hong Kong, but several of the other metaphors escape me.

One of them is about mirrors. In "The Floating City," mirrors reflect the back of things, so that if you look into one, you see the back of your head instead of your face.
"In the floating city's mirrors you can't find any answers or forecast the
future. But you can know the past, and this is not necessarily a bad
thing. History can teach lessons, and this is one of the good things
about the mirrors in the floating city."

I wonder if this is a reference to the enlightenment philosophy of reason, knowledge and science, which focuses on describing things as they are in the here and now, and how they came to be that way, without divining about the future. This seems opposed to many other philosophies, including eastern and religious ones, with prophesies, oracles, astrology, etc, many of which contains a divination aspect.

If that is indeed the reference, it is a profound insight by Xi Xi.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Length of Posts

My aim is to keep blog entries short.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Atomism Underrated

The classical Atomists are known for accurately describing chemical processes over two thousand years before empirical evidence corroborated their account. Given their limited starting point, this accomplishment is impressive.

There is something else, and more important, that distinguishes the Atomists from their contemporary philosophers. Their approach anticipated much of what we now know about science and knowledge. They were content with describing mechanical processes, instead of pursuing teleological dead-ends.

Bertrand Russell writes:
"[...] experience has shown that the mechanistic question leads to scientific knowledge, while the teleological question does not. The atomists asked the mechanistic question, and gave a mechanistic answer. Their successors, until the Renaissance, were more interested in the teleological question, and thus led science up a blind alley."

The curse of teleology is not confined to the natural sciences. In the social sciences, the undying quest for a desired result, without a full understanding of the processes and structures involved, has led to much disaster.

I named my blog after the Atomists, partly in honor of these insights -- and also because the mirthful Democritus was known as the laughing philosopher.