Author Archives: Greta

Why does everybody have to go to university?

Since I went to school education has changed. I suppose it should in over half a century, but while some things are better, a lot (in my opinion) are not. I think the arbiters of education, the public servants in their ivory towers, have become so busy negotiating the murky waters of political correctness they’ve lost sight of the goal posts. Why do we send kids to school?

I reckon we send kids to school to learn how to read, write (type), and add up. That is, the fundamental skills. I was going to add ‘skills without which you won’t get far in this day and age’. But that’s rubbish, isn’t it? How often do you see kids (in particular) turning to a calculator to perform simple addition like 2 cups of coffee @ $3.50 each? THE most important thing you can do for kids in a classroom is get them to WANT to learn. Then (with the necessary skills) they’ll teach themselves. It sound a lot like the Montessori system. You teach kids about social studies, geography, maths, accounting systems, marketing etc etc by showing them what happens at a supermarket. Applied learning. Sure, I understand that greater discipline is required for those who want to go on to university. Scientists need more than basic maths skills, for example.

But not everybody needs to go to university.

All those years ago, I struggled with a choice: give up the ‘professional’ stream of study at high school, and join the other girls and boys intending to leave school at fifteen and learn a trade or earn a wage. I came from a working-class family. There wasn’t much money to spare, so I discussed my options with my mum.

To add some context, at that time high school students were placed according to academic ability as established in a public exam at the end of year seven before going on to high school. I was up there in 1A, signifying the smartest kids in first year. It went on from there to 1B, 1C and so on to something like 1M. (I’m a baby boomer.) At the end of first year, we were asked at the tender age of around fourteen, to decide where our school years would take us from then on. Back then, quite a few girls in 1A opted for the ‘commercial’ stream, where they would learn shorthand and typing. Boys in that stream would concentrate on ‘male’ skills like woodwork and metalwork, as well as basic maths and language skills.

My mum always had higher aspirations for me. She listened to my concerns over money and told me to take the professional stream.

The next hurdle in education was what was called the Junior Certificate, a public exam taken at the end of third year high school (year ten). At that point students with no aspirations for academic places could leave school and enter a brave new world. I obviously didn’t leave shool, and, with the help of scholarships to help fund my studies in years eleven and twelve and then to study at university, I graduated with a BA(Hons).

Which brings me to the point of this essay. I know life has changed since the sixties. I know there is less work for unskilled young people – or very skilled young people. But why is forcing them to attend twelve years of school going to help? In its wisdom the education system has watered down the public examination system by including continuous assessment components, and added Naplan, where little kids are tested at absurdly young ages. It seems they’re all being trained to fit the lowest common denominator. You don’t have A, B and C classes anymore. The brightest kids are put in with the dumbest, so nobody’s feelings are hurt. Teachers are expected to cope with vast variations in both ability, and expectations. Johnny wants to learn how to use a lathe, not muck about with history lessons. Mary doesn’t need Johnny’s disruptions – she’s there to learn.

Much is said about the quality of teachers. To which I say, if you haven’t been there, don’t presume to judge. I’m not saying corporal punishment is a great thing, but these days teachers have no means of controlling young thugs like Johnny, who doesn’t want to be there and is immune from any form of discipline. Teachers are asked to cover a multitude of subjects, and carry out education in matters which belong in the home, not the classroom. I’ve always thought that education should be about teaching people the basics, like reading, maths, and (these days) typing. Sketch in some geography and basic history – enough to get them interested – and then encourage them to use that wonderful device, the internet, to learn what they want. Perhaps THE most important lesson people these days need to learn is that there are fake media sites, Wikipedia is not the whole story, and that to understand something properly, it’s necessary to consult more than one point of view. I think we could call it ‘how to research’.

Back in the olden days we did research in libraries, where we needed at least a basic knowledge of the Dewey decimal system and how to use index cards. It’s so much easier now – but I’d suggest that there is still a need to follow the denser path and read the books.

But I digress. What has happened to the TAFE colleges? The Institutes of Technology? They used to be where people went to learn a trade, to delve into the nuts and bolts of technology, or carpentry, or commercial cooking. That’s where the kids from the commercial stream at high school went, to learn a trade as they did their apprenticeship. There are no TAFE colleges anymore, or Institutes of Technology. There are only universities. Because that way, even if you’re learning a trade, you get to go to university. Whoop-ti-do. It seems to me that the result of this move is that a drover’s dog can get a degree in something at an erstwhile TAFE. Maybe that makes the recipient feel good, but it devalues the degree I earned at UWA, because the assumption is those qualifications are equivalent.

I don’t believe they are.

Despite all being labeled as universities, they are fundamentally different in their approach.  Once again, I turn to my own experience. I have (as mentioned) a BA(Hons) from UWA (the University of Western Australia). I also have a Graduate Diploma in Education from what was then Claremont Teachers’ College, became a campus of Edith Cowan University, and is now a part of UWA. And I also have a Graduate Diploma in Business and Administration (with distinction) from what was then the WA Institute of Technology, and is now Curtin University. This was all back before 1990, I admit. I’ll add I’ve compared my experience with friends who had a similar mix of studies at various institutions.

We all agreed that the standards required at UWA were far higher than that expected at WAIT, and at Claremont Teachers’ College. The fact is they taught different skills. UWA taught you how to think, and do research, and pretty well left you to it. If you didn’t go to lectures, nobody cared. The results would advertise your lack of effort. WAIT aimed its courses at practical skills, like how to program a computer or carry out radiography. Lecturers there provided hands-on, practical courses with the associated ‘how to’ in documentation and the like. Ie. You will plan and present your work LIKE THIS. Claremont taught students how to teach primary kids (under 12), with an emphasis on practical work.

And here, I think, we come to the nub of all of this. Listen up, Government. THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH BEING A PLUMBER, CARPENTER, RADIOGRAPHER, PROGRAMMER or CHEF. They do not need to be glorified with a degree. Horses for courses.

UPDATE: There are TAFE colleges, and they teach trades as they always did. However, in my defence, I based this article on my own experience in Perth. And it would seem there has been a re-think. Here’s a quote from the WA TAFE website.

“A recent change that occurred to the TAFE system in Western Australia saw a merger occur between the former Central Institute of Technology and the West Coast Institute of Training. The new organisation is the North Metropolitan TAFE, which combines the facilities and resources of both institutes to provide students with a better quality TAFE education. This formed part of a major change to the TAFE system in WA, in which all institutes were joined to form five new TAFE schools. in addition to the North Metropolitan TAFE, these include South Metropolitan TAFE, Central Regional TAFE, South Regional TAFE and North Regional TAFE.”

So you see, we’re changing names. Just as we renamed the Personnel Department to Human Resources. Same role, same staff. But now it’s two words.

And this week I have a new lens to play with.

A baby lorikeet. Note the detail

A couple of pink and grey galahs practising ballet on the TV aerial

Because it’s real

Ripples in a pond

Take a stone, any stone you like, Feel the weight of it in your hand. Is the surface smooth? Rough? Is it heavy? If you’re not happy with it, pick up another one. Because it’s going to be you.

Happy with your stone? Now find a lake, or a puddle. Somewhere with still water, and throw your stone out there. Watch the ripples surge away from the rock that is you.

Those ripples are the people you know. The closest circle isn’t necessarily your family, although for most of us it probably is, while we’re young. It’s the people you’re closest to, your very best friends, your partner, maybe your kids. The next ripple is friends and people you don’t see so often, but you share time with. Beyond that the ring widens to include people like your doctor, or accountant, people you know from work. And so it goes. The further the ripple is from you, the looser the relationship.

That’s just as true in Facebook as it is in real life.

Make no mistake, Facebook IS a slice of real life and for many people, it is a large part of their social life. I have Facebook friends all over the world. Some I’ve met, many I haven’t, and never will. The interesting thing is that where I have met people in real life, it has been exceptionally easy. I already knew them, you see. From Facebook.

I’m writing this today because one of my Facebook friends lost her battle with cancer a few days ago. Jo was diagnosed early last year, and went through a harrowing round of chemotherapy and radio therapy before modern medicine could do no more. She died at home, surrounded by her close family. Jo had many more Facebook friends than me. She connected readily with people. And she shared her cancer experience via her blog. Her stoic courage shone through in her words, admitting to tears, but always being upbeat, always being sure she could win. In an incredibly brave move, she wrote her final post and told her husband to publish it after her death.

I first met Jo online when she lived in Victoria near Hanging Rock, not far from Greendale, where Pete and I had lived. We shared stories about gardening, and weather. Coincidentally, Jo had grown up in Queensland near where we live, then lived in Perth for many years. I had grown up in Perth and now lived in Queensland. When Jo announced she and Tim were leaving Victoria to move back to her roots in Queensland I knew we would finally meet. I visited Jo and Tim at their home in Maryborough before they’d had a chance to make the massive changes they had in mind. It’s a beautiful old Queenslander with its cool, elevated veranda, high ceilings, and horribly overgrown garden stuffed with palm trees and bromeliads. They set in to make changes, bulldozing a dilapidated shed, removing the palm trees and bromeliads, and getting rid of some of the trees. Now there was room for a lawn and a cottage garden – place for the daisies Jo loved. I recall Jo’s blogs about painting the new white picket fence – during which process she broke her wrist. Jo visited me at home while her little white terrier, Daisy, was having her coat groomed in Hervey Bay.

The next time I saw her was in a ward at Hervey Bay hospital, when she was finally on her way home to Maryborough after months of treatment in Brisbane. Sure, she’d lost her hair, she was thin and weak, but that spirit shone through. She hadn’t been in the hospital long, hadn’t had a chance to get to know the staff. Because she’d come from another hospital, staff had to take special care to prevent any bugs being transferred. I waited outside while two nurses carried out a procedure, and heard her talking to one of them, asking about him, where he lived, his job. The young man opened up, and Jo had made another friend.

To reach an understanding of this lady’s impact all it needed was a visit to her Facebook page. All through her ordeal people shared uplifting messages with her, pretty pictures, videos of cats and dogs, jokes. She loved jokes. I’m sure those messages helped to give strength. When she died, her page was flooded with messages of sorrow. For very many people, all around the world, that loss was real.

Say what you like about Facebook. Yes, some of it’s yucky. Some people are horrid. Some people believe things I cannot. Some of my friends are devout Christians. Some voted for Trump. Some loathe the man. But that’s life, a slice of real life with all its warts and troubles and people struggling with everything the world throws at them. For me, Facebook is a learning experience. Every day I read what people share about their lives. I know a lot more about autism because one woman has shared her journey. I feel for friends who lost their homes in floods, people struggling with mental health.

Much as I dislike some aspects of social media, I’ll stay with Facebook. Because it’s real.

 

A day tour of Macao

Extravagant, flamboyant, over the top. Casino

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could run a day tour of 28 sq km of Macao, but it was done. Our guide, Mario, picked us up from the Grand Emperor at 10am. He’s Portuguese, originally from a diplomatic family and he has lived in Macao (the Portuguese spell it Macau) for 33 years, so he knows his stuff. Macao is the tip of a peninsula, and was leased to the Portuguese in 1557. It was returned to China in 1999, but, like Hong Kong, it will retain its semi-autonomous status for fifty years. What will happen after that, nobody knows. Especially what will happen to the casinos. They are illegal in China, but the Chinese are known to love their gambling. It’s also a lucrative business. Somebody shall see what happens. It won’t be me.

We joined another 28 people who had come over to Macao for a day trip from Hong Kong. Pete and I waited on the bus while Mario collected them from the ferry terminal and herded them on board. Not only were there a few Caucasians amongst them – there were a couple of Australians!

First stop was the reason for the existence of Macao these days. It may have been the gateway to Guangzhou in the past, but now it’s a place to build casinos. It’s how Stanley Ho made his fortune. He still has a large investment. James Pcker is currently pulling out of Macao after some of his staff were arrested in China for trying to entice high-rollers to his casino, and a few of the Las Vegas establishments also have buildings here. There are currently 36 casinos on Macao, and six more will be completed this year. Each new building has to be bigger and better than its predecessor. There’s not room in Macao proper for more buildings, so the powers-that-be have filled in the sea between what had been two islands. That’s where all the new construction is happening.

Venice in a building

The casinos are huge, flamboyant, and ostentatious, designed to attract the Chinese high-rollers. Mario took us to the Venetian, one of the more recent casinos. Like its namesake in Vegas, it has a replica of St Marks square in Venice inside, complete with canals.

Pete managed to snap a shot of the gaming floor as we went up to St Marks on an escalator. As you can see, they’re big enough for people to get lost, which is precisely what happened to a couple of our Americans. Mario managed to find them and they were most apologetic. I cast no aspersions. Been there, done that, have the T-shirt hidden away.

After that we went back to Macao’s beginnings, a temple at the waterside dedicated to the Goddess of the Sea from whom the city gained its name. It is on multiple levels, built against the massive boulders. Worship requires incense.

 

 

From the past we went to the future, Macao’s Skytower, home of the world’s highest bungy jump. I got a few pictures of someone taking the plunge, and four of us (not Peter) paid extra to go up the tower to admire the view. This is where I took the photo at the top of my previous post. Mario told us this was simply normal Macao weather. He pointed out the point on the Pearl river where people swam across to escape Mao’s cultural revolution. Not all of them made it – which meant death. Those that did were shipped off quickly to Hong Kong, where they could escape to the West.

That tower with its head in the clouds is in CHINA!

Next we visited the old town with its European style buildings and the inevitable town square complete with fountain. The old parts of town were paved in tiny blue and white Portuguese tiles, fresco style. As well as casinos this part of Macao has churches and temples. We visited one Dominican church, and admired the remains of St Paul’s at the top of the city steps which resemble the Spanish Steps in Rome. The church burnt down in 1835, leaving just the façade. It’s a popular tourist attraction and a place to take photos.

We asked Mario to recommend a Portuguese restaurant for our last evening overseas. It was, as they always are, down an narrow street off the square, opposite the fountain with the Madonna. (Well… maybe not that bit) The waiter – and I suspect owner – might not have been born Australian, but he had an Aussie accent. He mentioned he’d grown up in St Albans in Melbourne. It’s a small world. We picked the set menu – carrot soup, shared the two mains of steak and chips with salad, and fish patties with salad and rice, followed by sweets and thick, strong coffee. Our new mate threw in a glass of port each. It was a lovely way to end the day and we meandered off to the hotel for a good nights’ sleep.

The next day we were off home, catching the ferry to the airport at Lantau. You check in your baggage and get your boarding pass when you leave the ferry. By far the longest queue in the large hall was for Qantas, which shared a desk with an Asian airline. Time was pushing on. When we were about three people from the front of the line, somebody grabbed a brain and picked out the people flying to Brisbane. We were first, but unfortunately for the people behind us, the girl had trouble finding my name It’s the spaces/no spaces thing. My name is van der Rol, but on an airline ticket it’s vanderrol. Anyway, we got there eventually. When we left to go to the terminal, the queue at QF’s counter was almost back to the exit from the ferry. Not a good look.

We got to Brisbane at around eight, collected our car from the long term car park as close to 9am as we could manage, and headed home to the clean air and spacious living at Hervey Bay. Neither of us are anxious to go back to Hong Kong.

Off to Macao

Taken from a tower through glass this picture shows most of Macao. Our hotel is next to the golden tulip-shaped building at mid-right. And yes, that’s smog.

Cruising from Hong Kong to Macao via Turbojet is just like getting a seat in an aircraft. You go through customs, get a little printed piece of paper for your passport, and off you go. The journey takes less than an hour, and cabin crew offer duty free goods if you want them. Nobody bothered to fasten their seat belts, so we didn’t either. By the way, Stanley Ho (he with the wife and three very good friends) owns Turbojet.

We’d caught an early boat, so we kicked our heels at the arrival terminal for a while before our lift to the hotel arrived. Macao obviously gets large Asian tour groups. Once again, we round-eyes were in the distinct minority.

I was surprised that Macao’s atmosphere was as smoggy as Hong Kong’s. It’s a much smaller place, with a population of around 650,000. Compare Singapore’s 697 sq km to Macao’s 28 sq km. (source) But I suppose some of that smog had drifted over from China, which here is just across the Pearl River.

Our driver took us to the Grand Emperor, close to the old town, and we checked in. Jacky Chan owns the place. It has a kind of British vibe, with two coaches standing outside on the pavement, and two pretend Grenadier guards standing at the entrance with guns Pete assured me were plastic. A not very good portrait of Queenie hangs in the lobby, along with a portrait of George III. Why he’s there I have no idea. The hotel has a Windsor Lounge and a Royal Kitchen restaurant. It also has five floors of casino, and eighty-eight gold bars with auspicious serial numbers set into glass niches in the floor of the lobby, each surrounded by cut jewels. Each 1kg ingot is real, but the jewels are not diamonds.

One of the two royal coaches

Queenie on the left, George III on the right, and gold bars in the floor around the fountain

Gold bar. This is in a display case and not surrounded by jewels.

We had a deluxe room (ie standard), well-appointed with a number of unusual free features. The room had a mobile phone for guest use, which could be used to call overseas free of charge. It also had access to maps and tourist information. The phone won’t work if it’s stolen, and there are charges if it’s broken. We could get free drinks at the Windsor Lounge on the 21st floor – we did go up for one drink after dinner, but it’s a disco that didn’t open until 8pm. Maybe forty years ago…

Although the room was generally fine, the bathroom was simply badly designed. The shower was over the bath and there was no way you could shower without water going everywhere it wasn’t supposed to. Dinner in the Royal Kitchen was excellent, if not cheap. We partook of a seafood buffet – prawns hot or cold, crab, fish, pippies, mussels, soup, lobster (which I would have called yabbies) cooked in one of three ways, and the usual accompaniments of veg, salad and the like. And sweets. Mustn’t forget sweets.

We wandered around the casino just to look. It’s a mug’s game, although we’ve been known to put a few dollars in the slot machines at home. There were some machines on one level, but most of the people were playing black jack, roulette – and dominoes. I don’t think I saw a single Caucasian player. And the Asians were playing for keeps. One fellow was feeding HK$1,000 notes into a machine at a black jack table. Note after note after note. The tables advertised minimum stakes – HK$300 per chip, or HK$500 per chip. That’s ONE chip. Wow. No photos I’m afraid. You weren’t allowed to take knives, guns, or cameras into the casino. Needless to say, there were security staff everywhere.

Tomorrow we were going out on our day tour of Macao. I’ll tell you all about it, promise.

A lazy Sunday in Hong Kong

Sunday was our last full day in Hong Kong. We hadn’t quite given up on the shopping yet, but this time we headed towards the city centre on the island, with Causeway Bay on the way. The hotel’s shuttle bus dropped us off at Hong Kong’s World Trade Centre, which is an enormous shopping building. Hong Kong cranks up late (as far as we’re concerned). Arrive before 12 and you won’t find too many shops open – even the big ones. So it took a while for the crowds to build. We were surprised at the number of women around wearing Muslim dress – there may have been lots of men, too, but they don’t stand out so much. Some women wore really lovely, flowing dresses and hijabs in pastel colours, and a number wore bright red. A few wore face coverings, but I saw only one wearing the full, black burqa. We decided there must have been some cultural event happening, because we hadn’t seen such a concentration of Muslim women anywhere else.

As always in Hong Kong, the modern rubs up against the old. Here’s the bamboo scaffolding on one of the buildings. OH&S inspectors would have a coronary. The picture below is what those poles on the left are supporting.

The main streets were crowded, as was every one of the Macdonalds restaurants we passed. The franchise is clearly doing a roaring trade in Honk Kong. If you ducked down the side streets, though, they weren’t so packed. We walked along a street where market stalls were being opened up for the afternoon and evening trade. Just around the corner the street signs indicated a row of guest houses.

Guest houses and down-market accommodation. One signs offers rooms by the hour, with a discount rate after midnight.

We went into a computer shop looking for a cover for my new tablet. It’s too new – they are not out there yet. But the young man behind the counter mapped a route for us on our Maps.Me to a computer centre further up the road. It was fun pottering around in this building full of tiny, independent computer and camera shops, but we had no joy with the camera lens, or with the tablet cover.

It seemed to us the easiest way to get back to the hotel was on the tram, but they were all packed. Even the Chinese couldn’t push their way on. Eventually, we gave up and went down to the nearest metro station. The trains are fast, cheap and clean – after you’ve worked out the ticketing system. It’s fairly simple, but we had the added complication of being entitled to a concession fare on account of being old. We got there in the end.

High tea set with dessert. It’s a stock photo, not as nice as what we were served.

Today seemed to be an excellent time to enjoy that quintessentially English meal, our complimentary High Tea in the hotel’s lobby bar. It was delicious. We had a pot of tea of our choice each, and the staff delivered one of those three-tier serving towers filled with goodies. I’m sorry I didn’t take pictures. The stock photo at left doesn’t do our spread justice. We had a couple of savoury items, cake, scones, moulds, and a wonderful peach custard. That was lunch sorted. We ordered a club sandwich in our room for dinner.

The following day we kicked tyres for an hour or two in the morning before boarding the ferry for Macao. Instead of going in the direction of Causeway Bay we caught the shuttle bus to ‘Central Plaza’, a shopping and residential area further north. Central plaza turned out to be four huge buildings with acres of glittering shopping below and apartments for the well-heeled above. This certainly wasn’t a cheap area, but we scored breakfast at a fraction of the hotel’s prices.

A glittering shopping centre full of dress shops

This is an ice skating rink in Central Plaza. A teacher is working with a few kids

So there are plenty of people in Hong Kong earning more than a subsistence wage. And good luck to them. We wished them well as we made our way to catch the ferry to Macao.

 

Hong Kong shopping

City crowds. This was taken at Causeway Bay. We didn’t take pictures in Kowloon

Years ago what attracted Australians to stay a day or two or three in Hong Kong was the shopping. Sure, it was an accessible way to get a look at the Orient, but mixed with that was the great exchange rate, and the quality goods for sale at substantially less than the prices in Australia. Even when the sales taxes were altered back in the Keating years, you could still snap up a bargain in Hongkers. With that in mind, Pete and I set out after our lunch escapade in search of bargains.

I’ll interrupt that story with a small side arc. The cost of ‘roaming’ on mobile phone plans in Australia is outrageous, but it’s possible to buy ‘roaming’ plans that charge just the cost of a local phone call. Using Travelsim, we put $5 on such a sim and inserted it into a cheap phone, then told a few close friends the number so they could contact us in case of emergency at home. I also downloaded an app called Maps.Me. It’s free and lets you download a functioning map for overseas travel. Yes, Google does this, too, but Google has upset the powers that be in China, and you can’t download Google’s China maps. We put the app on Pete’s tablet, which he always has with him to take photos. Pete fell in love with Maps.Me. You don’t need access to Wifi, and of course the GPS function will locate you on the map. It certainly helps with navigating in foreign parts.

Back on the streets of Hong Kong, we made our way towards the electronics street. We had already discovered that our mate Andy (tour guide) had given us a bum steer as far as directions went. But Pete is quite happy to ask for help, and managed to find an Aussie working in a shop to tell us where to go. So we worked our way across Nathan Road, which runs up the middle of Kowloon, and into the back roads where the shops line the streets.

Hong Kong was always a busy place, and this was the weekend, but the throng of humanity was extraordinary. The streets were sardine packed everywhere. For Aussies, think sideshow alley at the Royal Show on steroids. The demographics had changed, too. Not so many years ago, the crowd would have been mostly Asian, but there would have been a good number of European people. Now, people like us were a rarity. I hate crowds at the best of times. I don’t get anxious or claustrophobic, but I hate the press of people invading my space, brushing their bodies against me as they pass. When I find myself in a crowd I start to move faster, ducking and weaving my way between the people. Where there’s rudeness, pushing, shoving and the like, the nostrils flare, the elbows come out, and although I won’t push first, I’ll shove second. We were both struck by the rudeness and total lack of consideration for anyone else on the street. And we discovered we weren’t the only ones with that perception.

We were looking for a camera lens. We had done our homework at home and knew what we wanted, and what it should cost. I leave all negotiations about price to Peter, who enjoys the cut and thrust, and is very good at it. But while he would have had a lovely time haggling in years gone by, it doesn’t happen anymore. For a start, far fewer Hong Kongers speak English. We would go into a shop, they would wheel out their English speaker, we would tell them what we wanted, and they would give us a price. That was it. No negotiation. Take it or leave it. You can get it for that in Australia? Shrug. In days gone by, they wouldn’t have let you out of the shop, at least trying to sell you something else. That’s how it still is in Singapore. But not here.

What was happening? What had changed? The answers came from our tour guide in Macao, a Portuguese gentleman who had lived in Macao for 33 years. The vast majority of tourists in Hong Kong (and Macao) now are mainland Chinese. They require less personal space and have a different perception about how to behave in a crowd. And they pay whatever the vendors ask. They have money, and they know they will get a quality product in Hong Kong. I have never seen so many stores selling up-market merchandise like Gucci, Armani, Yves St Laurent, and all the other big-name designer brands. Every fifth car (that wasn’t a taxi) was a Mercedes. I must have seen half a dozen Maseratis (I’ve never seen one on the street before) one red one being driven by a kid with P plates, doing his best to hoon around a packed Hong Kong block.  The best-selling item for the Chinese? Tins of powdered baby milk. There is a ration of two tins per person. They also love to gamble. But I’ll leave that to my Macao post.

After a fruitless few hours fighting our way through Kowloon, we gave up and caught a taxi to the star ferry which plies the waters between Kowloon and the Island. It’s a short ride, and not very crowded on this Saturday afternoon. The ride in a lift made up for it, though. The last fellow to insinuate himself in could only just lean out of the way of the closing doors. Now that WAS claustrophobic. I keep on wondering how it would be if the lift failed…

That evening we decided to go out for dinner. I’m not a great lover of Chinese food – I hasten to add that there are very many excellent Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong, I just wasn’t in the mood. I love Indian, though, and on the concierge’s recommendation we went to a restaurant tucked away in an arcade in an alley less than 10 minutes from the hotel. We spent a lovely evening there. The menu listed a vast array of dishes, but since the owners were Hindu, not beef. Peter asked the Indian waiter where he came from, which was greeted with a big grin. “I was born here, sir.” Turned out his ancestors had been in the British army stationed in Hong Kong, and had decided to stay. The barman was from Indian, though. He didn’t speak much English, but that was okay. We tried a shot of Indian whisky (better than Johnny Walker IMO) and Pete had Indian beer. I had a glass of house white, which arrived in a bucket (not really – just a very generous serve). The menu included standard combinations, so we picked the ‘Happy Meal’ – tandoori chicken for starters, then lamb tikka marsala served with naan and condiments, sweets and coffee.

We slept well that night. Join me tomorrow for our last day in Hong Kong, pottering around in a different part of the city.

Hong Kong – the cheap seats

The Yuen Yuen Institute with cauldron for burning incense

After our tour of the gallery parts of Hong Kong it was time to take a look at the cheap seats. We signed up for a tour called ‘the land between’ – meaning the parts of the territory between the teeming streets of Kowloon and the border with China. It’s more generally known as the New Territories. We spent the day with three other people, all elderly folk from UK, who had just completed a holiday in Australia. I was the youngest passenger on the bus, and Pete was a pretty distant second-last. The tour guide, Andy, came across as having a chip on his shoulder the size of a tree. Before we reached our first visit stop, we’d learned he worked three jobs – tour guide, pizza delivery guy, and bartender – 6 days a week, 18 hours a day. Even so, he earned around HK$19k a month – which I thought wasn’t too bad, but he seemed to think was a bit off. The Government collects 15% tax, and then he explained he lived in one room, around 140 sq ft, which had a bunk bed, a place to cook noodles, and a recess for washing. For that he paid a fifth of his net income. I forbore to tell him that although apartments in Australia are generally larger, people pay a much greater percentage of their net earnings in rent, as well as a MUCH larger slice of tax. Hong Kong actually has pretty good social security for those in real need, but the Chinese way is always for people to support themselves. At the moment Hong Kong is kind of independent – although, as we know, the Chinese Government keeps a close eye on who is in charge. The territory will maintain its status as a separate entity for fifty years from 1997 – that is, until 2047. After that? Who knows.

First stop on the fringes of the city proper was the Yuen Yuen Institute, a religious complex incorporating the Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist faiths. The place was packed with people practising their faiths, lighting incense and praying.

Offerings for a funeral plane, house, furniture…

Funerals take place here. Mourners buy or bring paper offerings to burn for the dead to use. Items include whole paper houses – complete with servants, cars, and (especially) money. Our guide told us his grandmother, who was obsessed with mah jong, had recently died, and he and his sister had created a paper mah jong set for her as their offering. The temple complex doesn’t have a crematorium – the bodies are taken elsewhere. But people can buy wall niches here where they place the ashes, with a black and white photo of the deceased to mark their place. We were asked not to take pictures of the niches, or of people participating in a funeral. Fair enough. Andy also explained the Chinese zodiac that plays a large part in the temple.

I particularly admired the beautiful koi pond at the temple.

Back in the bus we drove on to Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong’s tallest mountain, with views back to the city. I was shocked at the murk down there, much more apparent from this distance. Tai Mo Shan is in a park with hiking and cycling trails, and is very popular on weekends and holidays.

Our next stop was the fortified village of Fanling, owned by the Pangs, one of the five clans in the area. The houses are only three stories high, and packed close together. Each house is owned by a Mister Pang, and there are only 99 houses in the village. There is a spill-over zone away from the village – and I think I’d prefer to live there.

The walled village of Fanling. The pool contains fish and tortoises, and you can glimpse a couple of cannon.

The entrance to the village. All the sreets inside are as narrow as this.

Just inside the entrance is a shrine to the ancestors, and a pair of protective warriors

The spill-over area outside Fanling

The rest of the tour was kind of a country drive. We saw the fish farming villages as we drove past, and the smog-enshrouded towers of the nearest Chinese city just over the border, we stopped briefly at Bridal Falls, a permanent waterfall that’s in need of rain.

Bridal Falls. The story goes that a bride was being carried across the top of the falls in a sedan chair. One of her porters slipped, and the porters and bride all fell to their deaths

On the way back to the city we spied a runway in the valley that looked in excellent condition. It was part of a British military base vacated in 1997. These days it belongs to the People’s Liberation Army. Despite Hong Kong’s need for housing, the accommodation buildings are empty. Andy clearly had a poor opinion of the PLA, muttering comments about 1989.

Fish farms on the Hong Kong side, Chinese Shenzhen on the other

We finished our tour in Mong Kok, heart of Kowloon’s shopping district, where we left our fellow tourists and went off shopping. But first, we needed lunch. We found a row of eateries in a narrow, crowded, street – tiny shops with a few tables and chairs. They say eat where the locals eat, and there were plenty of them everywhere. Menus consisted of pictures of the food with a name in Chinese and if you were lucky, in English – very few people here spoke English. We grabbed a table and perused the menu, looking for something familiar like a stir fry, or fried rice. I don’t remember much on the card, but one offering was beef tendons. Well, they do say Chinese food is famine food. Nothing goes to waste. Eventually we picked out the most expensive dish – a three-beef curry. One of the people at another table recognised our inability to make the lady serving us understand we didn’t want any of the colourful beverages on her chart, just Chinese tea, and translated for us. We expected a nice pot with jasmine tea and little china cups like we get in Australia. We got large mugs of very black tea, but it was drinkable.

The food arrived – a large mound of rice on a plate, and the curry in a side dish, all substantial helpings. The curry had potatoes, so that was okay. The beef… some of it look like well-stewed gravy beef. But some was obviously tripe, and the third component I couldn’t even guess. I ate the potato, and the gravy beef, then settled for rice with gravy. Pete did the same. I’m sure the locals thought we were very odd, and I have no doubt added our leavings back to the pot.

Peter was brave enough to use the toilet at this place. He told me the floor was covered with water, which he didn’t understand until he’d finished. The flush was broken, but there was a bucket of water in the ‘courtyard’ to do the job. Hence the wet floor. Fortunately, I wasn’t in need. Even if I was, I think I would have crossed my legs a bit tighter.

That was lunch done. Now to go shopping. But that deserves a post all its own. Join me next time, won’t you? Oh – and if you like my writing style, why not take a look at my books? None of them will set you back for more than the cost of a decent cup of coffee.

Hong Kong – the better parts of town

Aberdeen typhoon shelter

Our first morning in Hong Kong started off a bit misty, but cleared to a fine day. We joined our guide, Biddy, and a dozen other travellers for a half-day tour of Hong Kong. She rattled off stats like a pro, and I’ll try to remember the most important ones. 245 islands, the largest is Lantau, the next largest is Hong Kong. The islands, plus Kowloon and the New Territories, have a population of seven million. Most of them live on Hong Kong and in Kowloon. Housing is very expensive, but the Government subsidises poorer people – usually in housing estates on the outskirts of town (sound familiar?). Real estate is sold by the square foot. Most people live in apartments, with blocks becoming taller all the time. Biddy lives on the fortieth floor of a sixty-story building.

The crowded boats are not as crowded as they used to be

Our first stop on the tour was the Aberdeen typhoon shelter, where a dwindling number of boat people live on small boats. It’s also the site of the famous Jumbo floating restaurant. I remember having lunch on a tour there in the 80’s. Peter could remember when the little Chinese boats were so close together, you could walk across the harbour from one boat to the next. These days, some of the boats are… um… a bit more up-market, shall we say?

Some people still live on the boats

This isn’t a bum boat

The front of the jumbo restaurant

The back of the Jumbo restaurants isn’t quite as flash as the front

From there we went on to Stanley, one of the more affluent suburbs of the island. Apartments here are expensive, with views across the water. We poked around in the market near the waterfront, bought a very nice leather backpack at probably multiples of the price we could have paid in Mong Kok, and bought a very expensive cup of coffee. Like most parts of Asia, you’re better off going to one of the big chains – Macdonalds, or even Starbucks if you’re desperate (sorry, Americans). Asians don’t make coffee with real milk, so flat whites are just not the same.

Stanley street markets. It’s not busy yet – too early

Hong Kong is trying to preserve some of its past. The Murray building used to be a military barracks set on the site of the Bank of China tower. It was dismantled brick by brick and rebuilt on the waterfront at Stanley. Nowadays it’s full of dress shops and restaurants.

 

Murray barracks and the beach front at Stanley

Next we went up to the peak. Back in the day you drove up the long and winding road to a lookout – just a walled terrace – with panoramic views over the city. The views are still there, but now there are buildings all over the summit, with the best views offered from restaurants, or a (paid) viewing platform. You can buy souvenirs and very expensive ice cream. We’re talking around AU$20. We passed. Biddy pointed out a couple of the large houses nestled against the mountains. You don’t need to be a Rhodes scholar to work out the people who own private houses on the peak would have a bit of money. We were told the going rate was HK$89,000 per square foot. Which means the room in which I’m writing this at c80 square feet = HK$7,120,000 or roughly AU$1,300,000. If you look at that article I linked, you’ll see HK$89k is peanuts.

Hong Kong from the Peak. This was a fine day – that air pollution was a constant. Across the water is a typhoon shelter

It seems Stanley Ho was the first Chinese to own a property on the Peak. He’s a fascinating man, a Eurasian who married a Portugese woman. It’s said on Hong Kong that he had four wives, but our Macao guide told us he had one wife and three very good friends. He’s still alive at 95, and had seventeen children. This Wikipedia article gives some basic information about him. Anyway, back to the Peak. That was where the British colonial masters lived. I got the idea that the Chinese weren’t allowed to live up there, or maybe (until Mr Ho) they couldn’t afford to.

We took the Peak tram down the mountain. It hasn’t changed in its century plus years, but today it’s packed with tourists. Towards the end of the trip there is a very interesting optical illusion which illustrates how the human brain interprets what it sees. There are towers on both sides of the tram line. We KNOW they are upright. They do not lean. But that’s what we see – buildings leaning to compensate for the fact that we are sitting at an incredibly steep angle, which our brain decides is impossible. Peter took pictures, but the camera sees the truth, so I haven’t posted them. Trust me, my brain said the buildings were set at an angle.

We drove past one of the most powerful places in Hong Kong. Or maybe I should say the people who run it have the power. Happy Valley race course, run by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, is adjacent to the city. Horse racing is the only form of legal gambling in the territory, and the Jockey Club runs it all. As a result, it is fabulously wealthy and owns many other business interests in Hong Kong. One of the more prominent is Ocean Park perched high on a hill above the city. It’s reached by cable car, with fabulous views over the water. I went there in the eighties. We didn’t visit this time. Nor did we visit Hong Kong Disneyland, which is on Lantau Island. There’s plenty of room for it there.

So far we’d seen the more affluent side of Hong Kong. Later in the afternoon we took a short wander around the Causeway Bay area, then took a tram more or less back to the general area near our hotel. The trams are double deckers, following a short route of about nine kilometres long. We expected that would be one line – but there are a couple of branches. One went through a local shopping area, where the residents do their food shopping. Greengrocers, grocery stores, bakers, and butchers all plied their wares from open air shop fronts. Sides of beef hung from hooks and butchers chopped up cuts for customers as the tram, bells ringing, inched its way between meandering shoppers. I would have loved to get back there with a camera, but it never happened.

In the evening we made our way back to the ferry jetties near the CBD to catch a boat for a ninety-minute trip on Victoria Harbour to admire the city lights. A fifteen-minute laser show happens every night, with many of the glittering towers participating in lighting up their edifices. In fact, I think many of them leave the displays to run all night. For today I’ll leave you with photos of the night. They were taken with my hand-held 70D at a very high ISO, but they’re good enough for the internet. (In case you’re wondering, using a tripod would not have helped, because the boat tossed around a bit. The swell – mostly caused by the wash from the many boats on the harbour – was enough for a couple of people to be seasick.)

Everybody has to have an Eye. This one has lit up trees to go with it.

Many boats carry visitors out to enjoy the spectacle

A junk, its red sails illuminated, adds to the spectacle

 

Hong Kong – then and now

The city and Perth Water from King's Park

The city and Perth Water from King’s Park in Perth, Western Australia. Clean and clear and flat.

We’ve just come back from a week in Hong Kong and Macao. I remember my first visit to Hong Kong in the eighties very, very well. I’d grown up in clean, flat, thoroughly Anglo-Saxon Perth, capital of Western Australia. My then-partner taught at a TAFE college, preparing students, many of them from Hong Kong, for the examination which would give them entry to Australian universities. So when we decided to make our very first foray outside Australia, we went to Hong Kong. In hindsight it wasn’t the best place for such a baptism. A starker contrast to Perth I can hardly imagine. Instead of sprawling suburbia where a two-story house was rare, we flew into a teeming metropolis which resembled an anthill. Towering apartment blocks lined narrow streets, covering every flatish piece of land – of which there wasn’t much. People crowded the footpaths. Washing fluttered from grubby balconies. Scaffolding was bamboo, not metal. Shops selling just about anything huddled together, dwarfed by up-market department stores. Hong Kong island itself was dominated by Victoria Peak, where the rich people live. Even landing at the airport was an adventure.

Kai Tak airport was well known as one of the most dangerous approaches in the world, with the flight path on approach going between those towering apartment blocks and down onto the runway at Victoria Harbour. Even down in cattle class you could almost wave to the people in their apartments as your plane landed. Peter had the privilege of being in the cockpit for one of those landings. Wow. Just wow. Together, we’ve had a drink in a bar overlooking the airport, watching the traffic coming in and going out. Ah. Those were the days. Here’s a few pictures you might enjoy.

Kai Tak closed in 1998, replaced by a huge airport off Lantau, largest of the 245 islands that make up Hong Kong. Guides were at pains to stress that ‘Hong Kong’ includes all the other islands, and also incorporates the Kowloon Peninsula and the New Territories, all leased for a trivial sum by the British from the Chinese. The 99-year lease ended in 1997, and from there, the character of Hong Kong has changed.

Since that first visit in the distant 1980’s I have been to Hong Kong several times, and Pete has been a lot more often than that. For Australians, Hong Kong and Singapore were the usual stepping stones to the rest of the world. The journey to Hong Kong takes about 9 hours, and from there planes leave for Europe. It’s a good place to break the 24 hour journey, especially on the way home when jetlag is an issue, so many Australians have spent a day or two in Honkers, picking up some bargains and seeing the sights. On this trip, Pete and I spent four nights in the city, rather longer than we’d stayed on other occasions. Moreover, this was a holiday, not a business trip.

We stayed in the Harbour Plaza North Point, on the island with views over the harbour. I’m not sure why we got upgraded to a harbour view suite, but we weren’t complaining. The apartment had a kitchen, dining area, sitting room with views across to Kai Tak on Kowloon, a king bed you could have used to host an orgy (while admiring the view), and a well-appointed bathroom. I shudder to think what an apartment of that size would cost to buy. We certainly couldn’t afford it.

Bedroom with view

Dining area. Open door is to bathroom

The sitting room.

 

 

 

 

It was kind of nostalgic that we could see the end of what used to be the end of Kai Tak’s runway from our suite. These days it’s a port for cruise ships. Since the airport was relocated, the height restrictions on buildings in that part of Hong Kong have disappeared and the suburbs have crept up, and out.

I made a point of taking a photo every day from our sitting room across the harbour.

Tomorrow I’ll tell you about our city tour and our visit to Aberdeen Typhoon shelter, Stanley, and the Peak. And then the light show from the harbour. For now, enjoy some views of Kowloon from Hong Kong’s North Point.

Kowloon from our suite. A cruise ship is leaving port – maybe for a journey to international waters where gambling is legal.

Early morning on the first day. Sun’s coming up and dissipating the mist. The site of the runway is clearly visible just behind the ship.

By late afternoon the sky had cleared – or at least, as much as it was going to

Next day the mist was fairly thick

The mountain behind the apartment blocks is invisible.

A Western dilemma

This is my blog, so I can talk about whatever I want. And today I’m going to spill some thoughts that trouble me. And here the emphasis is ME. I expect some of you (especially those who communicate regularly with Himself) will have another point of view. As is your right. So here we go. This blog is about Jews, Muslims, Islam, and ‘racial’ hatred. For I hasten to add that neither the Jews, nor the Muslims, are a race, .

I cringe at the notion of pointing fingers at people and saying, “You’re a <insert religion of choice> therefore I hate you.” I hate extremists of any ‘faith’ who will kill and maim in the name of god. This includes Crusaders, Inquisitors, Conquistadors, Sinn Fein – and, of course, the followers of Mohamed who surged across Africa and the Middle East in record time in the sixth century.  Most people are not extremists. But even so I do not want to open the flood gates to Muslim immigration. Immigrants who are prepared to integrate with Western culture are fine. But people who come here and cannot and will not integrate because their basic beliefs are different should go somewhere else where they will fit in.

The Koran was written in the sixth century – the world was a different place. Rules that made sense then no longer make sense now, but Muslim clerics persist in peddling this antiquated belief system. We don’t need Sharia law here. We don’t need women having to wear clothing so they don’t provoke men. (It doesn’t work, anyway.) National hijab day? Give me a break. I don’t care what anyone says, it is a form of dress dictated by the mullahs. Look at pictures of young people before the overthrow of the Shah in Iran, or in the streets of Afghanistan before the Taliban. If women want to wear head scarves, that’s up to them. But the fact is the hijab (let alone the burqa) has become something that singles out Muslim women in our society. They’d be better off without it. This article from the Sydney Morning Herald expresses that view from a more compelling source than me. Note her comments about little girls wearing head scarves.

You might be wondering why I mentioned Jews at the beginning of this. Ah, that’s the other side of the argument, the point at which I am faced with a quandary. The Jews have been persecuted for thousands of years, because their religion was different, or they were an easy target, or they were rich. European Jews in 1920-30 Germany didn’t pose a threat to anybody. They contributed to society, paid their taxes, ran businesses. Lived. They were part of the community. But that all changed when the Nazis pointed fingers at them, and blamed them for everything that was wrong with the German world. Ordinary people either joined in, or turned a blind eye. The end result is well-known, although I fear it is starting to recede into distant memory, something that happened so long ago it doesn’t count in our modern world. Take heed, people. The Holocaust was genocide, a deliberate attempt to wipe anyone labeled JEW off the face of this earth. Sure, other people – homosexuals, the intellectually disabled, gypsies and others – died in  front of the firing squads, or in the gas chambers. But the vast majority of those six million people were Jewish. And for those who say it never happened, here’s the proof, pictures taken by the Allies as they liberated the death camps.

Think it can’t happen again? May I remind you of Rwanda. And of Kosovo. And of what’s happening right now in Sudan. And the slaughter of Christians in Syria by Daesh. In the name of Allah.

We must protect our nation from extremists. I watched the horror of the Lindt Cafe siege unfold.  I saw a kid shoot down an accountant in Sydney because he worked for the police. I recoiled at events in Nice, Brussels, Paris, Berlin. Some of the perpetrators were imported, but most were home grown. Home grown happens because the immigrants don’t integrate, don’t feel part of the society in which they find themselves. I can’t help but feel we’d be better off spending our money to help them stay at home, to rebuild their homelands and create a place like Lebanon used to be, when Beirut was the Paris of the Middle East.

Where do I stand with immigration to Australia? I’m an immigrant myself, tagging along with my parents not long after WW2. My parents got nothing from the Government, not even the ten pound Pom thing (on account of not being Poms). My family was dropped off at Northam and basically told to get on with it. No instant welfare, no handouts. I’m not saying it was ideal – but then, the country had just finished a punishing war and needed to rebuild. We integrated. Nearly twenty years later, my husband’s experience in 1974 when he arrived from UK was no different.

And there is the dilemma. On the one hand we have desperate people wanting a better life, on the other, people taking advantage of what we offer without contributing anything in return, in fact wanting to change the way we live. Yes, I’d prefer to allow Christians into Australia – because I think they would be more likely to integrate.  No, we should not let in everybody, because if we do, we will sow the seed for the destruction of the very thing they want to come for – our prosperity and our peace.

Bear in mind, too, our society has changed over the decades. Back in 1955 jobs were plentiful. Now, not so much, especially for unskilled people. Which is a good reason not to bring more unskilled people here. And we should certainly vet anyone who does want to live here, and extend the amount of time before people can claim Australian citizenship. Those who flout our laws should pay the price, as happened recently with a father arranging an underage ‘marriage’ for his 12-y-old daughter.

The very best thing the world could do for places like Syria is first, to end the fighting, and then offer the people help to stay at home and rebuild, just as what happened in Japan and Germany (and the rest of Europe) after WW2.  Accepting thousands of refugees won’t change things, anyway. I urge you to watch this 6 minute presentation that illustrates why it’s better to help the people where they come from.

Yes, folks, fundamental Islam frightens me. Any ‘religion’ which subjugates women and treats them as inferior frightens me. What is especially terrifying is that the barbaric custom of female genital mutilation is rising in the West – and this torture is carried out BY WOMEN on their female children. Seems to me the West is becoming a fast-dwindling outpost of sanity.Unlike the Jews, Islam is more than a religion; it’s a set of social mores than do not sit well with our democratic principles. I don’t want that in my country. Equally, I don’t want people being burnt at the stake because they espouse a different faith. For me it is a moral dilemma with no easy answers. We cannot change Islam. Only Muslims can do that. And they don’t seem to be in a hurry to consider the possibility.

If I were in the least bit religious, I’d be praying that we stand fast. Since I’m not, I’ll just have to hope our ‘leaders’ take note. One more thing – this is long, and was probably the reason I’ve written this post. History doesn’t repeat precisely – but it has trends. Things are trending right now.

And on that happy note, it’s picture time.

The Rhine at sunset

Eagle with snake in its talons

A Brahmani kite carries off dinner – a sea snake

Picture of a Noisy Miner Bird bathing

Noisy Miner Bird bathing in the swimming pool

The abbey at Melk