Tidbits in Japan III:Kamogawa

A confluence: where two rivers meet and join into one.

In Kamogawa’s case, the Kamo river and the Takano river, meeting each other in a slow and peaceful way and continuing southwards.

There is something about rivers in Kyoto, and maybe in many other places in Japan generally. They are wide, clear and shallow, with the tranquil surface not only reflecting the sky, but revealing the patterns on the riverbed.

The small dams that break them into different levels also create cute little artificial waterfalls. The sound and the movement form a charming juxtaposition to the stillness of the rest of the water.

Maybe I happened to visit before the rainy season began.

Where the two rivers meet is the Kamogawa “delta”, a triangular shaped strip of land formed gradually by deposition of sand carried by the rivers. The delta’s southernmost tip is a park, but I’d prefer calling it a public space, because the area looked too laidback, with too few daintily-shaped trees and too much rough surfaces.

Some people just sat at the riverbanks doing nothing. Some sat under the bridges having a picnic and thus avoiding the ferocious eagles, nosy pigeons and black, ominous looking crows with massive wings. Some were strolling or running along the rivers, or jumping across a set of big and small stones laid over the water — several in the shape of a turtle — that connect the banks.

A handsome grey heron, or a heron-like water bird, was focusing on something in the water, maybe an invisible prey, raising one of its long legs forward ever so slowly and stealthily putting the claws back down into the water. The bird’s patience eventually outran mine, with me turning my attention elsewhere before it engaged in any action.

Unpretentious, which is also the place’s defining beauty.

A few minutes’ walk northward from the delightful riverside took me to the entrance of Tadasu-no-Mori, a 124,000-square-metre (about the size of 295 basketball courts) primeval forest with 13 per cent of the trees aged between 200 to 600 years. It is said that the forest originally expanded across around 5 million square metres of land, but wars during the age of warriors (1185 – 1573) and a land forfeit writs during the Meiji time (1868 – 1912) had reduced the woodland to its current size.

The sacred grove, whose name literally means the forest that rectifies the false, is a national historical site of Japan.

At the southern end of the oblong forest stands Kawai Shrine, which serves “Japan’s number one beauty deity” Tamayori-hime, daughter of the sea dragon god Watatsumi and mother of Japan’s first emporor Jimmu (660 BCE – 585 BCE; mythic) in Japanese mythology.

I know what you are thinking. Kawai, one of the most well-known Japanese terms, which means cute: what an apt name for a temple of the beauty goddess.

But what’s more apt, considering the shrine’s location, is the two kanji characters that compose the name literally means the closing of rivers. The name is also a common Japanese family name.

Right outside the shrine’s main temple are shelves packed with small wooden plaques (ema) in the shape of a hand-held mirror. These emas were placed there by mainly female worshipers, who also drew their faces on the plaques to wish for greater beauty.

At a corner of the shrine sits a cannon shell in commemoration of Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War (February 1904 – September 1905).  Surrounding the shell is a circle of small red flags that read “pray for a sure win” with the emblem of a three-legged crow (Yatagarasu), which in Japanese mythology helped Jimmu established his empire.

Why such a shell would turn up in the middle of a shrine for beauty is a curious question. My theory is that to compete for worshipers against Japan’s countless other shrines, you not only need the blessing of an attractive goddess, but need to cover other groups of people such as students as well.

A souvenir shop in the shrine sells all sorts of offerings and lucky charms, as well as glasses of “beauty water”, which is actually juice of karin, or Chinese quince, a type of pear-like fruit. Each glass costs ¥350 ($3.3). Ka-ching ka-ching!

A long, wide and straight corridor of luxuriant trees connects Kawai to Shimogamo Shrine at the northern end, constituting a relaxing and cool early summer walk. Clear streams slowly flow past, with big fishes leisurely swimming in and banks coated with fallen leaves. Another elegant heron half-heartedly prowled in the water.

Art students sat along the path, or by the streams, busily sketching, while light and shadow played tricks around them. A middle-aged forest keeper came along with a loud leaf blower to clean the yellow, dead foliage away from the main path. It looked a bit too fussy to me and I couldn’t help frowning upon the noise for breaking the wonderful peacefulness.

Shimogamo Shrine is bigger and more grandiose than Kawai, but to me it lacks characteristics (meaning less weird).

More people visited there, although not overwhelmingly. In fact, a busload of elderly descended at the shrine around the same time of my arrival. The whole shrine was filled with echoing sound of people’s footsteps because the court is surfaced with gravel.

Strange music that sounded like someone was blowing a wind instrument very badly arose from a side garden in the shrine. There is a nice old house in the garden with glass doors all closed, surrounded by delicate trees with their slender branches and fresh green leaves. But from the half-drawn curtains I could see people all dressed up sitting quietly in the hall. When the music stopped, they applauded politely.

Could it be a wedding? Or a funeral? All I knew was I should not disturb the occasion any further.

The northeastern exit of the forest leads to a pleasant and quiet residential neighbourhood. I kept walking to the northeast direction, crossing the scenic Takano river and wandering towards Ichijoji station, which is on the electric railway line to the famous Mount Hiei, which I left out in this trip.

(Map: yellow – Shimogamo Shrine; red – Ichijoji station)

The area around the station is largely residential, but there is a hip atmosphere to it, with fashionable cafes, quaint restaurants and a trendy bookstore, called Keibun-sha, which sells many photo-heavy design and lifestyle books alongside expensive arty-crafty trinkets. There is also a secondhand section with a curiously lot of titles teaching people how to run coffee shops, as well as some German-language books.

It is an area worth further exploration.


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Tidbits in Japan II: Arashiyama

Some places become swamped by “tourists” because they sell whatever is needed to a particular group of people, like many parts of Hong Kong. Some places become a highly popular attraction because they are genuinely nice, like Arashiyama.

This, unfortunately, is a curse in its own.

According to every guide book and travel blog, the little hillside town in west Kyoto has many beautiful Shinto shrines, a train that you must take to admire the amazing views of its river and valley, a bridge — Togetsukyo Bridge — that you really must walk across, and a path lined with neatly arranged bamboo groves on both sides that’s so zen. (In fact, Google “bamboo groves” and see what image results come up first.)

I have to admit that Togetsukyo Bridge, literally translated as “ferrying across the moon”, sounds beautiful and poetic. But I’ve also seen photos online of the bridge covered with nothing but people. While in awe of the bridge’s ability to withstand so many without collapsing, drowning myself in crowds to me kind of defeats the point of having a holiday outside Hong Kong.

But my mind was still set for Arashiyama not merely because it was likely where Kenshin had roamed (I can hear you sneering), but there are two strange temples further up in the hill which very few would visit, probably because it’s a bit of a hike from the central tourist zone.

So my plan, under the aid of Google’s transport planner, was to take a bus from Sanjokeihan station through Kyoto’s many weird neighbourhoods to Otagi Nenbutsu-ji temple, which the bus would stop right in front of.

After visiting the temple, I would stroll leisurely downhill, passing and visiting Adashino Nenbutsu-ji temple, before finally meeting the bulk of holidaymakers down around the Arashiyama station.

That was the plan.

Due to some last-minute confusion that might or might not be Google’s fault, the bus that I hopped onto at Sanjo, which did wind through some of the strangest neighbourhoods, only took me as far as the tourist zone — which was of course crammed full of people on a Sunday — before moving further away from Arashiyama, and I didn’t realise that until, um, I had been further away from Arashiyama.

(Map: red — destination; blue — around which the bus took me as far as; green — where I ended up.)

That was tragic, but as least I got off at a bus station. After analysing the bus routes (only two) while recovering over an ice cream, I decided to take the bus that would take me to Daikaku-ji (yellow marker), which on map is a shorter distance away from the destination.

Surprisingly, Daikaku-ji had very few visitors, but a large group of apparent locals — mostly men — in white robes, sitting on the lawn washing down their big lunch with beer or sake.

It was not until later did I find out that these men would carry massive red mikoshis, or portable Shinto shrines, for the local Saga Festival. No wonder they needed a big meal to fill their energy up.

The walk from Daikaku-ji to Adashino Nenbutsu-ji, notwithstanding the scorching sun and me sweating like a horse, turned out to be unexpectedly nice, with people disappearing from sight not too far into the trail. There are mainly quiet residential neighbourhoods along the roads, and a very nice little restaurant right at the point before the trail goes completely wild (I will write about the restaurants later).

It may not be very accurate to describe the trail as completely wild, because just a few more steps ahead from the tree that burnt red even in early summer, the residential houses that lined the little uphill road were suddenly replaced by moderately expensive traditional Japanese restaurants and souvenir shops. There was even a rickshaw carrier standing by the side of the road smiling at me.

Only a few souls visited that area that day, so most of the restaurants and shops were closed. But during more touristy days, the number of visitors who wander off the beaten path must be enough for them to make a living, I was thinking.

When I finally started to see some shades over the path, I had reached Adashino Nenbutsu-ji, the more downhill one of the two temples I planned to visit.

The area around the temple, Adashino, used to be where people abandoned corpses during the Heian period (794 – 1185), leaving the bodies to animals and the elements. It is said that in 811, the Buddhist monk Kukai founded a temple there — which would later evolve into the temple today — to commemorate the nameless dead, putting little stone Buddhas there as tombstones.

People soon began to place more stone Buddhas around the temple and in the early 20th century, monks at the temple collected 8,000 such statues from the area and placed them all together in the temple.

It is said that every year on August 22 to 23, monks and other Buddhists from across the country would arrive at the temple at dusk and light up thousands of candles and offer their prayers (Nenbutsu) to the stones.

It must be an enchanting sight: thousands of candles lit up among the little, time-worn statues, tightly crowding together into endless rows and columns, as if they are looking up to the tower and the tranquil, sitting Buddha statue in the centre, while softly whispering to one another.

The whispers turn into an eternal, murmuring river.

The temple also has a stupa, a “path of bamboos” and a graveyard, which makes a very interesting walk.

After leaving the temple, I marched on to Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, passing many lovely bits and pieces, including some workers thatching a roof, which I had never seen in my life before. I’ve seen enough of Hong Kong construction workers installing and dismantling bamboo scaffolding in a most nimble and skillful way, though.

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji is around the starting point of a green hiking trail reaching into the deep of the mountains, in which hide many mysteries. The temple is next to a tunnel that seems endless, with its dark entrance seemingly about to suck me into time.

In front of the temple I found the stop for the bus which I failed to take, and the timetable indicated that the next bus was about to arrive. Eventually, I didn’t go into the temple but got onto the bus, which would become increasingly full until it was crammed as it meandered through some of the extremely popular places.

The bus also took me across the famed Togetsukyo Bridge. It actually got stuck there for a good half hour because the Saga Festival people, dressed in robes of different colours and carrying all sorts of weird ceremonial things, were crossing the bridge slowly with lion dance performers and onlookers with selfie-sticks.

This gave me time to have a good view of the area. The wide river glistened in the sun, gently embraced by the green hills crouching by its side. The view became wider as the river flew into the distance, reflecting the light blue sky. Green, elegant trees lined the river banks.

I could see why travellers love the place. And I long for a quiet, breezy day, when I will sit at the river bank, just staring into the distance, daydreaming.

What’s inside Otagi Nenbutsu-ji? What’s at the other end of the tunnel? What’s further in the mountains?

If I ever visit the place again, I may find out.

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Tidbits in Japan I: Momoyama

I was told during my one-week trip to Osaka and Kyoto in Japan the story of an American couple spending one year staying in Airbnb places across New York — one month in each neighbourhood — to experience different local lifestyles and cultures.

Fascinating, I thought, sitting in a nicely padded sofa-like chair in a train from Kyoto to Osaka, watching the scenery changing from quaint little residential villages with cute two- or three-storey houses, to wide rivers with most of the riverbed exposed, to green rice fields, to hills covered with looming pylons in the middle of large, spread-out areas.

In fact, Japan would be a perfect place for such an experiment, I think.

I spent three nights of my late-May trip in an Airbnb place in Kyoto’s Fushimi-momoyama area and three nights in another in Osaka’s Tennoji neighbourhood. The two places have distinct characteristics and also share some similarities in the sense of a generally laid-back atmosphere and a strange, Japanese-style quietness.

Fushimi-momoyama in south Kyoto is drenched in history and a feeling of elegance that I believe is unique with Kyoto.

The area is where the Battle of Toba–Fushimi took place during Japan’s Meiji Restoration time. In the parallel universe that’s Japanese manga (otaku alert), the battle was the first and last war battle which Himura Kenshin — from the classic Rurouni Kenshin series — fought. I wasn’t having this in mind when picking the Airbnb place but this did fulfill my wish to retrace Kenshin’s steps — one of the main factors that drove me to visit Japan. (Yes, I can see you rolling your eyes.)

The place I stayed (see the location here) is right next to two rail lines — Kintetsu-Kyoto Line and Keihan Line — and close to another two, Keihan-Uji Line and Nara Line. In fact, from the little balcony of the small but neat flat, I could see the railway right outside and trains roaring past, which meant noise, but I couldn’t care less because I could hear nothing when I was sound asleep.

I also found it fascinating that railways cut right through streets on the ground in many neighbourhoods I visited. As the bell went “ding ding ding”, the security barrier gates were lowered, and pedestrians, bikes and cars would stop crossing the railway as the train — sometimes two — came thundering by.

To me, this strangely added to the laid-back feeling of the neighbourhoods in a country where people are known to be busy and hardworking, as if I was travelling back in time. I think this is an experience only to the tourists, those who shamelessly take in the beauty of a place while the local residents are trapped in all sorts of mundane daily problems.

On the second day in Momoyama, I went out for a most amazing bike ride around 5am in crisp morning breeze and gentle sun-rays. The little town was just waking up, although it would remain to be sleepy most of the day. The streets were mostly empty, with only a few early elderly strolling or cycling along.

During the last exploration of Momoyama before leaving for Osaka, I encountered a quiet uphill neighbourhood with a small cemetery. The graveyard is divided into two parts, with the bigger part being secured in an enclosed yard of a temple while the remaining bit left outside for everyone’s view. The tombstones left outside didn’t seem to have specific names on them. Some only indicated where the person was from, the person’s gender and that the person was a believer. I wonder what the story is.

I always think the most scenic spots are not found in any tourist destinations but in the most ordinary daily lives: the little alleyways, the green riverbanks, the mom-and-pop shops, the local eateries, the supermarkets, the ebb and flow of people in every station and street.

To me, Momoyama is a lovely combination of history and small-town life, with old houses, uphill streets, old-fashioned shopping arcades and unpretentious restaurants. I guess the area would be mainly attractive to history lovers and manga fans and I assume even during the most touristy seasons, the place would still remain relatively undisturbed.

As I hopped on to the train to Osaka from the station just outside my stay and bid farewell to Momoyama, I hope it will never change.



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We want to ride our bicycles


A cyclist riding along the tram track in Wan Chai. Photo: Calvin Sit

This article was originally published on Time Out Hong Kong magazine.

In a city where the car is king, those who want to get out on two wheels face a traffic nightmare. Shirley Zhao investigates the government’s cycling policies – or, perhaps, a lack of them…

Cars rule Hong Kong. Their emissions rule the air. And anyone who wants to get on a bicycle and travel into the heart of the city risks running the gauntlet on our dangerous roads. When other cities across the world are promoting bicycle travel as a safer, cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternative to the car, Hong Kong seems light years behind.

So it’s a good time to discuss the place of the bicycle in the city. Inspirational 24-year-old Sarah Lee Wai-sze has returned home after scooping bronze – only the third medal in Hong Kong’s history and the only one for the SAR in this year’s London Olympics – in cycling. We’re clearly good on two wheels – with places like Lamma Island almost solely relying on the bike for transportation. However, Hong Kong is often difficult to navigate for cyclists and many think the government has a lack of interest in supporting it as a transport or a sport. Some believe the authorities do little to promote the skills and awareness of the motorists who share the roads with cyclists.

“Hong Kong is an amazing place for cycling with the hills and the beautiful countryside,” says Charles Nixon, who usually cycles twice a week. But the 43-year-old lawyer’s passion was once at odds with the cycling regulations here, when traffic police warned him not to ride on Southern District’s Black’s Link, a road with few vehicles and pedestrians – but which is banned to cyclists. Nixon sees this as an example of some of the crazy laws in the city which are not being addressed by the government.

Most Legislative Council candidates expect the government to recognise cycling as a transport option and incorporate its consideration in planning projects, according to a survey released at the end of last month by the Hong Kong Cycling Alliance. The survey received 88 responses out of a targeted 188 candidates – and 87 of them, representing most political parties, said cycling should be considered as a transport. “The survey shows that Hong Kong’s politicians have started to become concerned about the insufficient cycling policies,” says Leo Wong Kwun-sing, alliance member. “So far, the government still sees cycling as merely a recreational activity while, across the world, governments are promoting it as a form of sustainable transport.”

Over the years, the subject of Hong Kong’s rapidly deteriorating air quality has been widely reported. Last year, readings at three roadside monitoring stations in Central, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok commercial districts showed that pollution levels were more than 20 percent above the ‘100 mark’, according to the city’s Environmental Protection Department. This was reportedly 10 times worse than in 2005. A reading above 100 triggers a government warning for people with heart or respiratory illnesses to avoid prolonged stays in heavy-traffic areas. “Cycling is emissions-free!” says Wong. “The community will get healthier too. Cycling also enables people to travel in short distances more conveniently.”

However, last September, the then Commissioner for Transport, who is now Permanent Secretary for Transport and Housing (Transport), Joseph Lai Yee-tak, said the government did not encourage citizens to cycle on urban roads because of the potential dangers caused by ‘cyclists competing for road space with motor vehicles’.

The number of cyclists who died in traffic accidents had doubled to 20 last year from 2006, while the overall deaths in all traffic accidents last year had actually decreased by 11 percent, according to statistics from the Transport Department. The number of traffic accidents involving bicycles last year had also increased by half since 2006, compared to a less than five percent increase for all traffic accidents in the city.

Martin Turner, chairman of the Hong Kong Cycling Alliance and a long-time utility cyclist, says the increase in cycling accidents and deaths shows that more people are cycling not only for recreational purposes but for general transportation. He suggests the government has failed to consider their needs in its infrastructure planning – and there has also been a failure in educating drivers on cyclists’ rights on the roads, as well as how to overtake cyclists properly. “Cyclists’ basic skills involve dealing with other vehicles around,” says Turner. “If the government doesn’t recognise this and encourage

people to acquire cycling skills in traffic, cycling traffic deaths could keep going up.”

Last June, Turner was given a ticket for riding in the middle of Java Road in North Point, instead of riding near the kerb as recommended in the Transport Department’s non-binding ‘Road Users’ Code’. In December, a charge against him on the grounds of ‘careless cycling’ was dropped by the Department of Justice because it faced ‘a robust defence’, according to the alliance. In March this year, the government’s Road Safety Council issued new advice telling cyclists it is safer to ride in the middle of the lane when cycling in narrow carriageways or making turns.

Turner explains that riding near the kerb often invites drivers to overtake cyclists recklessly. “You only overtake when it’s safe. That’s the rule,” he says. “But too many motorists and government bureaucrats think somehow there’s an inherent right for the guy behind in the car to be getting ahead of the guy on the bike!”

Christine Loh Kung-wai, CEO of think-tank Civic Exchange, suggests that the government should assign cycling lanes to Hong Kong’s roads. “Instead of widening roads for more cars, Hong Kong can see what happens if we widen roads for cyclists and pedestrians,” says Loh, who has been tipped as the new Undersecretary for the Environment, although she is yet to make any comment on the rumour. “Cycling can be safe and pleasurable if it’s given priority. As people cycle, they will become better cyclists and thus safer cyclists.” Loh also raises the possibilities for cross-district cycling and for cyclists to travel with their bicycles on public transport.

So it’s still a tough battle to get around the city on two wheels. MTR bosses only allow folding bicycles which pass a size requirement on to trains. The Star Ferry’s Tsim Sha Tsui-Wan Chai line charges an additional $15.5 for bringing bicycles on board on weekdays. That’s about five times the charge for a single adult, compared to 1.3 times on a Kaohsiung ferry trip and 1.4 times on a Shanghai ferry trip.

And then there’s sport. The lack of support for seeing cycling as a necessary, sustainable method of transport has affected the overall interest in competitive cycling, according to Mark Leeper, a regular mountain biker. “Of course government officials are happy to come and applaud medal winners,” says Leeper, “but local cycling success is very much down to the efforts of individuals, such as Sarah Lee Wai-sze and Wong Kam-po, and their individual coaches.” According to Leeper, the government has given little support in developing young talent and has failed to prioritise ‘grassroots’ bike races, often because it prefers to ‘keep the roads permanently clear for drivers rather than approving temporary permits to close quiet roads for morning races’.

In 2005, 38-year-old champion cyclist Brendan Chiu Hsiu-hon was killed during a race in a head-on collision with a minibus on Hoi Ha Road in Sai Kung. The minibus driver was sentenced to eight months in prison and had a two-year licence suspension. “Minibus drivers are the worst in Hong Kong,” says Michael Pryde, a cyclist who has competed for the Hong Kong mountain biking team. “They can stop abruptly to pick up or drop off passengers.”

Michael Maddess, race director and course designer at sport-promoting group Action Asia Foundation, tells us that while police would like to have bicycle races on country park trails and off the roads, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department prefers them to use roads instead of country park routes. “Both departments pass the buck and bikers suffer with few trails to ride on and even fewer races in Hong Kong,” he says.

Only cyclists with government-issued permits are allowed to ride on 10 country park trails. Despite urges from cycling groups for the AFCD to open other country park trails to cyclists, the department is yet to make any decision. But an AFCD spokesman has said accidents are ‘likely to happen’ when riding bicycles in places with pedestrians. Director of Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation, Alan Wong Chi-kong, said in a district council meeting in 2010 that he had worked on ‘thousands of cases’ involving citizens injured in bicycle accidents as well as citing complaints from citizens about having ‘too many bicycles around’.

“It’s ironic that Hong Kong riders have performed so well winning medals in international games by training outside the city,” says Maddess, “as most trails here are illegal to ride on.”

Update: The government announced on September 12 that Christine Loh Kung-wai has been appointed Undersecretary for the Environment and she has taken up office on the same day.

Cycling around the globe

Kaohsiung, Taiwan

The streets of Taiwan’s second-largest city, Kaohsiung, are just as busy as ours. However, the city is one of the most cycling-friendly cities in Asia. It has a growing network of bicycle trails (250km by late last year) and has almost 50 self-serviced public bike rental stations, providing a total of 4,500 public bicycles. The service is free for the first hour and then NT$10 ($2.60) for every subsequent half-hour.

Guangzhou, China

Notorious for its complicated road system, heavy traffic and dense population, Guangzhou, one of the fastest-growing cities in China, provides a surprisingly good example of a sustainable transport system. According to local media reports, by early last year the city had a network of bike lanes adding up to more than 990km, connecting more than 50 subway stations with public bike rental kiosks. The cycling system is fully integrated with the city’s bus and subway systems.

Copenhagen, Denmark

Providing a free bike sharing system, this city is probably the most bicycle-friendly in the world. Half of the city’s residents are daily cyclists. This April, it opened its first ‘cycle superhighway’ out of 26 routes scheduled to be built to encourage more people to commute to and from the city on two wheels. While there is a good existing network of bike paths around Copenhagen, the cycle superhighways are being designed to ensure continuous, standardised routes into the city across long distances.

London, England

For Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, gave the happy couple a tandem bicycle to coincide with the city’s public bike sharing system, which was designed ‘for shorter journeys around the capital’. Besides four cycle superhighways similar to Copenhagen’s and another eight to be built, there are also bicycle lanes on the roads often with clear signs.

New York, USA

NYC has roads which are often congested with heavy traffic and streets packed with pedestrians. Yet, unlike Hong Kong, the city has a large cycling population which includes hordes of delivery and messenger services. Most streets provide no separate facilities for bikes so most cycling happens in the same lanes as the rest of the traffic. But there are also on-road bike lanes marked with paint and signage, as well as bike paths in parks which have been separated from both traffic and pedestrians.

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Record-high turnout for anti-national education protests

This article was originally published on Time Out Hong Kong website.

Student protesters urge the government to scrap national education, photo by Shirley Zhao Xiaoying

Hong Kong — Donning black, tens of thousands of protesters against the allegedly ‘brainwashing’ national education flooded the plazas outside the Tamar government headquarters, crowded the connected Tamar Park and pedestrian overpasses, and spilled over from Admiralty to Wan Chai.

Organisers estimated 120,000 protesters joined the rally, which lasted from Friday evening till early Saturday morning, while police said the number was 36,000 by 9.30pm yesterday. Both numbers are recorded as the highest in a series of anti-national education protests starting last Thursday.

“I’m touched seeing so many people showing up here,” said Vincent Ng, a 27-year-old teacher who came after work. “It shows how citizens don’t want national education. If the government is sincere, it should stop ignoring our voices and withdraw it [national education]!”

Founding chairman of the Democratic Party Martin Lee Chu-ming, founder of Next Media Jimmy Lai Chee-ying and Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun visited the hunger strikers separately during the protest.

Lee said the central government is ‘forcing the SAR government to do what is against the public opinion’ by starting national education.

“I hope, at this critical moment, that the central government can rein in the horse before it reaches the cliff,” he said.

Zen urged the protesting youths to keep calm and not to escalate the protests. He said he is ‘disappointed at the government’s lack of reaction’ and he asked the government to inform Beijing about Hong Kong people’s requests.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying invited representatives from three protesting groups, namely Scholarism, Parents Concern Group on National Education and Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union, to start conversations, which should be open to all possibilities, with him and chairwoman of the Committee on Implementation of Moral and National Education Anna Wu Hung-yuk.

The groups said they are willing to accept the invitation, but they require the conversations to be public with media presence.

Meanwhile, Wong Hon-kam, chairman of the Union of Government School Teachers, said yesterday that the Education Bureau has ordered government school principals to watch their teachers’ and students’ support for the anti-national education campaign by recording how many teachers wore black clothes and how many students wore black ribbons on their wrists at school.

The bureau admitted it has provided ‘references and guidelines’ for government schools to better prepare for potential class boycotts and incoming inquiries from the public, calling it ‘a responsible move’ with no ‘improper purposes’.

University students have pledged to hold a city-wide class boycott next week.

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‘No timetable’ for more Mainlanders to come

This article was originally published on Time Out Hong Kong website.


Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced the suspension of the plan.

Hong Kong — A plan to allow another four million Mainland visitors to visit Hong Kong has been suspended with ‘no timetable for its execution’, said Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying on Friday morning.

The implementation of the plan will not be considered until it is confirmed Hong Kong can afford the influx, said Leung.

“There has to be a system based on the principle that it [the plan] should not affect Hong Kong people’s life,” he said.

According to Leung, the SAR government has come to an agreement with relevant Mainland authorities that the approval of visas for individual Mainland tourists to visit should take Hong Kong’s capacity into account.

The plan, announced by the Shenzhen government late last month, was originally set to allow the city’s non-permanent residents to apply for multiple-entry visas to visit Hong Kong, starting from the first day of this month.

This immediately ignited huge criticism from unprepared Hongkongers, fearing over more congested streets, rising rents and larger ‘grey market’ near the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border. Last year, 28 million Mainland visitors, dubbed ‘locusts’ by some angry locals, visited the city.

Leung later announced that the plan would be delayed for three weeks for more discussions between the SAR government and Mainland authorities.

Vincent Fang Kang, who is set to be returned unopposed in October as legislative councillor for the wholesale and retail functional constituency, said he agrees with the suspension, claiming the wholesale and retail industry had never been consulted before the announcement of the plan.

“The government hadn’t carefully assessed the impact of the plan,” he said, raising the possibility of Mainland visitors overloading the border control points and MTR trains. “The government should only allow more Mainland visitors to come in a gradual and orderly manner.”

Simon Wong Ka-wo, chairman of the Hong Kong Food Council, following the announcement, said he understands the government needs time to prepare or there could be ‘unexpected impact in various aspects’. Wong said he expects to see the plan bring an additional annual revenue of $1billion to the local food and drinks industry, but he said it is ‘very insignificant’ compared to the industry’s overall income of $90b last year.

“The suspension of the plan will not affect the food and drinks industry too much,” he said. But he also said he thinks the plan could help Hong Kong’s economy if it can be adjusted in accordance with the city’s space, traffic and logistics conditions.

The Hong Kong Tourism Board said it welcomes the decision to suspend the plan because it allows more time to ensure the city has enough facilities to cope with visitors’ needs so they can have ‘better experiences’ here.

Leung’s announcement came when the standoff between the government and the anti-national education hunger strikers (and their supporters) has been rumbling on for more than a week. Over the past few days, the people who have been on hunger strike outside the Tamar government headquarters have attracted thousands of supporters donned in black every evening after work or school, crowding the plaza and urging the government to scrap national education. University students have pledged to hold a city-wide class boycott next week.

Yesterday, Leung announced that two residential sites at the former Kai Tak Airport will be developed under the ‘Hong Kong land for Hong Kong people’ scheme, where flats can only be sold and resold to permanent residents (not including companies) in a 30-year period.

Choy Chi-keung, senior instructor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Department of Government and Public Administration, said these two announcements ‘obviously aim at helping the pro-establishment parties gain more popularity’ before the Legislative Council election this Sunday, as well as diverting the public attention from the anti-national education protests.

“I don’t think it [the diversion] will work,” said Choy, “because the public and media’s attention has always been on national education.”

Despite the suspension, non-permanent residents living in six Mainland cities – namely Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Chongqing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen – will still be allowed to apply for visas permitting up to two visits in Hong Kong.

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Anger over ‘brainwashing’ class shows distrust of ‘two systems’

This article was originally published on Time Out Hong Kong website.


Thousands of people rally against national education, photo by hongwrong.com

“Are there any raincoats left?” a young man asked the cashier of a convenience store in the Admiralty MTR station yesterday afternoon.

“Sorry. We’ve run out of raincoats today,” the cashier answered without thinking. A number of people had asked her the same question in the same afternoon.

A pedestrian overpass connects the MTR station with the Tamar government headquarters. Over there, in a rally against the national education subject, thousands of people filled the 183,000-square-foot Tamar Park, watching an anti-national education concert set against an open view of Hong Kong’s beautiful Victoria Harbour. Many of them were sitting on raincoats on the park’s green lawns dampened by rain.

Organisers of the gathering estimated the number of protesters reached 40,000, while police said around 8,100 people attended the rally.

A local pornography website had shut itself down for a whole day yesterday in support of the protest, calling for its visitors to ‘put your pants back on’ and try to understand the protesters’ purpose and goal.

“The government should cancel the implementation of the subject,” says Candy Wong, whose 9-year-old son is about to start his fourth year in primary school tomorrow on Monday. “I don’t want my child to be brainwashed.”

Although national education has been in Hong Kong since 2003, the ‘Moral and National Education’ subject is set to be implemented on voluntary basis in the city’s primary schools from September 3 this year, when a new school year starts. The same will happen to secondary schools next year. By 2016, the implementation of the subject could be made compulsory.

Yesterday’s rally is the latest development of an ongoing anti-national education campaign triggered by reports in early July of a booklet China Model that describes China’s ruling party as ‘progressive, selfless, and united’ while criticising multi-party systems as bringing disasters to countries such as the United States. The Hong Kong National Education Services Centre, the organisation that produced the booklet, received around $8 million from the government between 2008 and last year.

The government quickly stopped subsidising the centre and distanced itself from the booklet. However, many Hong Kong citizens still believe that the booklet or the pro-Communist messages it tries to deliver would be the basis of the subject and they fear the city’s impressionable youths would hence be ‘brainwashed’.

“The Communist party wants to make Hong Kong red,” says Ken Chou Kin-wai, a 28-year-old martial arts teacher. “We want our children to know facts about Chinese history and China’s reality. We don’t want them to love China blindly.”

On the other hand, Chan Chi-wa, a Liberal Studies teacher at SKH Leung Kwai Yee Secondary School, feels it’s ‘pointless to guess the motive’ behind introducing the new subject. “National education itself has no problem,” he says. “It’s a matter of how it is taught. I would emphasise on the moral and civic part of it.”

The Education Bureau urged protesting groups to ‘remain calm and unbiased’ and said it will not ask schools to give examinations or grade students’ performance in the subject. Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor also said the government has given ‘flexibility to schools’ to decide on when and how they teach the subject.

Yet the government is not likely to withdraw it, according to Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong. “The driving force to implement the subject comes from Beijing,” he says.

Cheng tells Time Out that he doubts anyone from the SAR government, the liaison office of the central government or the pro-establishment parties has done a proper job to let Beijing understand Hong Kong. “They only say positive things to please the central government,” he says. “I don’t think the central government understands why Hong Kong people are upset. It thought by pushing forward national education, it could fix everything.”

If that is the case, the reality has turned out to be far from expected.

On July 29, a reported number of 90,000 people participated in a protest against introducing the subject, followed by a series of other similar activities. On August 30, a students’ group started a three-day ‘occupy’ protest outside the government headquarters with three students on hunger strike throughout the protest.

A research conducted in mid-August by the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs Association of Hong Kong shows that over 60 percent, among 3,500 students and parents, worried that students could be ‘brainwashed’ by the subject, while all agreed that the curriculum should allow discussions on sensitive issues such as the Tiananmen Square massacre and food safety.

Dr Lam Wai-man, assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Department of Politics and Public Administration, says the recent sentiment is ‘an outburst of accumulated dissatisfaction’ among Hong Kong people over a series of events related to human rights and freedom.

This March, after an unprecedentedly chaotic election campaign with reports of media self-censorship and allegedly heavy-handed intervention by Beijing’s liaison office here, Leung Chun-ying, whom many pro-democracy people deem as being too close to the Communist party, was selected as the SAR’s new Chief Executive by less than two percent of the city’s seven million residents.

On June 4 this year, the city’s annual memorial for the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests saw a second-highest number of participants over two decades. However, two days later, one of the most outspoken Tiananmen protesters died in Hunan province in the Mainland, half a month after being interviewed by a Hong Kong TV reporter. Li Wangyang’s death, although officially ruled as suicide by the Hunan government, has generated a lot of anger and suspicions in the SAR because of its unusual circumstances.

In August, the neighbouring Mainland city of Shenzhen announced a plan to allow its non-permanent residents to apply for multiple-entry visas to visit Hong Kong. Unprepared Hongkongers, who had never been consulted beforehand, suddenly found themselves facing an additional four million Mainland visitors starting this month. Last year, 28 millions of Mainland visitors, dubbed ‘locusts’ by some angry locals, came to the city. The plan has been delayed for more discussions between the central and the SAR governments.

“More and more, Hong Kong people have come to realise that their cultures and values are very different from the Mainland’s,” says Lam. “Now many of them have lost confidence in their own government’s ability to protect these values.” Thus, according to Lam, it is understandable that many citizens suspect the national education comes with a ‘brainwashing’ purpose.

Citing the city-wide support for the ‘Diaoyu Islands defenders’ as an example, Lam says most Hong Kong people are patriotic ‘in a broad sense’. “But they don’t necessarily love the [Communist] party,” she says. “Deng Xiaoping realised this, so he came up with the ‘one country, two systems’ policy. Unfortunately this policy has often been violated recently.”

According to the Parents Concern Group on National Education, it has contacted more than 350 primary schools and only six said they will introduce the national education subject in the forthcoming school year. Baptist Lui Ming Choi Primary School is one of the six. According to local media, the school claimed it will use its own textbooks and encourage objective discussions.

Leticia Lee See-yin, president of the Federation of Parent-Teacher Associations of Yau Tsim Mong District, says national education is necessary, although she also admits many parents in her district have contacted her to express their concerns over the subject.

“I encourage parents to spend time going through related textbooks and asking their children what has been taught in class,” says Lee. “If they notice anything wrong, they should make complaints to schools, PTAs or other concerned groups.”

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