Posts Tagged ‘Hong Kong’

Please follow me on Forbes.com

April 2, 2014

I’ve begun to blog for Forbes.com about the casino business in Macau and around Asia, which I’ve been covering for nearly a decade, now as editor at large for Inside Asian Gaming. Please follow my blog and visit my site and posts early and often since Forbes.com pays by the click.

If you are interested in the gaming business in Asia as an industry executive, player or investor, I hope you’ll find the blog pieces interesting. Even if you don’t care about gaming in Asia, I hope you’ll click to help me earn some money. Unlike playing in the casino, you can’t lose.

I’ll still post some non-gaming items here, so please stay tuned. I know how busy our lives are and how crowded the online world has become, so I truly appreciate your attention and support. I hope you’ll keep taking your chances with me.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is a blogger for Forbes.com and author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Knowing Hong Kong’s place

June 30, 2013

US leaker Edward Snowden’s short, unhappy stay in Hong Kong highlighted the confusion about my adopted hometown’s status under Chinese sovereignty. The July 1 anniversary of the 1997 Hong Kong handover is a good opportunity to clear things up.

First, let me say that, like most Hong Kongers, I’m of two minds about Snowden, though perhaps for different reasons. I’ve held a US security clearance, and I didn’t take the responsibility lightly. I also can imagine the weight Barack Obama’s administration feels to protect the American public because, unlike the George W Bush people, it can’t bask in the belief that an attack that kills thousands of Americans is science fiction. It’s also a political fact that the Obama administration got more heat for a guy on an airplane with explosives in his underwear who was apprehended without causing damage than the Bush administration got for ignoring a memo that warned Al Qaeda was determined to strike the US and doing nothing to prevent the thousands of deaths that resulted from that tragedy (not to mention the phony war it drummed up in its aftermath), unless buying expensive shoes, sporting a bad haircut and flapping your overbite are anti-terrorism measures.

I also feel very strongly about the right to privacy and snooping into our personal lives. I’m quite sympathetic to the argument that the National Security Agency wasn’t collecting any more information than Google, phone companies and big data aggregators do. To me, that means we should be fully exposing and debating what those private companies do, rather than expanding these hidden privileges to the government.

Snowden presented Hong Kong with an unwelcome dilemma. It was caught in the middle of a dispute involving two of its most important partners. His disclosure of US spying at Chinese University of Hong Kong rightly raised questions about the US-Hong Kong relationship. Snowden’s revelations of US cyber espionage on the mainland provided juicy political ammunition for China to counter US accusations of China’s hacking of US targets. But the US-China relationship is far more important than anything Snowden could offer. So getting him out of their hair Hong Kong was a good thing for all.

It was troubling to see Cyd Ho, one of Hong Kong’s leading pan-democratic politicians, ask Beijing to reveal its position on Snowden before Hong Kong courts heard his case. But it’s not Hong Kong’s place to get in the middle of a Sino-American dispute, unless Hong Kong itself is the subject.

But far more wrongheaded than Cyd Ho’s deference to Beijing was the stream of US politicians bloviating about Snowden taking his secrets to China, as if Hong Kong is just another city in China. The whole point of Hong Kong’s status as a special administrative region (SAR) of China is that it’s not just another city in China.

The Basic Law, the mini-constitution for post-handover Hong Kong, guarantees the former British colony a “high degree of autonomy” in its domestic affairs for 50 years, with Beijing having a leading role in defense and foreign affairs only. (Snowden’s connection to foreign affairs gives local politicians an excuse for deferring to the mainland.) That high degree of autonomy includes freedom of expression and western style civil liberties that remain distant dreams in the mainland. Hong Kong has more than 7 million people, its own currency, its own courts and its own official language. There’s still a border between the Hong Kong and mainland, and citizens of each need permission to cross it. Deng Xiaoping summed up relationship best: “one country-two systems.”

The Hong Kong government makes it own laws with the help of an elected legislature. The electoral system isn’t terribly fair, but as much blame for that lies with the British and Hong Kong elite as Beijing. The British ruled undemocratically for 150 years and only began caring about giving Hong Kong’s masses a voice when the clock was running out. The local Chinese elite the colonial government leaned on were largely disinclined to cede power.

The relationship between China and Hong Kong is not analogous to the US government and a state. It’s more like the US relationship with Puerto Rico; few American would say that a person who went to Puerto Rico had thrown himself into the arms of the US intelligence services. But the US and Puerto Rico are in some ways closer than Hong Kong and China: Chinese citizens cannot freely visit, live and work in Hong Kong and vice versa.

As I wrote in Hong Kong On Air, everyone wondered how well “one country-two systems” would hold up after the handover. The problem, in these ensuing years, hasn’t been the structure but Hong Kong’s elite.

Hours after the handover (and completely unrelated to it), the Asian economic crisis hit the region as currencies collapsed. The crisis began China’s transformation from a supporting player amid the Asian tiger economies to the region’s leading dragon. Before the handover, Hong Kong expected to be the rich teacher to the mainland, but Hong Kong and China’s economic fortunes were abruptly reversed. Since the handover and the SARS epidemic of 2003, Hong Kong’s economy has become far more dependent on the mainland.

Despite that development, grassroots Hong Kong recognizes that loving China and doing business with it doesn’t mean loving the Communist Party’s rule. People here rose up against a plan to put mainland propaganda into the school curriculum and continue to campaign for free, direct election of Hong Kong’s chief executive, its head of government. Tens of thousands of Hong Kongers turn out annually to commemorate the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown that still cannot be spoken of across the border.

But Hong Kong’s elite have always been dependent on whoever’s in charge. Propaganda about Hong Kong and Singapore as the world’s freest economies notwithstanding, local tycoons got rich by kowtowing to leadership for favors and licenses. For example, property is the source of most wealth in Hong Kong and the government owns all the land, not exactly the way Adam Smith drew it up. Hong Kong’s rigged electoral system gives those tycoons disproportionate say in the legislature and lets Beijing chose the people who choose the chief executive. These so-called leaders put far greater emphasis on “one country” than “two systems” and skew outsiders’ views of Hong Kong. Their laxity about safeguarding Hong Kong’s prerogatives represents the small circle that elects them, not the majority of Hong Kongers.

What the tycoons and their acolytes fail to recognize is that they have the most to lose if Hong Kong really does become just another Chinese city. Fortunately, the people who ride the subway instead of Rolls Royces and Bentleys keep standing up to prevent it from happening. At least some of us recognize where our best interests really lie.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Taking up cultural residency

February 10, 2013

Since moving to Hong Kong in 1995, I’ve been celebrating Chinese New Year, including sending greetings to friends and business associates here. Some non-Chinese friends have told me they think it’s weird for a gweiloh (literally ghost, used as slang for Westerner) to wish them a happy lunar new year. I think it’s just about going with the flow wherever you live.

In a Chinese society, you can’t avoid the spirit of Chinese New Year, or as some say, Spring Festival, anymore than you can avoid the spirit of Christmas in the West. My first new year in Hong Kong, I didn’t realize some of my favorite neighborhood shops would close for up to a full month for the holiday, so my cupboard got awfully bare. To a avoid a repeat in 1997, a couple of days before the year of the ox lumbered in, I made a special visit to my favorite vegetable stand in the Graham Street market to stock up. As I chose tomatoes, carrots and greens, the vendor excitedly blurted, “Come back tomorrow. Price even higher then.” Her enthusiasm may have been misplaced, but it was absolutely infectious.

Growing up Jewish in the US, I got a lot of practice celebrating other people’s holidays as cultural phenomena without getting caught up in the details. I’d visit Christian neighbors to admire their trees and join my friend Dimitri’s Greek Christmas celebration a week later, sharing the joy and not mentioning it was his father in the Santa suit. I was always happy to take those holiday shifts in the newsroom so that my Christian colleagues could enjoy that time with their families.

My first Christmas in Hong Kong, I took a walk around Kowloon on Christmas eve. Thousands of people were out for what felt like a spontaneous street fair, celebrating for no apparent reason. (Everyone who actually observed the holiday presumably had somewhere else to be.) It felt like being in the middle of a joy fountain.

In your homeland, when people celebrate holidays you don’t, you’re the cultural equivalent of an innocent bystander. Whether you participate or walk on by is up to you. You’ve got no skin in the game and an easy way out. But if you chose to live in a different society, you take up cultural as well as physical residency, with an obligation to respect and honor local culture and traditions, as well as enjoying the benefits.

From the start, I’ve been grateful for the opportunities that I’ve had in Hong Kong and the good friends I’ve made there and across Asia as a result of living and working there. Honoring the Chinese New Year custom of sending good wishes to friends and colleagues is a simple way of showing that appreciation. Just don’t ask me to eat moon cakes this fall.

Kung hei fat choi. Gong xi fa cai. May your prices rise every tomorrow.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Next Hong Kong handover due in 2017

July 1, 2012

Fifteen years ago today was the apex of Hong Kong’s time as the center of the universe. My novel Hong Kong On Air recalls that incredible time.

Fifteen years later, you can debate whether China has become the center of the universe or whether Hong Kong is better or worse now. What’s certain is that Hong Kong has become far more dependent on China. The Asian economic crash of 1997 that immediately followed the handover – but had its causes elsewhere – and the 2003 SARS epidemic combined to turn the tables on the relationship between Hong Kong and China. It may have been a coincidence brought about by events, or it may be the product a calculated strategy by Beijing, but today Hong Kong needs China far more than China needs Hong Kong.

CY Leung takes the helm today as Hong Kong Chief Executive as the unelected head of the territory, chosen by a handful of handpicked Beijing loyalists. Beijing has promised that five years from today the chief executive being sworn in will be chosen in a free, democratic election by all the people of Hong Kong. If Hong Kong and China hope to enjoy a new version of the golden times Hong Kong On Air describes, that promise must be kept. Everyone who loves Hong Kong and everyone who loves freedom should join hands to convince Beijing to keep its word.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com.

Hard ten coming for casinos in Macau

June 26, 2012

This week marks the tenth anniversary of the real start of Macau’s gaming liberalization. The contracts that brought American casino operators Wynn Resorts and Las Vegas Sands to Macau were signed in late June 2002.

Less than two years later, the first Vegas-style casino, Sands Macao, opened. Macau was on its way to becoming the world’s largest gaming destination, with more than five times the casino revenue of Las Vegas last year. Casino operators have pocketed billions in profits from their Macau operations.

It’s been an easy ten years since liberalization, but now Macau casinos face a difficult decade ahead. They must contend with increasing competition from other Asian gaming destinations and among themselves. There’s also uncertainty about the continued flow of players across the border from mainland China, by far Macau’s main market, as Beijing goes through a wrenching leadership change.

But most of all, the casinos must handle the uncertainty of license renewal. As I wrote in Asia Times, gaming concessions will expire by June 2022, giving the Macau government more leverage to demand more from the casinos now. There also a chance that licenses won’t be renewed for one or more of the current concessionaires, most likely an American one, and no clear timeline or guidelines on the criteria for renewal. For casinos, that adds up to a lot of gray hairs and brown noses in the decade ahead.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com.

Disney doubles down in China

October 23, 2011

One definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expect the results to change. The Walt Disney Company, the folks behind Disneyland and Disney movies and TV, has had a tough time in China, but it’s come back for more.

The Cultural Revolution did not televise Mickey and Goofy. Beijing limits movie imports, so the little princes barely know The Lion King, and today there’s still no Disney television channel in mainland China. Hong Kong Disneyland, opened in 2005, has been a US$3 billion disappointment.

Despite the difficulties, Disney is doubling down on China. The company known as The Mouse is building a US$4.4 billion theme park and resort in Shanghai, while Hong Kong Disneyland will get a US$465 million expansion. As reported in Asia Times, these big ticket items are just a small end of an invigorated China strategy for the world’s largest media group.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie. See his biography, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com.

World comes to Bali’s Ubud Writers Festival

September 30, 2011

Bali’s renowned Ubud Writers & Readers Festival kicks off Wednesday, October 5 and runs though Sunday, October 9. Despite drama over festival sponsorship that ended with ANZ Bank coming aboard, this year’s eighth edition of the annual event will have a full complement of more than 100 writers from at least a dozen countries.

The event, founded as a response to the 2002 Bali bombings that left 202 dead, takes on added meaning this year in the wake of last Sunday’s latest church bombing in Java. The festival always features a variety of writers from across Indonesia and Southeast Asia, fostering wide ranging discussions on contemporary national and regional issues. It also brings writers from the across the Muslim world to the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, albeit to Bali, a Hindu island that’s traditionally welcomed foreigners and their cultures.

Western world headliners at this year’s Ubud event include Booker Prize winner DBC Pierre, Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz, and creator of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Alexander McCall Smith. Often, though, it’s the writers you’ve never heard of that make the biggest impressions; these festivals are about broadening literary horizons for readers and writers alike.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie. See his biography, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com.

Yale brings liberal arts to illiberal Singapore

September 19, 2011

In the West, Singapore has a well-crafted reputation as the little engine that could, and that does it on time. It’s a charming image that’s almost completely false.

Singapore receives ritual designation annually as the world’s second freest economy, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, from America’s rightwing Heritage Foundation. Singapore’s mythical status as a corruption-free zone is built on the twin pillars of selective law enforcement, such as ignoring widespread reports of unlicensed promoters illegally bringing higher rollers to its two enormously profitable casinos, and lack of laws against practices considered corrupt in the West, including conflict of interest and trade restraining practices. Though it presents itself as a parliamentary democracy, Singapore’s government deploys its full rage of powers to sustain the ruling party’s reign and suppress political free expression.

In its own neighborhood, people know Singapore as the preferred destination for wealth, legally obtained or otherwise. When Singapore says it wants to become the Switzerland of Asia, it’s not talking about tropical alpine skiing. While spouting pieties, Singapore bathes in filthy money stolen from the poor of Asia and beyond, and hypocrisy breeds contempt.

So it comes as a surprise and disappointment that Yale University has fallen for Singapore’s propaganda. Yale will build its first branch campus in the city-state. Bringing liberal arts to an illiberal place, Yale won zero concessions from Singapore on free speech issues and thinks the new campus will help elevate its reputation in Asia. Enjoy your Singapore sting on the rocks, Yalies.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie. See his biography, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com.

Rolling the dice in Thailand

September 4, 2011

Renowned novelist Christopher Moore has written with his usual insight on illegal gambling in Thailand. The longtime chronicler of Thailand notes the king-sized hypocrisy of police denying the existence of illegal gambling despite estimates of up to 1 million illegal gambling establishments in Thailand and, more to the point, bribes to police in connection with illegal betting of up to 8 billion baht ($275 million).

Moore suggests legalization of the estimated $12 billion underground industry, along with education on mathematical probabilities to counter Thai beliefs in luck and spirits tied to gambling. “Probability will teach children that there is no luck, no belief system or supernatural force that will intervene on your behalf in gambling,” Moore, perhaps best known for his Vincent Calvino crime novels and Land of Smiles Trilogy that all draw heavily on his understanding of Thai history and culture, says.

I interviewed Moore and several other knowledge sources for a report on prospects for casino legalization in Thailand in the February issue of Macau Business. International gaming companies have long salivated over the prospects of bringing casinos to Thailand. The combination of Thailand’s gambling-keen population of 65 million and more than 15 million foreign visitors make it the juiciest plum in Southeast Asia currently without legal casinos. But political and religious opposition have so far trumped the commercial opportunity. Groups that benefit from illegal gambling, including corrupt politicians and police, also oppose legalization. There’s also fear among some in the tourism industry that gambling could diminish Thailand’s appeal to visitors.

After the Thai general election in July, I wrote about whether the return of allies of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a supporter of gambling legalization, will help bring casinos to Thailand. Yingluck Shinawatra and her Phue Thai party have the difficult task of healing the rifts in Thai politics that widened after last year’s Thaksin loyalist Red Shirt occupation of Bangkok and subsequent crackdown that left 91 dead.

Christopher Moore says it’s time to get practical and make gambling legal. But the odds remain stacked against it until Thais find common ground on less divisive issues.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie. See his biography, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com.

Overheard at Ali’s Diner on Arab Street

July 29, 2011

“You hear about that massacre in Norway?”

“Awful.”

“You know about the guy who planted the bombs and did the shooting?”

“What about him?”

“Christian.”

“Figures.”

“It can’t just be a coincidence that there’s so much terrorism associated with Christians.”

“That Bible they have, it’s all about war and killing. So no wonder they’re always shooting each other.”

“Religion of my peace, my fetoosh.”

“Onward Christian soldiers…”

“Turn the other cheek, so you can shoot somebody else.”

“That Norway guy says he was trying to start a war.”

“Boy, they sure do have a knack for it. Whether it’s Jerusalem with the Crusaders or Iraq and Afghanistan, they keep doing it and act like there’s nothing wrong with it.”

“Because it’s what the Bible tells them to do, I guess.”

“Or maybe it’s what Jesus would do.”

“You know, I don’t get that whole thing with Jesus. Is Jesus the same as Allah, just with a different name?”

“I’ve read about this on the internet. It’s completely differently. We have one god. They believe in three gods, or a god with three heads…”

“So Christians don’t worship the same god as we do?”

“No, they don’t. A lot of people don’t understand that. But this thing I read on the internet explains it. It talks about them drinking blood at their services, too, and a lot of other interesting stuff. I can send you a link.”

“Thanks. There’s a lot of disinformation out there. It’s really important to understand who your enemies are.”

“These hardcore Christians, they say they’ve been born again and that…”

“What the hell does that mean, born again?”

“Beats me. And don’t say hell around them.”

“Yeah, right. They’ll put out a fatwa on me.”

“Those Christian fundamentalists, they believe that every word of the Bible is true, literally. They don’t even want schools to teach about evolution, since that’s not what the Bible says.”

“Do they know it’s the twenty-first century?”

“I’m sure they know – they just don’t care. They’ve been arguing about evolution since the nineteenth century, and they still haven’t resolved it. These fundamentalists are also against homosexuality, premarital sex, smoking…”

“If you live like that, then being dead would seem like paradise.”

“They do this chanting and stuff, then they say that the spirit of their god inhabits their body and they speak in all these strange languages and stuff…”

“You’re joking, right?”

“No. It’s the truth.”

“Man, they’re so different from the rest of us. No wonder they keep to themselves and don’t want anything to do with other people.”

“That guy in Norway thought Muslims and Christians couldn’t live together, so he had to kill the Muslims.”

“Well, he certainly wasn’t looking for them in the right place. I mean, Norway.”

“Maybe he got confused because of the oil there.”

“Why do they hate us so much?”

“Well, this guy was convinced Muslims are invading Europe.”

“Yeah, right. That’s why they’re banning alcohol and churches… Oh no, wait, it’s the Europeans that are banning the head scarf and mosques.”

“And you’ve got all these Muslims invading countries, sometimes with their armies, and trying to convert everyone… Oh, wait, that’s what Christians do.”

“I’ve always wondered about that. Why do they want to convert everybody?”

“They believe Christians are the only ones who go to heaven.”

“So?”

“Out of the Christian goodness of their heart, they want everyone to go to heaven. That’s why they go running around everywhere converting people, whether they like it or not.”

“What if you don’t want to convert?”

“Then they have to kill you for the sake of your soul.”

“They have to kill you in order to save you?”

“Well put.”

“Then they go building churches everywhere as a sign of their conquests.”

“That’s the way they are. They really believe that’s what they need to do.”

“But because they really believe it doesn’t make it right.”

“Of course not. But more important, they think anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe is an infidel and needs to convert or die.”

“In this day and age, it’s hard to believe there are still people who think that way.”

“And that’s why they’re so casual about killing people, why they don’t value human life the same way we do.”

“That old guy in Rome, what do you call him, the pimp?”

“The Pope.”

“That’s right. You never hear a peep out of him when Christians kill thousands of people. But some Muslim wackos kill a few Christians, and the old guy goes all batfish.”

“Yeah. You hear these Christians say that it’s just radicals who do this killing and all the other bad stuff, and they don’t represent the true meaning of Christianity. But you never see these mainstream Christian leaders standing up to denounce Christian extremists.”

“Right. When we start seeing moderate Christians out in the street condemning the murderers and bigots in their midst, then maybe we can start taking their claims about wanting peace and pluralism and tolerance seriously.”

“Amen, brother.”

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie. See his biography, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com.


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