Tuesday, December 29, 2009

When a nickel is not worth a dime: Hong Kong experience

By Tula Dlamini

Hong Kong is an economic hub in Asia. It exists under the Chinese flag as a Special Administrative Region (SAR). The business district is a version of New York – bar the fact that it is administered significantly by Asians.

Money proffers respect and legitimacy in this society; it buys happiness – luxury cars – expensive jewelry – designer clothing and accessories. It is money that feeds the overwhelming obsession with wealth and status – seen on television - movies and in ‘hyper-commercial’ magazines.

It is common to see shoppers lined up outside the GUCCI department store or at the Louis Vuitton. It is late at night – around 10pm - and these young Chinese boys and girls want their piece of the designer brand – not the ‘Fong Kong’ – at term used to describe brand imitations of luxury goods.

Despite being part of traditional communist China – Hong Kong enjoys autonomy in its conduct of business activities and has a significant measure of internal dialogue around critical issues.

Down Central – I coincidental find myself in the middle of a civil protest. Opponents of a multibillion-dollar high-speed rail line cheer Lawmakers of the Civic Party and the League of Social Democrats after they succeed in delaying the proposed construction. The HK$66.9 billion Express Link will not be built by the end of 2009 as scheduled. Students mull around – other walk up and down banners up. Significantly - there is no Police firing of rubber bullets.

Debate is tolerated in Hong Kong - that is if my visit to a local art gallery is anything to go by. It is a group exhibition at ‘Contemporary’ Art Gallery by Angela Li titled ‘I am Rich’. Six artists explore the anxiety that accompanies the ‘get rich syndrome’ among Chinese nationals. The exhibition is full of contradiction and questions – highlighting the psychological imbalance of the new-rich Chinese and bemoaning the perceived lack of business ethics. It is a frank discussion on the various phenomenon caused by the rapid economic growth in China.

As Angela’s exhibit shows - behind this fa├žade of the daily synchronized pyrotechnic fireworks firing out from skyscrapers on Hong Kong Island every night - is a bubble waiting to explode. The excessive consumerism is unsustainable – not least owing to the current global recession.

For now – life seems good and the economy appears robust. The administration has poured a lot of dollars to corporate entities and citizens - as an intervention against the global economic slow-down. The likes of Richard Duncan - a professional fund manager – engineer and author – hold no hope for the future.

“China’s stimulus is like drinking a quart of Red Bull. When it wears off – you have to drink two quarts to keep going. Either way – you get sick’. Duncan argues in his new book – The Corruption of Capitalism – that since 40% of China’s economy depends on exporting to the US – the picture is gloomy should US consumers opt to tighten their belts. In short – assuming the aggregate demand for Chinese exports fall due to a drop in the US appetite for imports – China and indeed the rest of world would be thrown into a painful recession. Hong Kong – an integral part of China is no exception.

It is a ticking time-bomb – one that is compounded by the failure of its people to prepare for their financial retirement – says researchers like Kate Watson - pointing to the lack of retirement funds within the ageing population.

“The culture in Hong Kong is such that people focus on the short-term – and even with their Mandatory Medical Fund (MPF) investments – tend to favor risky investment strategies”.

Latest statistics from the Census and Statistics Department say about 93 000 baby boomers will turn 60 years by 2010, while the city’s population of people aged 65 is expected to increase to 25% by 2033. Unless radical interventions are made now – Hong Kong is a bad dream waiting to happen.

But then again – who knows what the future brings. My search carries me to Man Mo -one of Hong Kong’s oldest and most important places of worship dating as far back as before the arrival of the British in 1841.

Once inside – I light an incense stick out of respect (not worship) for the two deities: Man the god of civil servants and literature, and Mo – the god of war and martial arts. The act is complimented by the huge cone-shaped spirals of incense hanging from the ceiling – burning and adding to the smoky atmosphere. And because of its accessible location – Man Mo hosts an almost constant stream of tourists and worshipers but remains tranquil at the same time.

There are more than a hundred deities in Hong Kong – some more popular than others and each honored by different sections of the community for their redeeming qualities. For instance – students honor certain gods who are viewed as scholarly; fishermen go for gods who are believed to protect them from the dangers of the seas and so on.

Essentially – religion in Hong Kong is protected by the Basic Law and relevant legislation. There is a large variety of religious groups including practicing Christians and Jews.

Courtesy of the Leisure and Cultural Services – I am part of an audience at a theatrical performance at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre. Fuji no yama Ondekoza – the Japanese drum group made a resounding debut by giving a concert immediately after taking part in the Boston Marathon in 1975.

The following year, they joined up with the Boston Symphony Orchestra directed by Seiji Ozawa, and this collaboration gave them international recognition. Za Ondekoza’s performance is based on the philosophy of “Sogakuron” - or that ‘running and music are one’, which is considered a reflection of the drama and energy of life. The first scene – is a spirited drum and dance routine - includes a character who performs with a flute - the Christian hymn ‘Amazing Grace.’ Yes – there is a large body of Christians here. Estimates put the number of practicing Christians at more than 300 000 thousand.

The final day – I am up on a tram to the peak of the nearby mountain. Up lies a range of tourism targeted entertainment and of course – shopping options. I chose a restaurant themed after the famous Forrest Gump – remember the US guy – “In the land of China - people hardly got nothing at all”. For those not in the know - Forrest Gump is a 1994 American comedy-drama film based on the 1986 novel of the same name by Winston Groom. The story evolves around Forrest Gump - a simple man and his journey through life meeting historical figures - influencing popular culture - and with a ringside seat for many of the most memorable events of the second half of the 20th century. The table at which I am seated is inscribed with Gump’s famous quote – “My momma always said - life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get."

View from the Tram

I stayed at the Royal Plaza Hotel - situated in Mongkok in the heart of Kowloon. The hotel sits atop the Metro Rail Mong Kok East Station and is only 45 minutes by rail from China as well as the Hong Kong International Airport. It is directly linked to Grand Century Place - one of the largest shopping centers in Hong Kong with over 200 shops and an 8-screen cinema. The Hotel is surrounded by several tourist attractions and amusement venues that will charm even the most skeptical or classy visitors.

Sadly - I can smell the stench of decay not so far from the Hotel and after a few minutes walk – I am confronted by the much publicized socioeconomic success in public housing in Hong Kong. Although this perception is popular – I see nothing to support the success thesis – only high rise buildings – lumped together - accommodating over-crowded tenants. It is a sort of glorified urban slum characterized by busy shops underneath - what late singer Bob Marley refers to as the ‘concrete jungle’. I wonder as to the actual household experiences of these public housing tenants. Rentals - commodities – including food are relatively pricey here.

Returning back – am concerned about this development trajectory – one that looks at citizens as consumers – whose primary value – one might argue - is their appetite for consumer goods. Inspite of it all – Hong Kong is truly an experiential location. Just being among more than seven million people - loud – crowded and pushy - all squeezed in approximately 300 sq km – is a sufficient stimulus for a lot of people.

Image Sources:
Shopping for the Loius Vuitton - Image by Tula Dlamini
Up the tram - Image by Tula Dlamini
Slum city - Image by Shelagh Magadza
Man Mo Temple - Image by Google
Fuji no yama Ondekoza - Image by Google

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Carleene Dei walking the talk

By Tula Dlamini

Dr. Carleene Dei is the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Mission Director to South Africa.

If this makes you conjure up images of a stiff necked, prima donna, waxing lyrically about development at endless conferences, you’re way off base.

Born in Kingston Jamaica, Dr. Dei is part of this historical island of nearly 4,500 square miles, holding 2.7 million descendants of Africans some of who later turned up in Miami, New York, Africa and every where, as leading lights for the emancipated ‘Negro’ race.

This day Dr. Dei and staff are low-key guests at a mini-lunch party in Johannesburg, organised to commemorate the late Jamaican reggae legend, Bob Marley. She still recalls memories of a poor man's party—a turntable, homemade speakers, reggae, ska and calypso music. It is a nostalgia shared by many Jamaicans, including politicians, businessman and professionals.

But this is a far cry from Dr. Dei’s usually high profile schedule - a briefing for Bill Gates on USAID’s HIV/AIDS programmes, a tour of Johannesburg job creation projects with visiting US senator Barack Obama, or strategic meetings with her staff, South African government and development officials.

Both parents were hard working professionals. Her father worked as a civil servant, while simultaneously involving himself with projects in the theatre and radio, and later television. "He produced and/or directed radio programs, TV plays, pageants...that sort of thing." His ambitions in this area were fulfilled when he was appointed the head of the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation. Carleene’s mother was a school teacher who doubled as an actress. But as fate would have it, her parents divorced when she was 12 years old.

When her mother moved to the US in the late 1950s, Carleene joined her. That was a life altering experience, but one that would open endless doors. She became a US citizen by virtue of her mother's American citizenship. In the US, young Carleene distinguished herself as a committed scholar. "I was a high academic achiever and that gave me a sense of self-esteem"

She attended high school in Manhattan at the School of Music and Arts. Enrolment to the school was extremely competitive. It was compulsory to take an audition in order to be admitted. That required talent and Dr. Dei’s particular talent was music. She played piano, the flute and also did voice. "I'm a classical pianist by training, though I have not played for a long-time. I also had a good singing voice"

"I like and enjoy good music when I hear it. I can also appreciate a good performance when I hear or see one".

For Dr. Dei, the most important lesson learned at Music and Art was discovering her talents and skill, while at the same time understanding her limitations. This, she says, is because she was always surrounded by people who are the very best of New York City. “You do not get an over inflated idea of your talents".

"Rather, you understand earlier that you are good but not necessarily the greatest. Otherwise I would have graduated from high school thinking I was so wonderful, only to be blown away by real competition"

So high school left Dr. Dei with an appreciation that she was talented, but also with a realistic view of her limitations. This allowed her to move on and to pursue other options.

She completed her Bachelors degree at Cornell University in 1965, where she majored in Political Science. This is where she met her husband - Seth Dei in 1963. "Seth attended university at Cornell where he pursued a degree in agricultural economics, and later obtained an MBA from Columbia University."

Today, both Dr. Dei and Seth are proud parents of a daughter, Ama Dei. In the Twi language of Ghana, where Seth hails from, Ama means born on a Saturday. Carleene explains that Ama was actually born on a Friday but, that the name for Friday sounded unappealing in English, so she used the Saturday name.

Ama graduated from Colorado College with a major in English and is currently preparing for her Masters degree in Education. "I do not know if that is what she wants to do all her life but education is her passion right now and I am extremely proud of her achievements. Ama is also a certified yoga instructor and she likes outdoor sports".

“Education not only enlightens the receiver, but also broadens the giver. The more you give, the more you get”. This is the path Dr. Dei took – graduating with a Masters Degree in Education from Harvard University in 1966.

Dr. Dei first visited Africa in 1967 when she went to visit her husband’s family. In 1973, she and Seth settled in the Ivory Coast next door to Ghana. She immediately became part of the people of West Africa primarily because she could relate to the collective developmental challenges that lay ahead. Millions in Africa, like in her native Jamaica, continued to endure countless hardships bred by poverty, post-traumatic slavery and colonial disorder.

"What struck me was the similarity to Jamaica, above all in countries such as Ghana. Both were former British colonies, the architecture was the same - similar housing and even the way they strung the electrical poles reminded me of Jamaica".

“The climate was the same as the West Indies so I had a tremendous feeling of familiarity - a sense that I have been there before."

In total, she spent over 20 years in Ivory Coast. This is where she started to note in real terms, the disparities in income, problems arising from illiteracy, lack of primary health care and so on.

The conviction that something could be done to alleviate under-development would later propel Dr. Dei to pursue studies in Urban Anthropology – graduating with a Ph. D from New York’s Columbia University in 1985. "It occurred to me that we should and could do something to improve the socio-economic conditions of the ordinary folk. This is how I became interested in development work"

"USAID offered me a job doing social and gender analysis for a housing programme. This job I did for 2 years, in the process developing a keen interest in municipal management and decentralization issues and low-income housing programmes”.

The work was insightful for Dr. Dei. She began to fully understand in real terms the extent to which women were marginalised in West Africa. "Women were disadvantaged in multiple ways. The legal system, the social system and the political system disadvantaged them. Even where by law they were entitled to certain rights, traditional customs were still dominant. They were less likely to be sent to school and more likely to be married off at a younger age to an older man who had wealth, which the family could tap into materially".

From 1994-1999, she headed the USAID Regional Housing and Urban Development Office in South Africa, where together with the South African government and other partners, worked on a program to construct a million houses and make water and electricity available to people living in the country’s black townships and rural areas.

From 1999 to 2001, Dr. Dei served as the Deputy Director and Acting Director of the Office of Sustainable Development for the Africa Bureau based in Washington.

Prior to her assuming the current position in South Africa, Dr. Dei served as the first Mission Director of USAID’s West Africa Regional Programme, now based in Accra, Ghana. This is one of USAID’s three regional programmes on the African sub-continent.

Her desire as a USAID mission director is to remain relevant to community needs beyond mere provision of humanitarian assistance. For Dr. Dei, dealing with challenges such as famine and drought is good only if addresses the underlying issues. "You got famine because you can't produce enough food to feed yourself or you cannot deal with environmental forces and so on. I hope we keep on working on resolving underlying issues that help reduce poverty and we devote more resources to education, health and job creation”.

The Victoria Mxenge project in Capetown, South Africa, near Langa Township is one of Dr. Dei's favourite projects of all time because it demonstrates what a group of determined individuals can do for themselves. She became involved with the project during her initial posting to South Africa in1994-1999. The project was started by a group of women from informal settlements who were living under very poor conditions. Dr. Dei says she was fascinated to see these women, mostly with no formal schooling, with absolutely no money, take their government subsidies and produce a community that now has a couple of hundred substantial, well-built nicely landscaped houses.

Patricia Matolengwe and 11 other women started the Victoria Mxenge Housing Savings Scheme in 1992. Little did they know that their project would alleviate the plight of thousands of other South Africans who had no real homes. For more than a decade they followed a course of saving and managing the process of constructing houses that suited their needs. The trick was everyone would save every day, no matter how little. These were the poorest of the poor – the majority of them single mothers.

"Today you see a community that developed from nothing, people who had no hope, becoming proud home owners and members of a community that has decision making powers. I find that inspiring”, says Dr. Dei.

The project is named after Victoria Mxenge - a human rights lawyer who was killed by agents of the apartheid state in South Africa in the 1980s.

Up, up and away we go

By Tula Dlamini

It has taken me a much longer time than I thought it would to figure out how to write this column. The question became whether I should introduce the article with a quote on aviation, a phoney conversation about the ups and downs of hot-air ballooning, or even relaying the fact that setting out from Johannesburg as a reporter covering the Delmas Hot-Air Balloon Challenge landed me an internship as Martyn Evers's ground crew, chasing the floating wonder-balloon and later retrieving it by car.

There were a total of nine air balloons and according to Martyn "flying conditions don't get any better". After a pilot briefing at 5.30am, there was consensus that a "hare and hounds" task would be flown.

This is an international balloon competition task that involves a hot-air-balloon taking off from a launch point and flying away for a predetermined time or distance and then landing. A marker point, often in the form of a cross, is laid out at this landing point.

The other balloons, the "hounds", will launch and attempt to follow or chase the "hare". The winning hound is the balloon that is able to drop a marker as close as possible to the hare's cross. There may be a condition requiring the balloons to fly for a minimum period of time, say 30 minutes, before the hounds are allowed to drop their markers.

Flip Steyn, a commercial hot-air-balloon operator, took off and proceeded to shake off the chasing hounds. After some 30 minutes and about 3,5km of flying, the hare went to ground and the hounds closed in.

The excellent steerage saw the hounds bobbing up and down as they made their final course corrections and closed in for the "kill". The hare had no chance as the pilots threw their markers on top of the cross.

Ballooning permits the balloonist to soar high in the sky and drift over the picturesque terrain. But much more than that, it can also be a truly efficient way of travel for the unhurried and curious of today.

The advantage of ballooning now is a more durable canvas balloon material, new lighting materials and the propane banner that makes the source of heat easily controllable.

My initial concern was the possibility of the balloon leaving the Earth's atmosphere. But this could never happen since the hot-air balloon's flight depends on the density of the air outside.
Word is out that the Delmas area may become more of a choice for pilots. "Lots of open spaces, many landing opportunities and a lack of power and telephone lines," says Martyn.

The current "buzz" about hot-air-ballooning concerns the importance of involving local communities in future events. Lentswe Mokgatle, the executive mayor of Mogale City, says his city will not be left behind in this social transformation process.

According to available data, there are about 40 registered pilots in South Africa and only one pilot is black.

The Mogale City Mayoral Foundation is currently consulting its trustees in a bid to facilitate broader participation in the sport. A similar initiative was mooted in Bethlehem but was stalled by the tragic murder of its pioneer, Arthur Westworth.

Westworth was instrumental in setting up the Bethlehem Balloon Trust in August 2004. The objective of this legal entity was to accrue sufficient funds with which to purchase the necessary equipment to introduce the sport of hot-air ballooning to the community of Bethlehem.
Ballooning could be used to stimulate interest in aviation among young people. Arthur's vision must not die with him.

Wine snobs face packaging revolution

By Tula Dlamini

I have added wine to my three most basic needs of life: food, clothes and shelter. Wine makes glad my heart and that gladness I endeavour to share with others.

Like Allen Sichel, the president of the Union de Maison de Bordeaux, I am of the opinion that "wine drinking should be a sober habit of every normal man and woman who has the courage to enjoy the rhythm of life, not for those whose pleasure lies in exaggerating its miseries".

But I have a problem with the wine industry in South Africa, which seems caught up in a time warp in which the wine producer communicates with the consumer principally through the "bottled product". Any packaging that deviates from the norm is considered common and undistinguished.

This attitude is taken up by the wine snobs and often directed at wine that comes in a box. This view is not up to speed with international trends, especially when one considers the advances made in packaging. Winemakers the world over are getting creative with packaging, swapping corks for screwcaps, or putting premium varieties in boxes.

Of course, boxed wine has been around in South Africa for years, but it is generally lowbrow stuff, the sort that wine snobs do not touch.

Now imagine some of the most elegant wines coming in a box. That should appeal to the growing number of South Africans who have a nose for good wine and consume it on a regular basis.

Convenience is just one reason. I have on several occasions come across a stubborn cork or, even worse, one that breaks or crumbles. And yet all will agree that there is no such hassle with opening wine in a box. Once it is open, it is easy to draw a nice glass of wine and for restaurants to serve the same by the glass.

Wine consumers want something that does not require uncorking and that will last longer than just a few days. The wine boxes are essentially bags in boxes and, unlike bottled wines, the bags come with spigots that keep air out. This prevents the wine being exposed to oxygen and the resultant deterioration in taste and quality.

The South African wine industry has to help overcome the history of boxes holding inferior wines. Caryn White, a wine consultant in Johannesburg, agrees with the advantages of boxing premium wines, but contends that it is the popularity of screw caps on wine bottles in the United States that has helped boxes overcome the stigma.

"Making a mental leap from cork to screwcaps has made it easier for the discerning US consumers to make a leap towards boxed wine," White says.

The wine industry, favoured by a relatively stable economic environment, is booming in South Africa. Good climatic conditions, soils and terrain have contributed immensely to its growth.

However, its sustainability may depend on the extent to which it adapts to the fast-changing perceptions of its local consumers. It must take advantage of the highly sophisticated international industry, which is geared to supplying wine of every conceivable style and flavour to different markets - and that includes the international boxed wine market.

Several US premium winemakers have already joined the boxed wine craze and sales figures show it is working. According to AC Nielsen, a marketing information company, the sales in 2005 of premium-priced, three-litre boxes increased faster than any other segment of wine sales.

South African winemakers ought to take note of this trend.

A visit to Berlin

By Tula Dlamini

My late uncle Ndakandaka Ziqwayi was part of the black African contingent drafted to assist Allied troops during the Second World War. His recollection of the then-Berlin was of a ruined city that bore all the scars of war - buildings and other infrastructure destroyed and massive human casualties, among which more than 160 000 members of the Jewish community were either imprisoned or brutally exterminated.

To this day, parts of Berlin remain a painful reminder of the turbulent past.

Upon arrival, it became clear from the onset that historical relics were a way of illustrating how far modern Berlin had come.

A hint of Berlin's inner city and its tragic past was evident when I visited the Bahnhof Zoologischer Garten, popularly known to tourists as the Zoo Garden. The location resembled a museum in which the old collided with the new. On the one hand, the Zoo Garden comprised the usual big-city bright lights, heavy traffic and modern high-rise buildings, while at its centre stood the Kaiser William Memorial Church, abandoned as a ruin after it was bombed during the Second World War.

Gordon Mclachlan, the author of the Rough Guide to Germany, described this former "house of worship" as a "strangely effective memorial".

My host, Winfried Drathschmidit - then director of advanced professional television training at Sender Fries Berlin, was amongst the moderate voices in Germany arguing for the restoration of historic buildings and promotion of the city's museums. "Without the knowledge of the past, the future is fraught with the same old mistakes that the previous generations made," he argued, adding that he favoured a mixture of both eastern and western architecture as opposed to a total erasure of Berlin's sad past.

Drathschmidit's view seems to have carried the day. Modern architecture is visible in the city, but so are the old buildings under renovation. Some others have not been rebuilt since the war.
Perhaps the most intriguing landmark in recent history is the Berlin Wall. It was built in 1961 following a directive from Walter Ulbricht, the then-East German leader, to physically separate East Berlin from West Berlin.

The army, police and the secret service were instructed to enclose the city with barbed wire barricades and a concrete wall with an average height of 3,6m. Streets were blocked, railway lines broken and all the underground rail stations closed. East Germans were forbidden to travel to the West. Several border crossing points such as Checkpoint Charlie were established to regulate movement.

Civilians who attempted to cross illegally were shot on sight. The Berlin Wall was eventually torn down following a press conference on November 9 1989 in which the East German government announced that travel restrictions for East Germans had been lifted.

"On that night people from East Berlin streamed into the western part of the city in their thousands. For most it was the first time they had seen the other part of their city," recalled Drathschmidit.

Only a few parts of the wall have been preserved as a memorial to this tumultuous past. More than half a million people now cross the border from one part of the city into the other daily.
Former East Berlin residents seek employment in the west without restrictions and patronise its shopping centres, cinemas and nightclubs.

Today Berlin is ranked amongst the most vibrant and geographically expansive urban areas in the European Union. No less than 3,3 million peoplelive in this city that is endowed with parks, forests and lakes.

For the young and mobile, the great thing about Berlin is that the city has no shortage of daytime and evening activities. Often described as "the city that does not sleep", Berlin lives up to this reputation.

There are no official closing hours for nightlife. Pub drinkers consume until they drop, and nightclubs and public transport operate until the small hours of the morning.

I soon hooked up with a vibrant student community in Berlin and before I knew it, I was integrated into a community of young people from Africa, Germany and other parts of Europe.

My first real cultural shock was at the Kit Kat Club in Bessemerstrasse near Templehof. This is one of the most popular clubs that caters for the gay and lesbian scene. Coming from Africa, where discussions about sexual orientation are taboo, and being a self-confessed 100 percent heterosexual, I was initially shocked by the degree of tolerance towards the gay and lesbian community.

The Kit Kat Club was just the beginning of what I was to experience in Berlin. "The Slumberland", located near Kaizerdamm and owned and run by Stella Chiweshe, the Zimbabwean traditional mbira-music maestro, was later to become my favourite bar in Berlin.

I was attracted by its multicultural patronage. This is the one bar in which I was certain to meet someone from South Africa, or neighbouring countries. Young Germans from all walks life also frequented it.

True to the words of Karl Scheffler, author of Berlin: Ein Stadtschicksal: "Berlin is a city that never is, but always in the process of becoming."

The city has become an essential link between eastern and western Europe. Whether by road, sea, or by air, the city has made great progress in terms of the restoration and creation of transportation networks, thus positioning itself to becoming a potential hub for major social, economic and political activity in a united Europe.

This is a radically different reality to the one my uncle saw during the Second World War.