Thoughts on Kingdom, Church, and Grace from an American living in Hong Kong

Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Year End Book Reviews 2011

On December 30 with one day to spare I met my goal of finishing Susanna Clark's novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell before the end of 2011.  It is a huge tome of a novel so I was pushing to finish it so I could start 2012 with a fresh new book...yet to be determined.

But with 2011 bidding us a fond farewell I thought I would do a quick review of some of my favorite books of the year.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell :  What happens when you blend a Jane Austen or Charles Dickens novel with Harry Potter?  The alternative history novel follows two very distinct magicians as they attempt to  reintroduce magic into a Victorian England setting.  There were moments when the book gets a little slow but just when it starts to drag the book suddenly jumps to some of the best storytelling I've read in a while.  Whether using their magic to battle Napoleon Bonaparte or magical fairies Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell will leave you hoping for a sequel.

On China:  Henry Kissinger gives us his perspective on over 40 years of his first hand experience with the Middle Kingdom.  Kissinger's narrative has a nice flow and he gives great insights on how and why the Chinese see the world the way they do.  As someone who has himself had personal dealings in China for over 20 years I would heartily recommend this book to anyone with an interest in China.

Under the Dome:  Probably the best Stephen King book since The Stand.  (Not that I've read every book since The Stand :)  A mysterious dome appears over a small town and nothing can get in...or out!  Bad people become worse and the good...well, they are tested.  I always find King having a real strong insight into the human condition and this novel examines how people react when normal social inhibitors are removed.

Stories I Only Tell My Friends: Rob Lowe's memoir was a lot of fun to read.  He has had an incredible film career and seems to have a Forrest Gumpesque ability to have been at some of the most interesting moments in recent history or having met with some of the most interesting people.  Read my complete review here:

A Prisoner of Birth: Jefferey Archer is a master storyteller.  In fact I think he went to jail at one point...for telling stories.  But this novel, which is a modern update of The Count of Monte Cristo, was a good fast paced read.  Not Archer's best book (for that you need to read Kane & Abel) but worth the time and effort.

Bossypants:  Tina Fey rocks!  This book was laugh out loud funny and was way to short.  I was literally on a long bus ride in Greece and, being a little bored,  used my Kindle to download Bossypants right from my seat.  I was embarrassing myself and causing heads to turn bursting out in laughter as I read it all somewhere between Athens and Corinth.

Game Change:  As a political junkie the idea of literally being a fly on the wall inside the campaigns of the 2008 presidential nominees was most appealing.  Obama, Hillary Clinton, McCain, Edwards, and Palin are all examined with some coming out looking better than others.  I could hardly put the book down and must admit to the attraction of feeling like you are included in the "inner circle" of presidential politics.  The movie version is coming out and its incredible how much Julianne Moore is able to "channel" Sarah Palin.

Anyhow, Have a Happy 2012 and find a good book to read!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Cocktail Reception On Board the U.S.S. Carl Vinson

Tammy and I had the most wonderful evening this week as we attended a cocktail reception on board the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Carl Vinson which is in Hong Kong for a few days.  If you are follower of Beyond the Pale than you may remember that this is the second visit by the Carl Vinson to the territory this year.  In that blog post I chronicled my friend Francis' invitation to the opening night reception and my subsequent (minor) jealousy surrounding that invitation.

I mean,  I want to hang out on an American aircraft carrier walking past rows of F-18 Hornets with a drink in one hand and my beautiful wife on the other... but how.

These receptions are public relations events and in this case it means hosting U.S. Consulate workers, American businessmen, Hong Kong local vendors, visiting military guests of the People's Republic of China etc.  I don't really qualify under any of those categories per se.  

The food was fantastic! God would have it, He saw fit to fulfill certain desires of the heart so to speak.  And just how did God fulfill this little heart desire of mine you ask?  Well, I got to know a friend here in Hong Kong who has a little say over who gets invited and lo and behold, I received an invitation a couple weeks ago.

So on Tuesday evening Tammy and I headed down to Fenwick pier on Hong Kong Island where the "water taxis" waited to cart us out to the carrier.  The U.S.S. Carl Vinson is really big and as we approached, the serial number "70" was lit up as a beacon cutting through the nighttime sky.

Guests rode the elevator up to the deck
The reception itself is held in the giant hanger bay and the U.S. Navy knows how to do food.  People think the huge American defense budget is all bullets and missiles but they forget the shrimp tables and roast beef carving stations.  But what I really had my heart set on was the chocolate chip cookies.  Yes, you heard me right...

...the chocolate chip cookies.  My friend Francis who attended the last reception said, "Seriously though, nobody has better chocolate chip cookies than the U.S. Navy."  And you know, he was right!  (I had 3)
Besides that high end shrimp and roast beef, it was also nice to have some good old American spicy jalapeno poppers.  Darn they were good and when Tammy wasn't looking I snuck another one!

Reception entrance
One of the highlights of the evening was everyone heading out onto one of the aircraft elevators for a trip up to the flight deck.  Yes, I got to fulfill my dream of having a glass of wine in one hand and my beautiful wife on my arm as we walked past rows of fighter planes.  My childhood always comes back in these moments as most American boys my age wanted to be a fighter pilot at some point as a kid.

Its also fun for us Americans living overseas to have a little "home" turf arrive for a few days.  Chatting with some of the officers is very lively and sometimes, although I usually love the diversity of Hong Kong,  its just fun to talk in "Americanese" about America with other Americans

The evening ended and we headed back out to the ferries that would shuttle us back to the dock but not before we picked up a U.S.S. Carl Vinson T-shirt for Gabriel and a ship photo for my office.

Your mission should you choose to accept it...
I have to end with a special thank you to our friend Christine and her daughter Claire who kindly watched Ethan George for the evening.  This was our first night "out" with a babysitter and knowing he was in such good care allowed us a relaxing evening.

Special thanks to the officers and crew of the U.S.S. Carl Vinson!  Thanks for the work you do and for such a wonderful evening!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Another year of "The War on Christmas" is over...Thankfully!

I may be dating myself but I'm old enough to remember when saying "Merry Christmas" wasn't considered a pejorative term.  And to wish someone"Happy Holidays" was not seen as "selling out" or diluting Christmas in any way but was simply the catch all phrase that encompassed the season from Thanksgiving to New Years Day.

But now America seems to be involved another war.  This is a war that has been raging for decades with major battles being played out every November and December.  On one side is the traditionalist who, in a world gone mad, desperately want to keep the CHRIST in Christmas!  And on the other side are all the others who want to diversify things a bit and who, lets be honest, probably have a little to much time on their hands.

Yes, it is the yearly fights involving the "War on Christmas."

Although for the most part I find the "War"... comical, I must admit chafing a little when I would hear some major store chain banning their employees from saying, Merry Christmas.  I can at least understand the argument about having a nativity scene displayed on a public ground (even if I don't agree with it.)  But banning someone's speech involving a holiday greeting...mmmm, that just gets under my skin!

From 2005 till 2008 I worked at Barnes & Noble and fortunately they had no policy on the matter so typically I would wish customers a Merry Christmas.  It was there that I realized that this "War" is indeed played out mostly by people with too much time on their hands as I literally wished thousands of customers "Merry Christmas" over my 3 Christmas tenure there and I had, maybe, two minor incidents where people said they didn't appreciate that.  Now understand this wasn't at a Barnes & Noble tucked away all snug in the Bible Belt, no, this was Boulder, Colorado.  Yes, the Boulder Colorado that didn't vote for Al Gore in 2000 because he was to conservative and where Buddhism is the religion de jour.  If they weren't offended, well, it made me wonder how much "War" there really was.

I did always wonder though why there weren't more nativity scenes in major department stores??  I mean, if you are an executive for Target or Wal-Mart, you must be thanking God every fiscal sales year that a little Jewish boy was born in a  Middle Eastern farm stable 2000 years ago.  Come to think of it, instead of a War on Christmas in the retail sector, there should probably be big "Thank You Jesus" signs at every chain department store across America .

That reminds me again of my Barnes & Noble days.  I would often have a customer look at the December bedlam in the store and comment, "Wow, it's really busy in here."
"Yeah," I would reply,  "well, you know...its Kwanzaa...happens every year."
The customer would smile awkwardly as they processed that little nugget...and then move on.

But I live in Hong Kong again!  I am safe from the battles!  There is no "War on Christmas" over here...just Christmas.  The city is decked out with Christmas trees & lights.  Some buildings say "Merry Christmas" and others say, "Season's Greetings"  with no venom or ill intention found in either one.  The malls are filled with school choirs singing both Santa Claus is coming to Town AND Away in the Manger!

It's much more peaceful and probably a little more what Jesus had in mind!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

In Memorium: Christopher Hitchens 1949 - 2011

Blogging has been tough the last couple weeks as the Christmas holiday means a lot of extra work for me. what you may have heard I am not, in fact, Santa Claus.

But the passing of Christopher Hitchens of esophageal cancer this week has lit a fire under me so to speak as I will most certainly miss his wit, his humor, and yes, his damn near mastery of the English language.

But wait Steve you ask,  "how can you be a fan of such a vocal Atheist?" 

Let me put it this way...other prominent (and vocal) atheists, namely Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, I find to be rather shrill and boring.  Hitchens was certainly not shrill, and he was never boring.  (Ok, admitedly he could be boorish at times...but that was the Scotch :)

I can easily imagine Harris & Dawkins passing away one day and rocking up to the Pearly Gates only to be overcome with distress at the Kingdom of Heaven's mere existence.  Not unlike the Dwarves in C.S. Lewis's The Last Battle who still refuse to believe in Aslan even when it is no longer an issue of faith. 

By contrast one can imagine Hitchens seeing Heaven's gate and smiling with a bit of a wink, "Oh, Good Lord, my brother was right on that one now wasn't he...oh well, right then... um Lord, no hard feelings eh?  The bar's still open you say?...Good, can one of the angel's bring me a Scotch...I rather think I'll be needing one right about now..."

I've been following Hitchens for years.  Did I always agree with him?  Certainly not  (he was in favor of abolishing the British Monarchy after all which many of you know would NOT be my position.)

..but I did appreciate his well thought out and articulated views. He forced me to examine my own beliefs in a number of areas...(Thankfully,  I still happened to be right in all my positions... but he forced me to examine them just the same :)

I also appreciated Hitchens in that you could never put him in a "neat" box.  Nearly everyone I know, if you tell me some viewpoint they have, I will be able to guess with almost near certainty their view on many other areas. 

Not so with Christopher Hitchens.  Its one thing to despise Henry Kissinger...anyone can do that.  But to despise Henry Kissinger and Mother Teresa that...that..takes chutzpah!  One moment he is denouncing God and organized religion and in the same debate is praising George W. Bush for his pre-emptive invasion of Iraq. Anyone who can single handly tick off Democrats, Republicans, Liberals, AND Conservatives in the same always going to get a bit of applause and a "Good show ol' boy" from me.

Yes, Christopher, you will be missed.  I do hope you are in heaven as I for one, look forward to sharing an evening with you of stout lager, cigars, and good conversation.


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

7 Life Lessons from Star Trek

I'm a bit of a Star Trek fan.  But I have it under control now...honest!

Yes, I admit when I was young I would use my lego set to create an arsenal of phasers neatly arranged on my window shelf...set for stun of course!  And yes, my friends and I would practice the Vulcan Neck Pinch on each other because, after all, it hurt pretty good and maybe, just maybe, we could get it to work after all; then we'd be famous.  And of course I could discuss the reasons why a 1 to 1 ratio, dilinthium focused matter / anti-matter annihilation was necessary for optimal warp field entry with the best of them.  (How else were we ever going to coax our engines past Warp 4???)

Some things you grow out of...some you don't. 

So when I saw David Borgenicht's article in the Huffington post "7 Life Lessons I learned from Star Trek" I realized he was on to something.  So with proper citation to Mr. Borgenicht, I'd like to reprint those seven lessons at Beyond the Pale because...well...I pretty much agree with everyone of them*.

1.The best way to travel is to boldly go where no one has gone before. This is true for vacations, for self-exploration, for life itself. If you want your days filled with adventure, laughter, love, learning and the occasional mind-meld, follow this route.

2.The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few--or the one. Sometimes you must make great sacrifices for the greater good. And, like the Genesis device, it will all come back around.

3.Expressing your emotions is a healthy thing. Sure, McCoy seemed angry all the time when exclaiming, "Dammit, Jim! I'm a doctor not a mechanic/bricklayer/soothsayer," but he knew that by expressing his anger and frustration it wouldn't get the best of him and he could then perform at his peak capacity.

4.When estimating how long a job will take, overestimate--and when you do better your captain will always be impressed. Replace the word "captain" with "teacher" or "mom/dad" and you'll see what I mean. Sure, Mr. Scott might have been telling the truth--maybe it would take six hours to get the warp engines back online in the heat of the battle. Or maybe he was padding things so he looked good. Either way, when the engines did come back on line, everyone was happy.

5.Wearing red makes you a target. This is true of cars, dresses and, most especially, shirts. Red gets you noticed--which is good if you want to be noticed, bad if you don't want to end up vaporized.

6.When you don't know what to say, pause. It will give you the time to figure it out. Or at the very least, you'll sound like you're being thoughtful. "But....Spock.....why?"

7.The most powerful force in the universe is friendship. It's more powerful than phasers, photon torpedos, even more powerful than the force itself. With friends, you can accomplish any task, escape any perilous situation, defeat any enemy--and you get to laugh together when it's all over.*
* Actually (Steve here again) I'm still going to give "the most powerful force in the Universe" to God...but friendship is a nice runner up :)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Superman & Apollo 13

Items from two of my favorite interests, Superman and the American space program, netted big bucks at auctions this week.

The very first comic introducing Superman to the world, Action Comics Issue 1, sold for US$ 2.1 million .  Incidently, the the pristine copy of the comic from June 1938 was owned by actor Nicholas Cage who is known for being a big Superman fan.  Cage had bought the comic in 1997 for US$ 150,000. so it appears the 2 million + sale of the issue made Mr. Cage more than a few pesos .  For me though its hard to imagine paying 2 million dollars for something that says "10 cents" on the cover!

The other item, handwritten notes written by astronaut Jim Lovell during the ill fated moon expedition, Apollo 13, sold for a more modest US$ 388,375.  The now 83 year old Lovell said that the notes are the mathematical computations he did by hand in order to compute their emergency trip back to earth after the explosion on their spacecraft threw them off course.

Says Lovell, "We didn't have the technology back then that we have now.  I didn't even have a calculator to do the arithmetic. I had to ask the people in Houston to double-check my numbers."

As much as I love Superman I must admit if I could have either of the items, the handwritten notes by Lovell would be my choice.  What those guys did 40 years ago was absolutely heroic and the kind of story we should be passing on to our children and our grandchildren.  A story of what men can do when they need to do the impossible...and did!

Of course there was a lot of prayer involved too :)

Friday, December 2, 2011

China News Still Not "Newsworthy" in America

Obama greets troops in Australia
Living in Hong Kong I am sometimes amazed by what International news is important in this region versus what is deemed front page news in America.  Being a bit of a "news junkie" I follow both region's news cycles fairly in depth...and they just don't match.

Case in point:

Last week I was chatting with a couple old friends from high school via Skype.  All though we are all Republicans my politics have vented back toward the center a bit in recent years causing some enjoyable and "lively" discussions.  In fact one of my friends is not so much "Republican" as he is "Ayn Rand"...hence the lively discussions.

Anyhow, I asked them what they thought of Obama's move to station 2500 marines in a new upgraded base in Darwin, a city on the north coast of Australia.  Truth be told, I've known this group of friends for 30 years and we have a fun (my wife calls it mean :) way of "baiting" each other to provoke a response.  I was being a little cheeky I admit.  Obama energizing America's military might in the region I knew would appeal to their Republican blood.  It would be a "good thing".  But I also knew that their politics didn't allow for Obama doing a "good thing".   This could be fun...

It was not unlike the strategy used by Captain Kirk from Star Trek.  When ever he had to get by the "super computer / killer robot"  he would feed it a question that would put it into a an endless logic loop.  Kirk would then sit back as it rattled the question around a bit and then finally popped a circuit allowing him to get free and save the girl.  So I thought I'll feed them a "good thing done by Obama", watch them try to process it through their "Obama can do no good" programming, then sit back and wait for a circuit to blow.

Understand it's not that I've become a fan of Obama (I'm not) so much as I absolutely love arguing with my friends.

My strategy didn't work though...but not for the reason's I would have guessed.  "Steve," said one of them, "we've heard nothing about this."  I was frankly...shocked!

Understand, the papers in Hong Kong and in the Pacific region have been almost daily running stories and editorials either celebrating or deriding America's increased engagement in the area.  It is possibly the most important ongoing news story this side of the Pacific.  Not only the deployment of marines to north Australia but Obama's raising of the issue of Maritime claims in the South China Sea at the recent APEC summit in Hawaii against China's objections. 

Most analysts have said it has been a diplomatic win for Obama and a setback for China yet for some reason the news cycles in America were not jumping on it.  I suppose Kim Kardashian divorcing her husband after a few hours of marriage might have something to do with it but come on?  My friends are well read and well informed individuals.  I thought they would be bringing this topic up to me?

It has just demonstrated to me though that although this region has built the China - United States dynamic into the major geopolitical balance of power issue de jour, China and the Asia Pacific region still does not register on the average American's radar.  Because the news channels cater to the American appetite, stories of China and the region, while increasing in importance, still tend to focus on the human interest stories of development and are buried on Page 3.

That's likely to change though in the coming decade as China continues to develop its military and tests America's commitment to the region,  well, unless Kim Kardashian gets married again that is...

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Starbucks Christmas "Placebo Effect" Moment

Sunday morning before church I met up with some friends at the Starbucks outside Olympic MTR station.  Let me say every November I live for the couple months when Starbucks makes its Christmas Blend coffee available.  No fru-fru drinks for me!  No iced, mocha, soy, decaff, frapaccinos thingies...just black coffee; or this time a year Christmas Blend black coffee in a mug!

 So I was shocked, shocked when the young barista informed me that today they would not be brewing Christmas blend but two other coff... was about this time I zoned out from what she was saying and was trying process this startling revelation. No Christmas blend?  "Please understand," I explained to the young attendant who had no idea she was now in over her head, "but this time of year I make special trips to Starbucks to get my Starbucks Christmas blend coffee"

"I'm sorry sir, but we are not offering the Christmas coffee today." she said again.  I thought for a moment not wanting to be a jerk but REALLY wanting my Starbucks Christmas blend.  I decided to go for the placebo effect!

"Ok," I suggested.  "Here is what we're going to do."  The barista looked at me puzzled.  I continued, "I'm going to ask for a black Grande Christmas Blend coffee in a mug.  Then you're going to fill it with one of the coffees you are brewing today.  When you give it to me, you are going to let me know it's Christmas blend (I paused for the effect)  I'd like to order a black Grande Christmas blend coffee...OK?"

The barista looked confused for just a moment but then smiled and replied, "Yes, Christmas blend grande...I'll get that now."  I turned to talk with my friends for a moment before she indicated my coffee was ready.

"Your Christmas blend coffee sir" she smiled at me as she passed the mug. (Was that a wink she gave me?)

"Thank you" I smiled back taking the steaming hot mug from her.

Ah, Starbucks Christmas blend coffee...nothing better this holiday season!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Hong Kong Thanksgiving!

My first Hong Kong Thanksgiving was in 1990 and it was on a rooftop of a village home in Fanling.  21 years later the location was Ma Wan...but I was still on a village rooftop.  The weather in November is perfect so sitting atop a roof with a full spread of food and a glass of wine makes one certainly thankful for one's blessings.  And of course because a Hong Kong Thanksgiving tends to have non-American guests invited, the banquet eating table this year consisted of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and ...sushi!

And the sushi was just like grandma used to make!! :)

Earlier in the day I visited St. Johns Cathedral where they had an afternoon Thanksgiving service.  A number of churches sponsored the event and so different ministers took turns sharing from the scripture on gratitude and having a thankful heart.  The Counsel General for the American Consulate (essentially the American Ambassador  to Hong Kong) then stood before the congregation and read President Obama's Thanksgiving Proclamation.  It was... nice but I realized that earlier in the day I read President George Washington's original proclamation of Thanksgiving and Prayer (which made me wonder at what point we dropped the prayer part) which established the holiday back in 1789.

As I mentioned, Obama's proclamation was good...very appropriate and yet compared to Washington's it  came across, at least to me, as muted and neutered.  I won't reproduce the whole thing but a portion of Washington's speech will make my point:

Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me to "recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:"Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks ...And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions..."
American Consul General reading the President's Proclmation

I often here people say, "Washington wasn't a Christian...he was a Deist."  Well, if that's the case, we need more Deists because if an American President said that today he's be labeled a dangerous Right-Wing radical hell bent on making the United States a theocracy.  Funny since that kind of talk used to get your face on Mt. Rushmore and the One Dollar bill.

Anyhow, its late and I'm ranting.  Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Trip to Disney's Toy Story Land

Woody welcomes you to Toy Story Land
When Hong Kong Disneyland first opened in September of 2005 it's arrival was greeted with mixed reviews.  In addition to some embarrassing public relations gaffs, the park seemed to be universally proclaimed by the people of Hong Kong as being "too small."  When I first went to the park at Christmas time 2008 I was asked by friends if I've ever been to Disneyland in America.
"Of course" I replied.
"Well," they responded, "don't get your hopes up."

Maybe its because I had lowered expectations but Gabriel I spent that first day at Hong Kong Disneyland having a lot of fun.  Yes, compared to other Disneyland Parks is it too small.  And yes, the complaint that the rides are geared toward younger children (Space Mountain being the only "thrill" ride) was valid.  Perhaps Disney listened to its critics, or more likely responded to the unexpected competition that the newly renovated Ocean Park provided, but in 2009 Disneyland announced the planned expansion of the park with the addition of three "mini-lands"; Toy Story Land, Grizzly Gulch, and Mystic Point.

Yesterday November 18 was the opening of the first of the three: Toy Story Land. The new land is designed to make you feel like a "toy" surrounded by other toys.  A giant Woody welcomes you as you enter and all the familiar characters from the Pixar film are out and about.  The new park addition attempts to address the critique of the lack of thrill rides by providing, among others, a retro Hot Wheels roller coaster type ride.  I rode the attraction.  Honestly, when I first saw it I thought it didn't look to scary; but it turned to be much more "thrilling" than I had first thought.  The screaming and crying on my part giving my true feelings away :)

The land also includes a green army "parachute" ride but the 90 minute wait made me save it for another visit. Unfortunantly there is no addition of a restaurant save "Jessie's Snack Bar".  But I can say that pizza is FINALLY available in Disneyland.  Some of the snacks in the park, geared toward the Asian palate, have not always been exciting for us Westerners.  Yes, the advent of global diversity have provided us with fish balls, squid, and dried cuttlefish, but admittedly, it just won't ever replace pizza, hotdogs, and funnel cake in my amusement park experience.

Mystic Point coming soon!
I also got to peak through a barrier wall at the construction going on in Mystic Point.  An upcoming land featuring a Amazon Rain Forest haunted house.   I am really looking forward to that addition opening soon!

Christmas Lights come on!
Yesterday also marked the beginning of the Christmas season at Hong Kong Disneyland.  Main Street USA is decked out in all of its Dickensian glory.  They even lightly release imitation snow in the evening.  That mixed with the soundtrack of holiday music makes for a great Christmas memory.  If anyone knows how to do Christmas...its Disney!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Touring the U.S.S. George Washington

Nimitz class aircraft carrier, rows of F-18 Hornets, AWAC planes, helicopters, all sitting pretty under the American flag... do I want to take a trip out there?


So Gabriel and I set out for Fenwick pier down in Wanchai where the launches out to the carrier originate.  Years ago the U.S. Navy set up a "Fleet Arcade" at the pier to accommodate the thousands of sailors who spend their shore leave in the territory.  There are retails shops, ATM, American style food, Internet etc.  Even when ships are not in town its fun to head down there to buy some "American" stuff.

My son and I were led out to the pier and onto a 90 seater launch for the 30 minute ride out to the George Washington.  I sat down next to a blurry eyed young man who still had more than a faint trace of booze on his breath.  We chatted on the ride and it turned out he was one of the young pilots who had spent the evening in one of the local Hong Kong watering holes.  "I told myself I wasn't going to be out all night, to get back and sleep on the ship, "he said, "...that didn't quite happen."

As a pastor I thought I should come up with some spiritual consoling but all I was able to muster was, jokingly, if he was going to "hurl" on the bumpy ride to let me know so I can get out of the way.  He smiled and said, "Will do.".

On the flight deck

If I'm honest the little boy comes out in me in these situations because when I was a teen-ager all I wanted was to be a fighter pilot...and here was Mr. "Top Gun" himself.  (Granted it was Mr. "Top Gun" after a night in Wanchai).  We chatted on the way out and he said how he's learned not to assume they will actually be able to land in Hong Kong until his foot touches Hong Kong Island.  That's because often China will use Hong Kong shore leave for the Americans as a diplomatic tool.  "If we've sold a missile to Taiwan, or one of our ships goes through the Taiwan Strait, I know we aren't going to Hong Kong." he said.  In 2009 the George Washington was due to spend Thanksgiving in the territory.  Family members from America flew out to spend the holiday with their sons when, just hours before the ship was to enter Hong Kong, China denied entry and the whole fleet sailed off back out to sea.
Sitting in the Captain's Chair

Of course Hong Kong bears the real brunt of China's decision as local businesses lose about US one million dollars that these visits pump into the local economy.  The pilot went on to say some of the "old guys" on the ship liked to reminisce about when the British had Hong Kong and there was no diplomatic tension as "we were entering the port of an ally."

Another thing the pilot said really struck me.  I asked him what they generally did out on the sea and he replied a lot of flying and drills but, "when we heard about the flooding in Thailand we began moving the fleet in that direction in case they asked us for humanitarian assistance."  I thought, "Wow".  You have to give old Uncle Sam credit.  We moved our whole fleet on the off chance we may be called upon to save lives.  It made me proud as an American to think we're still the "good" guys...mostly.

View from the bridge
After about 30 minutes we reached the George Washington and docked with the pier set up at the rear of the ship.  We were ushered out and down a long hallway decked out to receive visitors into the hanger bay where a number of aircraft had been set out specifically for display.  The ship is huge and the hanger bay can accommodate 70 aircraft.  A large American flag and Chinese flag was set up side by side undoubtedly for public relations purposes.

We were escorted to one of the hanger elevators that carry the planes from the hanger bay up to the flight deck.  The elevator can carry 2 planes at a time and was surprisingly I suppose it would have to be if you are in a battle.

My apartment as seen from the flight deck
The flight deck is huge and were told that they can launch 2 fighters every 45 seconds.  And as big as that deck looked, I imagine to a pilot trying to land on looked pretty small.  In fact one of the pilots told us that when a pilot is landing and misses the cables on the deck that helps him stop and has to swing around for another pass, thats called "bolting".  When the pilot gets back there is a bolt hanging over his cabin door and it stays there until the next pilot "bolts" and then he gets it.

Gabriel and I climbed the many levels finally reaching the bridge where we were given a tour and explanation of how things operate up there.  We even got to sit in the "Captain's Chair"...which for a guy, its pretty cool.

Gabriel with F- 18 fighter pilot!

After about an hour Gabriel and I left the U.S.S. George Washington and headed back to Fenwick Pier with great memories of our time together on the ship.  And because the American restaurant was in full swing with sailors watching American football on big screen TV's, We treated ourselves to the best American cheeseburgers we'd had in a LONG time!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Glen Campbell & The Wichita Lineman

Was reading the paper on Sunday morning and the weekend section had a nice article on Glen Campbell highlighting the fact that, at 75 years old, the famed singer was embarking on a "farewell" tour due to his recent diagnosis of Alzheimer's.  It was a wonderful article detailing his fame, his struggle with alcohol and drugs, and even his relationship with God!

I remember my parents getting Campbell's Galveston album in the early 1970's and I played that record non-stop.   Over the years I've been a minor Glen Campbell fan and enjoyed tunes like the Galveston, Rhinestone Cowboy, and Southern Nights. I even read his biography at one point. 

Probably one of my favorite songs ever though is Wichita Lineman which was made famous by Campbell but has been covered many, many times since.  I find the song hauntingly beautiful.  So many love songs today deal with young or "upper class" love.  Wichita Lineman is just a great blue-collar ballad about a county telephone man who is working hard and is dreaming about his lady.  Even the fact that the song roots itself in Wichita gives it the resonance of a time gone by... in an America that once was.

Anyhow, it's very sad to see Campbell's diagnosis with Alzeimer's.  Even during the article Campbell would lose track of where they were in the interview.  Admittedly part of the reason they made the diagnosis public was so that fans coming to see his farewell tour would be understanding when he occasionally flubbed a line.

I think his fans will love him just the same.  I only wish his tour included a trip to Hong Kong as an opportunity to see Glen Campbell is one I would not miss.

BTW, I include some You Tube clips I thought were great.  An early Campbell performing Wichita Lineman and then a cover done by REM which I thought was fantastic.  The last clip is the official video for his single off his last studio album Ghost on the Canvas.  Is it just me or is this guy still able to nail it??

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Why the Republicans need to get behind Romney

Herman Cain is the front runner in the Republican race to the White House despite new charges of sexual harassment leveled against him.  However this week's New Yorker has an article that says, The knowing people who know things in Washington generally believe that, once the electoral process begins in January, Romney will shed Cain, Perry, Bachmann, and the rest in rapid fashion."

Although I don't live in Washington, consider me one of those who "know".

Months ago I was one of those Republicans that were hoping another candidate would get in the race.  Someone that would inspire the party.  There was a quick moment when Rick Perry began his run (and admittedly when I knew nothing about him) that I thought, "Mmm maybe".  Of course then Perry started talking and that potential love affair ended before it got started.
Of course, that got me wondering how this guy got elected Governor of Texas in the first place?  By the way, how does one become Governor of Texas?  State Fair raffle?  Turkey shoot?  I'm starting to wonder...


Herman Cain?  He may be nice... he may be sincere. But, whenever he discusses anything dealing with foreign policy I vacillate between laughter...and well...laughter.   Let him keep making pizzas, its a noble and necessary occupation, but that guy should never be let anywhere near Air Force One.

Michelle Bachmann?  Was never a serious contender.  She could mobilize a particularly robust segment of the party and that got her on the radar...but alas no, Americans are still smart enough to reject the Bachmanns (and Palins for that matter) of the party on the national scale.

And I think that is the fundamental problem right now with the GOP.  They seem to be "getting behind" candidates that have a particular regional appeal, but would never be seriously considered on the national stage.  Michelle Bachmann may be a able to represent Wisconsin's 6th congressional district but do we really think she can transform into the representative of the nation??

And so, my support for Romney has gone up considerably.  He has shown in the debates to rise above the fray and project a potential Mr. President.  As a Republican that managed to get elected of the left leaning State of Massachusetts he has shown he has appeal beyond Republican circles and can capture those crucial independent voters in the general election.

And yet my party seems to be going from one questionable candidate to the other in the hope they won't get stuck having to support Romney.  Even Obama replied recently when asked who he believed his election opponent might be that, "first we should see who gets voted off the Island next." highlighting the comical Reality-TV element of the the process.

Of course the only other candidate I like is Jon Huntsman and he's preparing for 2016 should we see a GOP implosion in 2012.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Hiking in Hong Kong: Mui Wo to Discovery Bay

Start: At the Ferry Pier
Gabriel and I just finished a Saturday afternoon hike from Mui Wo to Discovery Bay.  For non- Hong Kongers the hike was on Lantau Island (Hong Kong's biggest Island) from the village of Mui Wo over a range of hills into the upscale residential mecca of Discovery Bay.

Along the beach
My son and I are taking more hikes as of late to prepare ourselves for the big "father-son trip" we have planned for next summer when we travel to England to do the Wainwright Coast to Coast Walk.  Like the name suggests, it is a 2 week journey traveling from the west coast of the country starting at the Irish sea and ending up 14 days later in Robin Hoods Bay on the east coast.  More on that in posts to come...

Looking back at Mui Wo
Anyhow, Gabriel and I got our back packs full of water and caught the Park Island ferry downtown to the Central Ferry.  From there, we grabbed the Mui Wo ferry which dumped us off at the pier and the start of our hike.  Mui Wo is rather unique in Hong Kong as the ferry pier there has thousands of bikes parked just outside.  People tend to ride  from their flats and park  at the pier before riding the ferry into the city.  It's probably the only place in Hong Kong where bicycles are a serious form of transportation.

The Trappist Monastery
We paused for a quick breakfast before setting out along the beachfront.  The trail winds around the beach before heading up into the mountains.  We missed that turnoff and had to back track a couple times.
Actually, truth be told I phoned Tammy who gave me navigational directions from some maps I had left up on the computer.

The trail is quite popular as it offers some amazing views - both ascending out of Mui Wo and then later descending into Discovery Bay.  The trail also affords the opportunity to visit the Trappist Monastery, a Roman Catholic establishment known for their dairy production and milk that is available in Hong Kong.  They follow the  Cistercean Order of Observance so they remain very quiet around the grounds.

Space Mountain in background
As Gabriel and I approached the chapel we could hear worshipful chanting.  We approached cautiously not wanting to disturb.  We stood at the entrance for a few moments enjoying the sounds of worship and then turned to continue our journey.  The solace of the moment though was broken by a female hiker who bounded up to the chapel in shorts and sports bra with her belly hanging out. All of our careful attention to not disturb was lost.   It's then you realize that some people will never "get it".  They live in a perpetual fog of their own...stuff... oh well, enough about them.

We continued past the "12 Stations of the Cross" that apparently the monks had erected at points leading up to the monastery.  Gabriel asked me what that was and I was able to explain to him about the stations of the cross and the ritual that people use particularly at Easter time to draw closer to Christ by reflecting on His final day.

At one point Gabriel and I could see Disneyland in the distance.  The tall spiral of Space Mountain could clearly be seen.  We arrived finally in Discovery Bay, and I must admit it has been a long time since I visited there.  I understand why many Westerners in Hong Kong like to make it their home as it certainly caters to the Western taste in food and surroundings.

Gabriel and I grabbed a lunch at Ebeneezer's where we had a lamb curry...and French Fries :)  The plan had been to then walk to Sunny Bay and catch the MTR home from there but we realized we were running short on time and that trail would take at least another 3 we took the bus instead.

Next time...

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Residency for Domestic Helpers is good news for Hong Kong restaurants.

I grabbed my Sunday morning paper at the 7-11 near the Park Island ferry pier just before heading off to church.  The 22 minute ride downtown offers me just enough time to scan the headlines as I balance my coffee and see what trouble people are getting up to in the world.  In the op-ed section of the South China Morning Post there are the "Quotes of the Week" and one quote struck me.

If you read my recent post or live in Hong Kong you know that the granting of permanent residence to the Filipino and Indonesian domestic helpers has been very controversial.  Essentially anyone who lives in Hong Kong for 7 years legally can apply for Permanent Residence except domestic helpers.  The Courts have ruled it discriminatory while the government plans to file an appeal.  Meanwhile long term domestic helpers have been applying for residency despite the fact that it all could get held up in political bickering.

So, back to the quote of the week!  Little Soriano Pacita, a domestic helper in Hong Kong for 14 years filed for her residency and is quoted saying, "If I were granted Right of Abode, I could work as a waitress in restaurants instead of as a domestic helper. I want to spend more time to socialize with more people and date a guy."   

I smiled and thought, "Good for Soriano Pacita and doubly good for the restaurants in Hong Kong." An increase in Filipinos entering the hospitality industry would be great for the territory.

Why you ask?

Well for starters, the Filipinos English levels tend to be much higher so when you ask for salt from them while dining, they don't return to your table proudly bearing a ketchup bottle.  Second, the Filipinos excel at hospitality and are quite gregarious making chatting with them while out dining a pleasurable experience.

For example, on the same day that I read the quote in the paper, Tammy and I had lunch at Taco Loco; a Mexican restaurant in SoHo just off the mid-levels escalator.  Our server was a Filipino and she was the perfect hostess and waitress.  She chatted with us, helped get food that Ethan George could eat, and made some accommodations that we wouldn't have bothered to ask for if she hadn't been so hospitable.

Back when Hong Kong was a British territory, British nationals could come to Hong Kong and work visa free.  Then the predominately English speaking areas like Lan Kwai Fong's many nightclubs and restaurants were populated by young Brits back packing across the world who took advantage of the territory's colonial status to stop and make a few bucks before heading out again.  After 1997 that loophole was closed and the hospitality staff in those areas abruptly changed.

Gone was "Ian" the Scottish bartender at the Fringe Club who used to give the free drink on occasion.  Granted I couldn't understand his English much either through his thick Scot accent...but did I mention the free drinks?  Have you been to the Fringe Club lately?  There are no more Scotsmen behind the bar...

So, my opinion on this subject is confirmed.  If giving residency to domestic helpers helps our struggling hospitality industry I say lets give it to them.

Oh, and its also the right thing to do...if that helps.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Chris Patten, Hong Kong's last Governor, back for a visit

Chris Patten, Hong Kong's last Governor, returned to the territory for the first time in 3 years to a receptive audience of well wishers.  Patten, or Fat Pang as he is also affectionately known, remains popular among the people of Hong Kong for his championing of democratic reforms in the run up to the handover of sovereignty from Great Britain to China in 1997.

Last week I was sitting with some Hong Kong Chinese peers and the subject of next years Chief Executive election came up.  (The Chief Executive is the post created to replace the Governor after the handover)  My friends were bemoaning the choice of the the two front runner candidates that they felt would be ineffective in leading Hong Kong into the 21st Century.  There seemed to be a consensus that either candidate would be too scared of upsetting Beijing to be very effectual. 

It was at this point I piped in and suggested, "Sounds like Hong Kong needs a Chinese Chris Patten as a candidate." 

Surprisingly (or perhaps not surprisingly) there seemed to be universal agreement on the subject.
"He was good for Hong Kong" responded one
"He didn't care what Britain or China thought...He put Hong Kong people first." responded another.
"The Hong Kong people still think very highly of him." added a third.

Its easy to see why, even after 14 years, Fat Pang still holds a certain soft spot in the locals hearts, particularly with the older generation of Hong Kongers.  Unlike previous Governors, and later Chief Executives, Chris Patten was known for frequently strolling along Hong Kong streets in an attempt to meet everyday Hong Kong people.  In fact, many a Hong Kong restaurant would have a picture on the wall of the Governor stopping by their establishment and posing with the owner.

I remember once in the late 1990's after the Handover the owner of a restaurant Tammy and I frequented in Wan Chai told us a story.  For a number of years he had a picture of himself with Chris Patten on the wall when Patten had dropped by out of the blue one day to meet him in his back kitchen.  Some local government officials who were part of the new post-British administration came in for lunch one day and called him over to their table. He said to me, "Steve,  they pointed at the picture of Chris Patten and me shaking hands and asked whether it wasn't about time I took that picture down."  

He told them, "No, the picture stays but any time Tung Che-Hwa (the then Chief Executive) wants to come around and shake my hand, I'll be happy to put his picture up as well".

The officials never came back...

Patten was well known for his love of local egg tarts and the South China Morning Post newspaper reported that his plane had landed at 4:00 PM and the former Governor was able to sample his first local egg tart at "quarter past five".

Although Patten's visit to Hong Kong is not political in nature he did have three pieces of advice for the two men seeking to run for his old job;

"Understanding the profound honor of serving  the people of Hong Kong.  Understanding the reasons for the city's success are prerequisites for success.  Comprehending the full meaning of 'one country, two systems' is important too."