Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Night for Umbrellas

Menace from Afar?
A stirring image of the third night of protests in Hong Kong related to the Umbrella Revolution. Lightning, thunder, heat and a couple of hundred thousand people willing to endure it out in the open.

Monday, September 29, 2014

A Season for Brollies

The dragon snorts. Time to cover up.

Tis the season for umbrellas in Hong Kong. Late September is marked by residual days of summer, with either tropical sunshine or typhoons that blow in from the east across the South China Sea. On sun-splashed days, Chinese women shelter their hard-won alabaster skin from damaging UV rays under parasols, many brightly patterned, frilly or predictably kawaii-ed by Hello Kitty. Stormier days bring out a wider range of brollies, from the upscale Burberry variety to more pedestrian US$8.00 7-Eleven types to cheekier models emblazoned with messages such as "Shit, it's raining."

This week, the good people of the Hong Kong SAR have found another reason to keep their favorite umbrellas close at hand. The menace has not been preceded by a UV rating, typhoon signal number or amber thunderstorm warning, but instead by red and black banners held aloft by the local police demanding that crowds (peaceful though they may be) disburse. Uncooperative crowds have then been pelted by clouds of tear-gas or pepper spray. The public's defense has been limited to donning plastic goggles and surgical masks, and ducking under a phalanx of nylon shields.

This is the first time in almost fifty years (since 1967) that Hong Kong's police have used such aggressive crowd-control measures against its own people. Ironically, the complaints in 1967 were by left-leaning communist Chinese sympathizers against British rule, rather than democracy-craving citizens (mostly young students) protesting against Beijing's increasingly heavy handed governance. History, like storm systems, sometimes has a petulant way of coming full circle.

A long brewing irritation caused by a myriad of political, social and economic issues between Hong Kong and China over the past few years seems to be hitting full boil. How long the now erupted brouhaha will continue is anyone's guess. However, no analysts on either side of the current issue believe that amicability will be restored anytime soon. Meanwhile, Hong Kong's stock market, property prices and already-flagging retail sales will likely come under serious pressure, particularly given that the social unrest is occurring during a critical week for tourism and shopping - China's National Day holiday. The merchants and those who live off of their welfare may likely face tough times for some time yet. 

When people live at the feet of an active dragon, they need to expect to be hit with expectorants that inevitably get snorted out its nose from time to time. Sadly, umbrellas do not appear to be much of a shield against such peppery and tear-inducing snot. Looking ahead to the next few days, we should all hope and pray that they won't be tested against even more lethal projectiles.    

Guess which one is the Burberry


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Blundering Indian Newscaster Told "Xi ya!"

As reported in this BBC article and other news sources, at least one Indian citizen will not recall fondly Xi Jinping's recent visit to India - the newscaster who inadvertently referred on-air to the Chinese President as "Eleven Jinping". The unnamed newscaster was summarily fired for the blunder.

In the view of this blogger, the canning seems like unduly harsh punishment. First of all, the newscaster should be commended for knowing his/her Roman numerals. Too few people these days bother to study the classics.

Secondly, perhaps the reporter was offering a subtle indictment of the Chinese government's recent heavy-handed clampdowns on human rights. Perhaps the steadily-consolidating power of the current Chinese leader seems rather imperious to more than a few observers. "Jinping the XI" does have a certain ring to it, particularly when considering that he is the eleventh person to act as China's head of state since the PRC was formed in 1949. Coincidence or not?   
In any event, the Indian newscaster is far from the first person to take liberties with Mr. Xi's name. As put together by the Foreign Policy magazine's editorial staff, here's a list of ten Xi headlines NOT to use:
1. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea: "Xi's Gotta Have It."
2. A profile of his teenage years: "Xi was only 16."
3. His second visit to Iowa: "There Xi Goes Again."
4. His portrayal in Chinese state media: "Isn't Xi Lovely?" (Or "Xi Will Be Loved.")
5. A Chinese Gorbachev: "Xi Change."
6. Bizarre policy choices: "Xi Moves in Mysterious Ways."
7. A definitive chronicle of his speeches: "That's What Xi Said."
8. His meeting with Henry Kissinger: "The Old Man and the Xi."
9. On a conflict with the current head of the disciplinary committee: "He Said Xi Said."
10. His stylish sartorial choices: "Ain't Nothing But a Xi Thing."

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Louis XIII of Rolls Royce

Rolls Royce Phantom Extended Wheelbase Macau
The motor car
Louis XIII Macau Hotel Stephen Hung
The casino
The man (on the left)
Luckily for the Rolls Royce Motor Car company, there's a new king in town, or at least as far as they are concerned. His name is Stephen Hung, he is a flamboyant 56 year old Hong Kong billionaire real estate developer, and he has just put in the largest order in history for the Rolls Royce Phantom. The deal is for a fleet of thirty of the uber-the-top cars, worth a total of $20 million, or roughly $667,000 a piece. As reported in this Business Insider article, the bespoke cars will be utilized by Mr. Hung's forthcoming Louis XIII Hotel and Casino in Macau, an ultra-luxury property catering to China's super-rich which might just make the palace at Versailles look like a university dormitory. The fleet of extended wheelbase Phantoms will ensure that the casino's top end clients will never have to confront Macau's chronic taxi shortage when they want to go casino hopping. Instead, they will be nestled in a gold-plated interior with diamond-studded timepieces by Graff. The opulent styling will match that of the hotel itself, which will offer accommodations costing as much as $130,000 per night. And both car and building seem to have taken creative inspiration from the man himself, who has been sporting red-dyed hair of late. As he has been quoted saying, he is at the point in life when he can do whatever he wants. These days, he seems to be in the mood to throw caution to the wind in the face of Macau's slowdown and Beijing's anti-corruption campaign, and make even extravagant French kings blush.   

Monday, September 15, 2014

College Admission - The Hedge Trade

And get a hall named after you to boot!!
Steven Ma of ThinkTank Learning is not your usual college consultancy CEO catering to Asia's aspiring Ivy League families. Sure, his San Francisco Bay Area-based practice provides tutoring for the SAT and the usual blend of guidance and motivation. However, he is willing to go the extra step and provide a money back guarantee of success. How does he do it and still maintain a viable business?
Like the former hedge fund manager that he is, through an algorithm, of course - a "secret sauce" formula based on the historical data that he has compiled from his clients over the years. In short, he crunches a candidate's GPA and other qualifications together with his/her targeted schools into his black box to arrive at a pricing proposal. For example, for a U.S.-born high school senior with a 3.8 GPA, an SAT score of 2,000, moderate leadership credentials, and 800 hours of extracurricular activities, ThinkTank predicts a 20.4% chance of admission to New York University and a 28.1% shot at the University of Southern California. Based on those odds, Ma might charge a guaranteed consultancy fee of $25,931 for NYU and $18,826 for USC.
For the particularly well-heeled and academically motivated client, Ma is also willing to tailor a more complex probability-weighted fee proposal that would look more familiar in Las Vegas, Macau or Wall Street than in the education sector. Consider the case of the wealthy Hong Kong CEO whose son dreamed of gaining acceptance from a good university. The problem is that Junior was not the brightest star in the far eastern sky. In fact, he was struggling with a C-ish average GPA and attended a small high school in Utah. With this client, Ma struck a deal as follows:
  • Client deposited US$700,000 as an ante, even before Junior began the application process
  • Client and Ma agreed that a 3.0 GPA and 1600 SAT score were Junior's threshold achievement levels
  • If Junior failed to get accepted into a Top-100 school, Ma got zilch.
  • If he got into a school ranked 81-100, Ma got $300,000.
  • For a 51-80 ranked school, Ma got $400,000.
  • For a top 50 school, Ma's payoff started at $600,000, and climbed by $10,000 for each higher ranking gained, up to $1.1 million for the #1 school in the US.
What margin Ma pockets from such hefty success fees when all is said and done is up for some speculation. However, this case can't help but call to mind the old adage about having more money than brains. In the enigmatic and hypercompetitive world of college admissions these days, it sure seems to help to have at least one of the two. 

As with hedge fund trades, not all of Ma's bets have worked out as well as hoped. His experiences included having to refund $250,000 to the family of Chinese student who was rejected from seven Ivy League schools. As for Junior above, the story had a happy ending. He got into Syracuse (and is reported doing well there), ranked 62nd. Ma pocketed $400,000.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

My Tutor, My Rock Star

     Dreaming of a better education system

An exam question:

Korea's college entrance exam process is increasingly considered to be deleterious to public health because:

(a) it contributes to a startlingly high incidence of myopia (75%) and a doubling of curvature of the spine over the past ten years among testing-aged Seoul teenagers;
(b) an alarming number of families are going broke supporting an extracurricular “cram school” education that costs 12% of a household’s overall budget;
(c) it is the leading cause for teenage suicides which is the highest rate amongst OECD countries;
(d)  a few popular online private tutors who have reached superstar status have been able to earn millions of USD per year by attracting tens of thousands of pupils, thereby effectively negating any competitive advantage that the lessons purport to confer;
(e) the English curriculum is ultimately considered to be of little value because, while students might know how to define words like “deleterious” and “myopia” in a multiple choice exam, they can hardly converse well enough to order a pizza, much less save their own skins in day-to-day life;
(f)  all of the above.

The answer, sadly, is (f).

Though the rigors of the Chinese college entrance examination (the Gaokao, the subject of the previous blog article) are only now more widely coming to light internationally, the arduousness of Korea's college entrance system has long been well known. It has alternatively been admired for vaulting Korean students to the top of the global academic heap (as measured by test scores) or scorned for the mounting social costs forced onto a stressed out domestic population. Recent public focus has turned towards the increasingly negative impacts. In response, the government has been imposing regulations against Korea’s infamously demanding network of “hagwon” tutoring schools, including mandatory closing time of 10 pm, caps on hourly charges and a ban on front-running study materials taught in school. Nevertheless, real change is difficult to implement in hyper-competitive Korea society. Test-taking is a central tenet of the country’s Confucian tradition. Parents will risk sending themselves to an early grave or suffocating under a pile of consumer debt to keep Junior Kim up to snuff with his/her peers. And society idolizes the best tutors and pays fortunes to them every year. How many other countries treat bespectacled math or English teachers like Lady Ga Ga and Justin Timberlake?

Of additional concern is that some of the “hagwon” have developed a sufficiently strong reputation to export their systems to neighboring countries such as Taiwan. Asian students prepping for the US SAT are enrolling in increasing numbers in “hagwon” systems to improve their shot at getting into strong American universities. However, the growth of the “hagwon” system only creates a vicious cycle of competitiveness among an expanding applicant pool that needs to outdo each other. There should be real concern that the social ills endemic to such a rigid system may also be exported.

In an increasingly complex world, success requires flexible problem solving skills and creative thinking. Such attributes are too often inadequately exhibited through multiple choice exams. And living well - which should be every individual's goal - is a broad issue that has more than one correct answer.

Check out this
FT article about Hagwons

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Testing Test

Heading for a good university? Or a re-education labor camp?

To those US-bound students (and their concerned families) who just took the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) last weekend: congratulations, but think that was tough? If so, just be glad that you don’t have to sit the Gaokao – China’s equivalent of the college entrance exam. Reports are that the SAT is a cakewalk in comparison. First of all, the pressure to do well is far more intense – the two days of the Gaokao can make or break a young person’s entire future, and Chinese teens don't have the do-over opportunities that are available to SAT-takers should they happened to have been feeling ill that day or simply caved into nerves. Secondly, the Gaokao math section is reputedly much more intense; it makes the US test seem like a color-by-numbers exercise by comparison.
Another Gaokao feature that routinely furrows brows is the essay questions. The SAT essay prompts tend to be relatively straightforward and often deal with personal growth and morality. Examples:
·         There is no success like failure. Comment.
·         Should you tell a friend the truth or avoid hurting their feelings?
·         Is it better to live for the present or prepare for the future?
·         Does character determine success in one’s life?
·         Is reality TV beneficial or harmful?
The Gaokao essay prompts are hardly so straightforward. Some of them read like they were written by a Zen Buddhist monk crossed with an aging hippie on dope. If you think that Asian tests are only about rote learning and rigid guidelines, think again. The Chinese essays require sharp interpretive skills and the ability to think laterally. Courtesy of the shanghaiist.com website at the link below, a sample of the mind-bending essay prompts that were included in this past weekend’s Gaokao follows (Note: these are real questions posed to students in different regions of China):
Beijing: The “old rules” prescribed by parents demand respect for elders, speaking in a quiet and gentle voice, and sitting or standing straight up. Recently, netizens have gone online to discuss these traditions. What is your understanding of this issue?
Shanghai: “The world belongs to you only after you stand up.” Discuss.
Jiangsu Province: Some say that only youth is immortal, that young people do not believe they will die some day. Is this naive? Are there things such as this in nature that are eternal?
Fujian Province: With the word “valley”, some people think “cliff”. Others think of the old road built along the cliff. What about you?
Anhui Province: “The authors say that the actors are allowed to change the screenplay, but the directors say that they are not.” Discuss.
Hunan Province: There was once a very poor place. Many left it. Others stayed, and over a few years, turned it into a beautiful village. Discuss.
Guangdong Province: Old black and white photos are few and far between. Because they are rare, they are precious. These days, digital technology has seriously diluted the value of photographic images. Thoughts?
Liaoning Province: Grandfather and grandson are standing on a hill. Grandson loves the neon lights of the city, how colorful everything appears. Grandfather hates the neon because it washes out the more beautiful stars in the sky. Discuss.
Every year, China observers try to discern if there are common themes imbedded in the Gaokao’s questions. This year’s bring two alternatives to mind for this blogger. First, the questions seem to grapple with the effects of a rapidly changing society on its individuals – how does one reconcile the old with the new? How should a person relate to a constantly evolving environment? An alternative and more ominous motivation for the Gaokao administrators to pose these questions recalls the Hundred Flowers Campaign in the mid 1950s, when government officials invited multiplicities of views to bloom amongst the intellectuals, just so the leadership could subsequently brutally stamp out the undesirable weeds. Let's hope that we don't need to be so cynical. Life is stressful enough for the millions of teenagers who toil away in hopes of securing a better future for themselves and their families to have to worry that they may be headed for re-education rather than college.