The shame of having a Chinese face

This is one of those overdue blog posts, which you know you want to write but you only keep thinking about it to the point that you actually delude yourself into thinking you’ve actually written it.

But a brilliant article by the incisive Bilahari Kausikan on What China’s Rise Means for Southeast Asia and Overseas Chinese finally jolted me into action.

I travel quite a bit and each time I fly, I wished I was wearing a burka (or a paper bag over my head). No matter how un-Chinese I try to look (being a honey brown instead of a pasty white), I’d still invariably be accosted by lost Chinese tourists at the Hong Kong airport who can’t seem to understand that they need to take a train to their boarding gate.

Or I will get hapless non-Mandarin speaking air stewardesses asking me to help explain to the clueless Chinese passengers how to use the in-flight entertainment system. And the Chinese passengers would in turn scold the air stewardess for not being able to speak Mandarin. Hello, the last I checked, this is Thai Airways, not China Eastern, so why should they have to speak Mandarin?

On a side note, I’d like to commend the professionalism of the air stewardesses on Turkish Airlines. I was seated across the aisle from a Chinese man in business class (work travel rocks!) and he was watching a movie on his iPad very loudly WITHOUT earphones. The stewardess tried to get him to lower the volume but wasn’t getting anywhere because he had zero English. She asked if we were travelling together and when I said no, she never bugged me again. Not even when he couldn’t understand “chicken” or “fish” during meal times. I was half-expecting her to ask me to translate. But she didn’t. Instead she found pictorial cards to get the message across. Props to her.

I feel very conscious about my Chinese face whenever I travel. The sad fact is that many people can’t tell who’s Chinese and who’s not. As long as you’re yellow with slitty eyes, you must be Chinese. Who cares if you’re from Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Korea, Japan or Singapore.

And when I’m in a situation where the Chinese are behaving badly (think queue cutting, being obnoxiously loud, exposing their smelly feet to everyone on the plane), I feel tainted by (facial) association. This is exacerbated if we were in a context where the Chinese are the minority, say a Western country. I’ve seriously considered wearing a sign that says “I am not Chinese” to dissociate myself from them.

Kausikan writes: “China seems to have great difficulty in accepting Singapore as a multiracial meritocracy. It seems that this is, to the Chinese, an alien mode of conceptualising an ethnic Chinese majority country. At any rate, Chinese officials, sometimes at very senior levels, constantly refer to Singapore as “a Chinese country” and ask for our “understanding” — by which I suspect they mean “agreement” — of their policies on that basis. Of course, we politely, but clearly and firmly, point out that we are not a Chinese country and that we have our own national interests that we cannot compromise without grievous and probably irreversible internal and international damage.”

During my time in Hong Kong, this was something that I regularly encountered. The Chinese can’t fathom why I don’t feel kinship with them even though my grandma came from China. Or my former boss would present me as the “China expert” to the clients, which I found rather offensive. It’s like calling an Australian an expert on all things British, or expecting Beyonce to know everything about Mother Africa.

It’s taken a while but I can now embrace the Chinese heritage and culture, since that’s part of my genetic make-up. I continue to painstakingly correct everyone who ask if I’m Chinese. No I’m not Chinese, I’m Singaporean. And proceed to educate them on the differences between the two.

I may look like you, but I’m nothing like you.

The Nightmare That is Called… HSBC

I have bank accounts in Singapore, Thailand and the UK, and when I moved to Hong Kong, the last thing I expected to have problems with was banking. Hong Kong, the bright shining financial capital of Asia. Ka-pui… ask anyone who’s had to bank with HSBC here.

HSBC is such an inefficient piece of crap that I find it unbelievable they still exist in this modern world. I used to complain about the Internet banking in Thailand because in the early days, you couldn’t do any online transactions after 10pm. But HSBC’s ineptness, and the difficulty of doing anything online, totally dwarfs all other banks.

1. S-L-O-W

It never ceases to surprise me how slow HSBC is in a city as fast paced as Hong Kong. It took them two weeks to grant approval that I can open a bank account. Once the account was opened, it took another two weeks before I got my ATM card. Once I got my ATM card, it took another two weeks before I could get the security device for online banking. Need to change transaction limits or mailing address? Another five working days.

2. Forms, forms and more forms

In the age of Internet banking, HSBC has a strange opus moderandi of making you PHYSICALLY go to the branch to fill in forms. Update your address? Fill in a form. Change your online transaction limit? Fill in a form. Set up a recurring local transfer? Fill in a form.

3. Then they lose the forms again and again

I went to the Paterson Street branch to collect the form to change my online transaction limit. Filled in the form on the spot, and wanted to give it to the staff there. He pointed to the box and told me to deposit it there, and said it’d take five working days. A week went by, my online transaction limit still said “0”. Called the bank, who said they didn’t receive my form. So I had to then go back to the same branch to fill in the form again, this time with the customer service staff. He told me it’s best to give the forms to the service staff so they can verify everything. Point taken.

A few weeks later, once I got my HKID, I went to apply for a credit card. I remembered his advice. So i dutifully took a queue number, sat down at a table with the staff and duly filled in and signed the forms needed for a credit card application. He made copies of all the supporting documents and told me the card should be ready in two weeks. Two weeks went by, still no sign of the card. Called the bank, who said my application is not in the system. She advised me to apply online, and submit the supporting documents again.

The question is: Where are my missing forms and credit card application? These forms contain confidential information. One sure hopes it’s not lying around for the world to see?!!? I really think heads should roll at Paterson Branch for their blatant lack of disregard for customers’ personal information.

4. Exorbitant fees

Transfers to another local HSBC account: free. Transfers to a local non-HSBC account? HKD 180. Apparently the way around this is to open a checking account. Wow, I can’t remember the last time I wrote a cheque. It is so 1980s.

I wanted to set up a recurring bank transfer to my landlord’s HSBC account. I tried for days to figure out how to do it online, in the same way I did for bank accounts in other countries. I finally decided I must be really stupid because I can’t seem to be able to find a way to do it, and I wrote to ask for help. So the answer was, I can’t do it online. To do so, I’ll need to go to the bank to fill up a form to set up a standing instruction, which costs HKD70!

 

I seriously want out of HSBC and I’ve been googling on alternatives and found this helpful post. Looks like I’m going to give Citibank or Standard Chartered Bank a go. My experience with HSBC has been the worst with any bank in my life. They really should just close shop.

Yet there is one thing HSBC is very quick at — eyeing your money. On the first day I went to HSBC to try to open my bank account and was told that I had to wait two weeks for approval on opening the account, I filled in some forms, where I put down my Hong Kong mobile number. I had only just got my local number that day and HSBC was the first person/organisation to have that number. They told me in the afternoon that I couldn’t open the account that day. A few hours later, someone from the bank called me to ask me if I’d like to invest my MPF. Dear HSBC, you won’t let me open an account, but you sure would like to get your claws into my money, eh? Great way to win customers over!

First four weeks in Hong Kong

Sitting on my sofa in the half-a-shoebox flat that I’m renting in North Point, I find it difficult to imagine how I’d survived my first month in Hong Kong. It wasn’t just coping with moving to a new country; it was compounded by sudden overseas work trips and important work projects. All thrown at me at the same time. It’s all starting to get hazy now and I want to just write it down as a reminder that God is good and that we can cast all our worries on Him because He truly cares for us.

Week 1

My boss arrived first. Then I arrived. We met the new client (and I’ve got to start building credibility again, sigh). A request for proposal came our way and since the project is based in Thailand, I was tasked with researching the logistics. It was also miserably miserably miserably cold. The temperature didn’t go over 7 deg every day. And Hong Kong is not equipped for cold, so there’s no heating. The serviced apartment i was in had a small heater which didn’t help much. I couldn’t find a hot water bottle. I was cold all the time. I would direct the hair dryer under my blanket and try to warm up the bed as much as possible.

Amid all the work commitments, I was also trying to find a place to rent. I always knew there was no perfect apartment but let’s try to find one that I could live with. And from previous experience, I do know that the better apartments get snapped up very quickly, so I was very conscious of not dilly-dallying once I find something that I didn’t dislike too much. I must have seen about 15 flats in three days.

By Thursday, I was getting quite stressed because by then I knew I would be away the whole of the following week, so that’s a week gone, and the company is paying for just one month at the serviced apartment. The “best” of the lot at that time was the flat in North Point. I liked it that was newly renovated, so that appealed to the OCD in me. At 20sqm, it’s really tiny. But the rent is within my budget and the location is good. I had two main concerns: the noise from the wet market downstairs and whether I could easily get a taxi with a big suitcase. It didn’t look like cars could come in through the wet market. And the owner was asking for a decision.

I’m never good with making snap decisions like these and it stresses me. A very good friend had come with me to help me settle down. We’d just gone to see another place and were on our way back to the serviced apartment when, out of the blue, I met a very close sister-in-Christ just a few steps from my place! She’d emailed me to say she was coming and if we could meet up because she knew how much I struggled with coming to Hong Kong but I didn’t check my personal email because i was in survival mode. And in this whole sea of people, we met.

So she came up to the serviced apartment and we had a time of prayer, which was just at the right time, as my brain was just about to explode from the whole should-i-should-i-not cycle. And I believe with all my heart that it wasn’t a coincidence. It was such a God-thing that reminds me again that God loves me so very much.

On Friday morning, I decided to go to North Point to see how crowded the market might be, and if it would be a nightmare going to work. And of course to pray and hopefully I will hear God say something. I knew the tram goes through the market, but I didn’t see any cars drive through it. So i asked someone there if cars could come in (I’m obsessed about my frequent travel and trying to get to a taxi with a suitcase), and he said yes. And at that moment, a taxi came through.

On Saturday morning, I signed the papers.

Week 2

I actually got to spend two nights in Bangkok enroute to and from the place that I had to recce for the pitch proposal!!! I also got to go to Japan for work and love love love the country and the people. After a week of loud and pushy Hong Kongers, Japan is like heaven with their ever-bowing politeness. I took six flights in seven days, and slept in a different bed every night except for when I was in Japan where I had two nights. It was also a week where I slept just four hours a day, so little that my eye started twitching and I feared that my Bell’s palsy was coming back.

Week 3

This week was spent furnishing the flat. It was actually quite nice to be able to get the stuff that I want and will use instead of having to make do with furniture that’s been sat in and slept in by don’t know how many people. Being the very functional person I am, I got the smallest bed available, a 3-feet single bed. I haven’t slept in such a small bed in the last 10 years. The bed is also high enough for me to put my suitcases underneath it. I ordered a huge wardrobe from Ikea and I also got a sofa bed.

When Ikea came to deliver the wardrobe, it turned out that the 2-metre high boards couldn’t fit into the lift. So I had to go back to Ikea and change my order to the shorter 1.5-metre wardrobe. This also meant that they could only deliver the following week. So my grand plan of moving into the flat over the third weekend was shot to pieces.

This was also the week where I had very tight deadlines to meet. My eye continued to twitch.

Week 4

It was the last week that I had the serviced apartment. But everything seems to be on track. Ikea is delivering the wardrobe on Tuesday and my best friend can help me with moving things over from the apartment. On Monday, the window fitters came to check the windows in the flat. The Hong Kong government had come up with a policy of making it mandatory for owners of units in old buildings to check the windows. I didn’t think much of it. Granted the building is even older than me, but the flat was just renovated, surely the windows would pass the checks?

Of course not. ALL the windows failed the checks, which meant they would have to fix ALL the windows. And they couldn’t fix the windows on that day. There was a process to be followed, and papers had to be filed with the district office, and he said the earliest might be the following week.

By then, I was freaking out at the window fitter because my huge wardrobe was arriving the next day and I only had the serviced apartment til Monday. The wardrobe would block one window and it would be near impossible to move the wardrobe so as to fix the window. And my friend was leaving on Wednesday (which was also the same day where I had to be present our proposal for the pitch in a team). He probably saw how close i was to tears and took pity on me and said he’d try to aim for Thursday and asked me to postpone the delivery of the wardrobe to Friday. Which I did. God must have known this was going to happen, hence the wardrobe not being able to fit into the lift in the first place. I shudder to think what would happen if the wardrobe were already delivered and I’d already filled it with all my stuff, and the window behind needed to be fixed.

So the window fitters did come on Thursday, leaving their dirty fingerprints everywhere – the white walls, my NEW expensive UV-blocking curtains, my sink, my new chairs… And the wardrobe arrived on Friday. I slept in the flat on Friday night.

Happily ever after?

I’d love to report that from then on, life was smooth-sailing and I lived in my little studio flat happily ever after. Or not. For some reason, I’m extremely sensitive to noise and smells. I can hear and smell things that a normal person wouldn’t. Like a dog. There are four units on one level. I think there are two neighbours who smoke. One with the door open. And I absolutely abhor the smell of cigarette smoke. It’s probably not charitable of me to say this, but I have more respect for druggies than irresponsible smokers. At least the druggie just kills himself while the irresponsible smoker prefers to kill all those around him too. It bothered me very badly that I could smell the cigarette smoke from my flat. I tried sealing my door and it seemed to help. Except that the shop has run out of door seals, so I still get the smell sometimes.

Noise. The next-door neighbour has dogs. Two poms. And we know how yappity poms can be. Everything sets them off. Lift door opening. A door closing. Footsteps. But better dogs barking than babies crying I suppose. My upstairs neighbour seems to like dragging chairs/tables/something with rollers back and forth throughout the day AND night. As for the market downstairs, the big delivery trucks come at about 1am. The unloading process can sometimes sound like rolling thunder and sometimes the workers just throw the full boxes down, which could sound like a mini-explosion. There are so many times I’m at the point of falling asleep when the “surround sound” noises startle me and keep me in a state of fitful sleep. In the morning, the market comes alive with hawkers shouting at the top of their voices. “Ten dollars ten dollars, come come”.

I was very unhappy the first few days, thinking that I’ve probably made the wrong decision in my rush. But we’ll never know if the grass is truly greener on the other side. I might have ended up with a more expensive flat (thinking that I should have better neighbours) only to still end up with bad neighbours. So nowadays, I just think I’m in a “Stomp” production and all the “noises” are actually a kind of music. I’ve also armed myself with a disinfectant spray. Everytime I smell cigarette smoke, I just spray the flat. We adapt and we live, by the grace of God.

A bed that's high enough for to store my suitcases under

A bed that’s high enough for to store my suitcases under

Bar top for dining and a sofa bed

This was what sold me – the kitchen!

20140308_032426

Of course I have to have my favourite colour somewhere!

Beware the rental scams in Hong Kong

Finding a place to rent in Hong Kong is like trying to get into a very volatile stock market. Or like playing Russian roulette. Good apartments that are well-furnished go very quickly. Snap, snap, snap. All gone. In less than 24 hours after the owner advertises it.

I have this deep-seated fear that I’ll end up having to stay in a very old and ugly flat, like the ones you see in the depressing Wong Kar Wai films. It’s an irrational fear because my brain tells me that God is in control, and His plans are always better than my best-laid ones. Although this time-tested truth is borne out again and again, the control freak in me refuses to let me sleep soundly at night.

Since I can’t sleep anyway, I prowl the Hong Kong expat sites (geoexpat and asiaexpat) for potential flats. A few nights ago, I found three that I liked. They were at Sheung Wan, Central and Kennedy Town. The last two offered really cheap rents, like HKD 5,500 and HKD 8,000. I assumed they were bona fide ads as they were paid ads, not free ones like in Craigslist. Plus I’ve met many great landlords through these ads. So I wrote to all three to find out more about the flats.

A Julia Marchand replied very quickly for the flat in Central:

“My name is Julia Marchand and I received your email of interest for the rental of my apartment located in 108-110, Hollywood Road, Central, Hong Kong.
My intention is to rent the apartment and in order to do that I would like to know a little something about you , like how many persons do you intend to live in my apartment, do you have a steady income, etc . I must tell you from the beginning that I don’t have a problem if you are a student and I don’t have a problem with pets (I own a little dog myself) and I appreciate sincerity.
I bought the apartment while working on a 3 year contract in Hong Kong. I am the only owner , the apartment is paid in full and with no legal problems .
The apartment is not inhabited since I am no longer living in 
Hong Kong.
Also here is a little something about the apartment and myself so we can get to know each other.
The apartment is the one in the pictures but the furniture has been moved into my private storage room. If you don’t have furniture I can take it back with no extra costs for you.
The rent for 1 month is HK$ 5,500 (for the entire apartment) including all utilities (water, electricity, Internet, cable, parking, air conditioning, dishwasher, garbage disposal, microwave, refrigerator, private washing machine). You can rent the apartment for any period of time (open end contract).
About myself, I am 54 years old, currently living in Manchester, my home town. You can move in the apartment in the same day when you receive the keys. The only problem is that I’m already in Manchester. I am very busy with my work and unfortunately I can’t come in person but the solution for the viewing is provided by an rental agency from here.
Thank you for your interest and looking forward to a future collaboration and friendship.”

What a friendly harmless lady. Well her English doesn’t seem to be that good for someone from England but we can’t all be grammar nazis. So I wrote back to her and told her about myself. And we kept up with a few friendly email exchanges.

At the back of my mind, I was skeptical as to why she was charging just HKD 5,500 for a one-bedroom flat. So I decided to check the Squarefoot Haunted House Database, which lists all the flats that had deaths related to them. It’s extremely morbid, but you can’t stop reading them because they’ve painstakingly added in all the salacious details, “A 21-year-old woman jumped off the building due to frustration” or “A man stabbed his wife with a long knife and then killed himself.”

I quickly entered the address that Julia gave me and my heart sank. There it was. American was found dead. On the 30th floor of her block. In 2008. With my heart thumping, I wrote and asked which floor her flat is on, fully expecting it to be the same unit. But lo and behold, she said her flat’s on the second floor. I can now breathe easy and negotiations continued.

In the meantime, I also heard back from the Kennedy Town landlord:

“Thanks for the email. I am Samuel Yang, I own the Apartment for rent and also want you to know that it was due to my transfer that makes I and my wife to leave the house and also want to give it out for rent and looking for a responsible person that can take very good care of it as we are not after the money for the rent but want it to be clean at the time and the person that will rent it to take it as if it were its own. So for now, We are here in United Kingdom in our new house and also with the keys of the apartment we try to look for an agent that we can give this documents before we left but could not see and we are as well as don’t want our house to be used any how in the our absent that is why we took the keys along with us. I and my wife came over to United Kingdom for a missionary work, so i hope you will promise us to take very good care of the house. So get back to me on how you could take care of our house or perhaps experience you have in renting home. Hope you are okay with the price of 8000(1 months first payment) with hydro,heat laundry facilities, air condition and so on. I am looking forward to hear from you ASAP so that i can forward you an application to fill out and discuss on how to get the apartment for rent. You are free to call me on my private phone number +447012950488  +447024030861
Await your reply.
Thanks”

My heart leapt for joy when I saw this email. Wow, missionaries!!!! Is this from God, I wonder? The flat has everything that I dream of, a small balcony and a clubhouse! And I can totally understand the part on “it’s not about the money but finding someone who will take the best care of your place”, because that is exactly what I’d ask for if I were to rent out my place in Bangkok. Yeah, his English is not that good, but if he’s a Yang, then the chances are he’s not a native English speaker.

I wrote back to him in great excitement. Was this an answer to prayer? He replied quite quickly:

“I want you to know that you can stay long as you want to leave in the apartment,Because I and my Family have gotten another apartment here.But really the fact is that will need someone who is reliable,trustworthy,honest and to be able to maintain the apartment in terms of cleanliness.We are not really after the money for now,But someone who will take a very care of the property as his/her own.

We need someone who will promise us to take care of the property in a very good way. I want you to know that there is no problem for me not been around to show the inside of the apartment,I will make sure you have the keys and other document that will allow you to gain entrance to the apartment as soon as you send a Security Deposit fees.

And please note that is not all about sending the rent deposit or monthly rent that matters in this relationship and agreement, but your absolute maintenance and promise to keep my apartment save and clean.

And also i will need you to often send me some update pics of the apartment from time to time at your own convenient time if rented by you. As i will be trusting and counting on you. The key will come to you through DHL to the address you fill on  the application form. .I will have the keys and the apartment document ship via DHL COURIER SERVICE and you will have them within 42hour and also i will forward to you the tracking number for the shipment.But before we proceed,I will like you to have the RENT APPLICATION FORM. Filled and return as soon as you can.

Looking forward to hear from you with all this details so that i can have it in my file in case of issuing the receipt for you and contacting you. Await your urgent reply so that we can discuss on how to get the document and the keys of the house to you, please we are giving you all this base on trust and again i will want you to stick to your words, you know that,we do not see yet and only putting everything into God’s hand, so please do not let us down with our property and God bless you more as you do this.

View the attached RENT APPLICATION FORM.

Thanks and God bless you and your family.”

For some reason, something went off in my head. I immediately googled rental scams in Hong Kong. And there we have it. Same wording in the email. It’s always about getting the potential tenant to transfer money over while the “owner” sends the keys.

That’s when it also clicked for Julia Marchand. Another scam. But a more sophisticated one that even has a website for the “rental agency”. Except that the bank account is in Poland????

I was quite upset at having wasted my time in communicating with these scumbags. Why do they prey on innocent people who are just trying to find a roof over their head? Why haven’t the authorities nabbed them yet? And “Samuel Yang” seriously used God’s name in vain, and he’s going to have a lot of explaining to do when God does the accounts with him.

But I really do thank God for tapping me on the head and giving me that red alert. I feel as though I’m swimming in a pool of sharks or walking into the lions’ den but I know my God walks with me.

For now, everything’s back to zero. That which does not kill us makes us stronger.

Relocating as a single

At a company offsite last week, I was chatting with a colleague about my impending relocation to Hong Kong.

S: “It must be quite easy to relocate as a single.”

Silence… as I try to think of the most gracious answer.

Me: “Well I don’t exactly live in a vacuum.”

Logistically (and financially for the company), it probably is easier to relocate singles. You pay for one airfare instead of say four. And since I don’t have kids, I won’t have to worry about school terms and finding new schools for them.

But is it really easier for the single?

Having been in Bangkok for almost a decade, I’ve built up relationships which are equivalent to my family. When I move to Hong Kong, I can’t bring my “family” with me. I have to literally go to a new city and start afresh. And as an introvert, the thought of having to go out to make friends is just excruciating.

But for couples (with or without children), they face the new surroundings with their best friend and as one unit. If only one of them is working, the other can view apartments in the meantime. But I’ll have to juggle both work and apartment-hunting at the same time.

It’s not that I’m hankering for a life partner now. I just wish people will stop saying that it’s easier for singles to relocate. It’s difficult… for everyone.

Getting ready to move

Today is the first day of the Lunar New Year. And the last day of the first month of 2014.

If I’m really honest with myself, I’m not having a good start to the year. It’s been a “pulling teeth” start to the year, a year of upheaval. I have to relocate to Hong Kong, but my heart, body and soul are rebelling against it. Yet go, I must. It’s supposedly good for my career. More importantly, I do believe that God is the one moving me there. I just wish I could be more enthusiastic.

I’ve been in Bangkok for 10 years. I’m comfortable and happy in my little pad here that oversees the river. Why in the world would I want to uproot from all that I love here to go to a country where I’d be cramped into half a shoebox for a hideous amount of rent? Yet go, I must.

Two weeks ago, I had a scout visit to Hong Kong. It’s very different looking at the country as a tourist and as a potential resident. All of a sudden, everywhere seemed oppressively crowded and everything seemed horribly dirty. It didn’t help that I viewed more than 20 flats in just three days. And with each flat that I saw, my heart just sank lower and lower, and I was getting resigned to the idea of living in a shabby hamster cage. It also didn’t help that a taxi driver cheated me and gave me the change as 3 Macau Patacas instead of HKD. Granted that they’re almost the same in value and it’s not a lot of money, but I can’t use the darn MOP$ anywhere in Hong Kong.

But God is good, and He always brings about little things that cheer me up. One was a pasta bracelet from my friend’s precocious four-year-old son, who came up to me very shyly and presented it to me despite meeting me for the first time. And his mother didn’t even know he made it for me. I also met many friendly landlords and current tenants (looking for a replacement to take over their lease) who took time to take me around their neighbourhood and answered my questions.

As I grit my teeth and go through this relocation with as much positivity I can muster, I will just continue to thank God for the many small mercies that come my way.

Pasta bracelet

A reminder of God’s goodness