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.