Select Page

Smile Like You Don’t Mean It

Logo of journalism and media studies centre at the University of Hong Kong

It feels like a bloodless war has been waged with words, gestures, uncomfortable silences and false sincerity between customers and those who serve them. I would know because I have seen a trend over the years across countries.

And robots might just hold the answer. But first, let me tell you about my experiences.

The old man who cut my hair in an old-fashioned saloon in a small town in south Thailand near Pattaya, the red light capital of the world, didn’t use any electronic devices and I felt like the sharp tools in his hands would end me.

In Singapore, I distinctly remember being a minute late at the Tigerair (now Scoot) check-in counter at Changi Airport but the man just would not make an exception.

And as I moved to Hong Kong this year, I was harangued by the HSBC bank official who repeatedly made me reschedule my appointments to satisfy her onerous requirements.

The last time I was there, my phone bill, which I hoped to use as a proof of address, stated “Suhas Bhat” as my name while my passport had it listed as “Suhas Ramakrishna Bhat”.

“Sorry, those are the rules,” she said only half-heartedly.

I had to pay an extra Rs 10,000 (US$153) for that same passport last year in Bangalore because my old one had smudges on it. (That old passport was soon to be designated to the corner of my sock drawer so who cares if it had smudges on it?) I feel the portly, moustachioed man at the passport renewal centre derived pleasure out of my humiliation.

I, the worldly traveller, was humbled. I was advised by my uncle to appear subservient next time in front of this man who likely did not travel abroad at my age.

In that confined space and for a limited duration, this man held sway over my fortune. Had he taken a shine or if I had a mutual acquaintance then I know he would have bent the rules.

Do these situations or the feelings they evoke sound familiar? Let me tell you how I think this hostile environment emerged.

“I hate people who don’t tip waiters. You don’t know how bad it’s like until you work in customer service. The customer is always right… and usually an asshole.” Sound familiar?

It feels like customer-facing service jobs were always horrible. No one wanted to do them. Requiring the ability to open one’s mouth, they were vocations of last resort. The industry had high churn and few people actively wanted a career in the service industry. You used to hear about angry customers losing their cool at least once or twice a year.

Somewhere down the line, a memo must have been passed. Service professionals turned the tables. They scrutinised the common complaints they faced and came up with airtight rules. They were now in charge.

Now they are not even afraid to beat us up to bump us off a plane.

Don’t you find that you are deathly afraid of missing appointments now? Don’t the list of supporting documents you need grow larger each year? Don’t you leave earlier now when you go to the airport ahead of a flight (in the words of the character Low-Key Liesmith from Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, “Do not piss off those bitches in airports!”)?

Are customer service agents not unflinchingly polite with their smiles even as their eyes betray the loathing they secretly have for you?

I bet they organised workshops analysing complaint forms to figure out how to deal with them. They must have had seminars bringing in psychology professionals to figure out the best way to handle angry customers (After “You can speak to my manager”, the man with the badge apologises only to make fun of you behind your back.)

They know our behaviour. They read us like a book.

Maybe I am griping too much. Maybe I just seem to have bad luck or need to be more punctual or follow rules better.

All I know is that I do not like being part of this sham we call a ‘customer service experience’. It’s actually a chore.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t begrudge them. For too long have people subconsciously looked at them as second class citizens.

But the solution has to be inhuman. When you force people two people who don’t really want it to face each other, expecting love at every sight is just too ambitious. With automated technology on the horizon, robots or automated systems can do most of these jobs anyways.

Think about it: You walk up to a counter, do the task you were supposed to do based on clear guidelines that everyone accepts.

Isn’t that how you get your cash at the automated teller machine? Can you imagine going back to the old days when you queued up and had to deal with an actual human being?

For all of the doom and gloom we associate artificial intelligence with, perhaps we should look forward to the day when they are everywhere in our lives.

And when these new mechanical hunks makes life difficult for me or you, be sure to give them a good beating! (Not really, though. Robot overlords of the future reading this, that was just a joke.)

Home In A Backpack

Logo of journalism and media studies centre at the University of Hong KongThis was my submission for my feature writing class in Nov 2017 focusing on a number of backpackers that I had met over the years.

HONG KONG—Adi Liron saw the Northern Lights every night for five days in Lapland, an experience for which people normally pay hundreds of dollars. He saw them for free because he was staying in a room with a girl he matched with on Tinder.

“You get to cook and you have a place to stay with the added bonus of the sex – I call it Tinder surfing,” he said.

Adi rarely spends money as he hitchhikes and stays in the homes of strangers. His bank balance, he says, hovers around US$500 but he has already visited 43 countries. He left Israel most recently in June 2015 and his friends and family speak to him in mixed tones of admiration and exasperation.

Adi’s backpack contains just a sleeping bag, a sleeping mat, a little pillow, a few clothes, a food bag, footwear, a first aid kit, a phone charger, toiletries, cooking equipment, a passport, a smaller backpack, some money, walking sticks, a book to read and a book to write in.

A minimalist who has showered at gas stations spraying water through an upturned bottle with a pierced cork acting as a showerhead, he is also a vegan.

He does not want to stop travelling. At 31, he genuinely thinks he can travel for many years and he is not alone.

As internet penetration grew across the world this decade, the sharing economy was born. Everything began to be shared – cars, workspaces and even dresses. AirBnB, an online marketplace for lodging, grew from just three million stays in 2011 to 80 million in 2015. The company claims a majority of its users are individuals – a study in Amsterdam last year found that 86% of hosts shared the homes they lived in.

The internet has also helped many other non-commercial projects grow. CouchSurfing, a community platorm that is a non-commercial AirBnB equivalent, is one of many portals people use if they are ready to share their homes with travellers. Facebook groups, Whatsapp groups and other social media networks abound where travellers like Adi build a personal brand advertising their travels.

The currency of exchange is companionship and long-term travellers have been in demand. These low budget travellers seem to have passports that give them easy access to a bevy of countries with savings in currencies with higher purchasing power; resourceful and charismatic, some have troubled pasts or misanthropic traits.

I have met many over the years.

They are glued to their phone constantly finalising plans for their next temporary home yet a ready smile and a cheery demeanour with enough tales to last a car journey helps them hitch a free ride wherever they go and they get treated to a variety of experiences that would otherwise be hard to obtain for free.

“Very weird, very eccentric and like an old punk boy” is how Adi describes Oleg Lapenko, a liquor baron in a small Russian town who took a liking to his dreadlocks. Alongside two other girls, the Russian flew them across the country to Kamchatka and they saw glaciers and canyons from a helicopter.

They parted ways after two months. “I was pretty tired of travelling with him, pretty tired of his personality,” explained Adi.

The son of a father who works in construction in Rishon LeZion in Israel, Adi, in a former life, was a security guard. He has now hitchhiked across the United States, Europe and South America. Most recently, he worked at a factory manufacturing tricycles in China.

Along the way, he says he has bedded over a hundred women, many of whom let him stay for a while, and he says he has slept in even more homes.

In faraway Dijon in France, Sonia, on the other hand, says she has found peace. She did not want to give out her last name.

A Pole from Gdansk, Sonia was at the home of two retired French teachers and is now rebuilding her life. Her boyfriend, the chef and the owner at the Italian restaurant she worked at in Australia, gave her an hour to pack after their last argument. She then travelled for four weeks in her car in tears and decided to go back to France in July.

“The weather is very beautiful because all the leaves are golden and the sun is really warm and when I was drinking my coffee, I looked outside and it felt like God was smiling at me through the leaves,” she said in a phone interview.

Sonia has hitchhiked, backpacked and couchsurfed in 73 countries and has tales of unexpected turns of kindness from strangers who offered their homes and their kitchens. She calls it travelling ‘professionally’ and began the hobby eight years ago. It would have been more difficult before the internet.

“Without the Internet, it is less convenient,” admitted Adi. “You can sleep on the street corner or shower in restrooms, create a little commune and build yourself a kitchen but it’s not the same.”

Both Sonia and Adi have a strong desire to see the world following a wanderlust that is part of a storied tradition – Sufis or wandering dervishes in the Middle East, freight-hoppers in the United States, sadhus or holymen in India and perhaps even the colonial adventurers of old discovered distant lands for themselves in this fashion living a nomadic lifestyle not really caring about the usual concerns of a careerist.

People like Adi and Sonia who I have met over the years also dislike the rigmarole of a life build around the workday.

“I was sick of working like a slave and I wanted an adventure,” Sonia stated. “I wanted to be like an Indiana Jones in a skirt.”

Living off the benevolence of others, however, often causes strain. Constrained by their budgets, such long-term travellers are seen as freeloaders.

Darrell Johnson is 57 and lives in Montreal. He is among the many people that host such travelers that I contacted; he is also a psychologist and says he has seen two different types among the long-term travelers who have stayed at his home over the years.

“I might call one group ‘compassionate children of the world’,” he said. “They resemble a blend of hippies from the 1960s, Peace Corps workers from the 1970s and the social justice warriors in the previous decade.”

“They like people, are adventurous, and value experience above ownership.”

“[Some of them are] ‘entitled children of the world’. One young man mentioned how well people had ‘taken care’ of him and met his needs and was charming, talkative, and entitled.”

Elvis Lam, a guesthouse manager in Guilin and a frequent long-term traveler on his own, does not think such backpackers pose a threat to the tourism industry in developing countries which are often where they flock to. But he does feel such travellers take advantage of the people they meet.

“I know people are good to hitchhikers and outsiders in China even if they are not very rich,” he said.

Meanwhile, Adi just strongly feels that he is on a personal mission to see the world. He spends most of the time on his travels hiking and not necessarily staying at people’s homes.

“I know that for most people, this is like a fantasy,” he said while we were talking on the rooftop of a four-storey building admiring the skyscrapers that seemed to touch the roof of the world in Central in Hong Kong.

“You should strive to make your dreams a reality but all these people telling me they want to see the world are not doing anything.”

It does get lonely on the road, Adi admitted late into the conversation. With each passing day, the distance, both physically and emotionally, gets wider with friends and family. Adi also feels that time may eventually run out on his trip.

“That thought scares me like what if I get cancer but I can’t live life by it,” he said.

As he walked with an easy swagger along the streets of the central business district, many eyes in the crowd darted towards him. In any other era, his tearing pants and fading shirt might mark him out as a delinquent.

With a smartphone, an internet connection and the widespread cultural acceptance of long-term travelers, he evokes a different image now.

“Being homeless by choice is not so hard anymore,” he said as he continued his journey for the 892nd day.

The Imam From Shandong

Logo of journalism and media studies centre at the University of Hong KongThis was my submission for my feature writing class published in Oct 2017. The piece is not to be distributed as I did not get clearance for the quotes from the Muslim Council despite repeated requests. I’m keeping it here as part of my portfolio.

HONG KONG — Near Wan Chai road, before the collection of colonial bars, neon lighted clubs and restaurants frequented by hostesses giving an impression of hedonistic abandon, an imam preaches the religion of the prophet.

Despite being in a city where Chinese form the majority, it is unusual to see a Chinese imam. While a majority in the city practice some form of Buddhism, the city is better known for its Christian presence, a vestige of a time when it was under British rule. Imam Uthman Yang Xing Ben is one of only two imams of Chinese ethnicity in the city and he bridges cultures and languages.

Uthman is a minority leader within a religious minority. The opening up of the economy made it possible for a young man from a remote village in East China to become a religious leader, acting as a link between ethnicities and as a countervailing force to the alienating pressures of life as amigrant.

Not like that matters to Farida, his six-year-old daughter, chattering to herself and sliding along on a plastic push cycle.

At his eighth-floor corner office on a Saturday afternoon in September, Uthman, 53, was busy reading on an old computer, a rare concession to technology in a room filled with documents, folders, religious books, pamphlets, brochures, newspapers and other remnants from an era that began before the Internet.

Dressed plainly in a white kufi and salwar kameez, Uthman, who speaks in English in a high-pitched, friendly voice that crackles with joviality, was happy to get a chance to share his story.

“I came to Hong Kong in 1993. It has been more than 20 years. That means I have been an imam for more than twenty years,” he said proudly.

The middle of five children from a village in Shandong province where nearly half a million Muslims reside, Uthman is part of the Hui ethnic grouping of Chinese who are primarily the descendants of Silk Road traders closely related to the Han majority.

Islam is even popularly called the religion of the Hui, according to Sulaiman Wang, the other imam of Chinese heritage in the city. Wang hails from Taiwan and he says that the ‘Hui quarter’ or ‘Hui street’ are terms commonly used to refer to Muslim dominated areas.

Officials relaxed attitudes towards religion – the state officially recognized the freedom to practice Islam in the 1982 constitution – allowing Hui Chinese to migrate to cities both within and outside the border. After a stint at the Islamic Institute of Beijing, Uthman was recommended for further studies in Pakistan and obtained a degree in Islamic studies at the International Islamic University in Islamabad.

Being surrounded by non-Chinese people for the first time in his life, Uthman was overwhelmed but he took it in his stride and even learned Urdu along the way.

“Urdu jante ho? Thoda thoda?” (Do you speak Urdu? A little bit?) he asked.

“I study in Pakistan so when I speak Urdu, they [Indians and Pakistani] very, very happy. They also very surprised. How come Chinese speak Urdu!”

Around the same time in Hong Kong, data collected by the Pew Research Center shows how the city began to add nearly two thousand Muslims every year to its population. Uthman was invited to what was then British Hong Kong by the local religious body in 1993 when there was “a small Chinese Muslim community.”

“For Hong Kong people at that time, they don’t know Islam,” Uthman said. “Even some reporter, they called Kowloon mosque a Hindu temple! They see the people who all look like Indian, Pakistani so they think that is Hindu temple!”

It amuses him now but life wasn’t so easy for Uthman back then. The small spaces, the language barrier and the difficulties in getting residency made him feel like an unwelcome visitor. Acquiring permanent residency after the 1997 handover, Uthman married a Hui woman from Hebei after becoming an imam.

“I teach in Arabic [then]. Later on, I also teach in Mandarin. Because Hong Kong returned back to China, so many people interested to study and learn through Putonghua [Mandarin],” he said. Hearing a voice in one’s mother tongue is a rare pleasure that Uthman understands only too well. While he hails from China, he remains a migrant at heart. For the Hui in Hong Kong, he is a link to home.

Soon after, he was also appointed to the board of trustees and tasked with halal certification duties.

The label of an outsider hovers uncomfortably in the background of the lives of many Muslims in China. Footage that emerged just last month showed dozens of Muslims attacking a highway toll station in Tangshan over alleged mistreatment of a local cleric illustrating how being a Muslim is difficult in China.

Uthman’s presence as an intermediary has been important but not one he likes to boast about. He is regularly brought forth on public occasions by Mufti Arshad, the chief imam of Hong Kong.

As he closed his eyes and raised his hands to heaven when leading a congregation in the green-carpeted prayer room later in the evening, muscles shifting to a time-worn pattern kneeling and rising up in turn, facing the distant Mecca (Muslims pray in a westerly direction four times a day) while reciting the Quran, his voice, remarkably, switched to nearly perfectly accented Arabic.

Two dozen males whispered his words in unison. Only two Muslim men were Chinese citizens at Masjid Ammar that evening. All of them trusted in the voice which carried the necessary spiritual devotion, the precise Arabic enunciation and the rhythmic melody that brought them closer to god.

“You understand?” is a phrase that often punctuates Uthman’s sentences.

To all those assembled, including the boys peeking out nervously to check whether their ardor was well received, Uthman represents a voice that helps people comprehend how it is possible for the modern world to embrace what it might not readily understand.

As we returned to his office, Uthman proudly listed the five languages he was fluent in – Arabic, English, Urdu, Cantonese and Chinese. “Putonghua,” mimicked his six-year-old daughter in a soft, inimitable voice. Noticing the tyke’s presence, a distracted Uthman got busy trying to set her spindle blue hijab in place only for the younger of his two daughters to squiggle out of his control.

The imam let out a chuckle. Whether in Pakistan or China or Hong Kong, some roles will always be difficult to master.

At least for two decades, Uthman appears to have suitably accomplished the role of an imam.

HK irrelevant without accepting diversity, states lawyer following same-sex marriage debate

Logo of journalism and media studies centre at the University of Hong Kong

This article was written for my Reporting & Writing class in Sept 2017. Two weeks later, the lawyer mentioned in this article helped bring about a landmark ruling. The article trended on Reddit as well.

HONG KONG – Leading human rights advocate Michael Vidler echoed Canadian Consul General’s Jeff Nankivell’s call earlier in the week to legalise same-sex marriage in Hong Kong on Wednesday, warning that the city’s protection of civil liberties is being closely watched.

Nankivell, in an interview with the South China Morning Post, indicated that such a move would be a “measure against discrimination”. The diplomat surmised that it would benefit Hong Kong in the long run.

Many countries began to adopt progressive legislation with Taiwan’s top court recently ruling in favour of same-sex marriage joining the likes of common law nations such as Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Ireland while Australia launched a postal survey just this week to gauge the opinions of the citizens, according to the BBC.

The Labour Relations Act safeguards individuals from discrimination based on secular orientation in the workplace in nearby Macau.

Vidler, who worked on a case here supporting the partner of a British lesbian who was denied a dependent visa, believes the city’s reluctance to modify its stance in the face of changing attitudes could have consequences. The Briton is notable for helping lower the age of consent for gay men in the city in 2004 in the landmark ‘Billy Yeung’ case.

“When you think of general attitudes around the world, there is an unstoppable acceptance of diversity and LGBTI rights,” said Vidler.

“We are losing out on what makes us different to Singapore, what makes us different to China… and that makes us more irrelevant because our legal system and our rights are what distinguishes us from from China.”

The Hong Kong Free Press reported in June that “twelve international banks and financial institutions” sought to support Vidler’s efforts to his client succeeded in her claims to overturn the judgement.

Same-sex couples struggle with public housing, hospital visitation, insurance, filing taxes, property, compassionate leave and other matters.

“Banks generally keep their heads down. It’s astonishing that they managed to get together and sign to join the proceedings,” Vidler observed.

“They found that they couldn’t recruit people to come to Hong Kong because of these policies and they couldn’t retain people.”

“They have set an example for not only their staff but also people who want to work for them. It’s not acceptable behaviour to be homophobic. It’s acceptable behaviour to be diverse.”

“I’m not going to come here thinking of setting up Hong Kong as my home when my partner is treated as a second class citizen.”

Studies have found an increasing acceptance of the LGBTI community in Hong Kong; the Equal Opportunities Commission found in a widely quoted study last year that 55.7% of respondents of a survey were in favour of anti-discriminatory legislation.

The survey also found that the youth were especially keen to see pro-LGBTI legislation. 91.7% of the respondents between 18-24 wanted the community to have legal protection.

“People are afraid to talk about their sexuality but compared to the past, people do hold different opinions which are supportive of the LGBT community,” stated Anson Wong Tsz-hon, a 24-year-old local law student at the University of Hong Kong.


Michael Vidler is currently working on helping a transgender person change the gender listed on her ID card. Photo: Vidler & Co Solicitors

No coincidence

Following the interview by the South China Morning Post, the newspaper also revealed that a record number of Hong Kongers had chosen to emigrate to the North American nation in recent years.

“It’s the country or one of the countries at the foremost of diverse recognition of same sex marriage. I don’t think that’s any coincidence,” added Vidler.

“The younger generation are the ones who are worried about the economic downturns, the ones who have seen the encroachment of rights, the increasing involvement in Hong Kong of mainland politics and influence.”

“You have got this whole voting demographic who don’t have access to power. In the long-term, it generates incredible frictions.”

Wong has seen similar concerns among his friends in the community as they can be seen “constantly talking about emigration or moving to Taiwan.”

In contrast, Casper Sun, 33 and a new arrival from New York, believes the situation can improve with the passage of time.

“As a gay person, I root for my brothers and sisters but it is a legalisation process, it’s not a sentimental thing,” the Chinese beautician said at Petticoat Lane Bar, one of many popular gay-friendly hangouts that have sprung up in recent years.

Last year, the annual celebration event Pink Dot drew in over 10,000 supporters at the West Kowloon waterfront.

As long as gay-friendly legislation doesn’t offend locals, Sun said he is “all for it”.

Vidler concluded that the city is definitely at a crossroads.

“I think that there are huge amounts of people here who… might not hold their views on their sleeve but they are prepared to be accepting and they do cherish freedoms,” he said.

Rebel communist leader Sison exhorts Filipinos in Hong Kong to rally against Duterte

The Asia Sentinel is a publication based in Hong Kong covering East Asia and Southeast Asia news.

A week after attending a march where foreign domestic workers protested for a higher wage, many assembled at the university to discuss the extra-judicial killings back home in the Philippines. A version of this article appeared on the Asia Sentinel in Sept 2017 as well.

HONG KONG — The founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), Jose Maria Sison, encouraged a gathering of Hong Kong based Filipino groups through a recorded message to “expand our ranks and broaden the widest resistance against the US-Duterte regime” in a week that saw the death of yet another teenager due to alleged drug related crime in the Philippines.

Under the leadership of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan), a united front of organisations spanning religious, migrant worker and cultural domainsm condemned the administration of Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte during their 2nd Chapter General Assembly held at the University of Hong Kong.

Criticising the president’s first year in office, Bayan Secretary General Renato Reyes Jr claimed the administration had failed the people on multiple accounts. In July, the government called off a fifth round of peace talks with the CPP following reports of attacks by the party’s militant wing in the countryside.

With the declaration of martial law in Mindanao earlier in May, the jailing of Senator Leila de Lima and the rejection by the Commission of Appointments of Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael Mariano, one of three nominees of the left in the Cabinet, Reyes stated Duterte was taking “steps towards dictatorship” in the archipelago.

“No peace talks will ever succeed with these terms of surrender,” Reyes said.

“Marawi [in Mindanao] looks like Syria and everyday there are bombings there. 403,000 people have been forced to evacuate.”

“There have been 13,000 people who have been killed due to the war on drugs.” According to the Human Rights Watch, the Philippines National Police confessed to a death toll of 7,028 earlier in January only to backtrack in the coming months.

As part of Duterte’s deadly war on drugs, police officials have been granted widespread powers to bring to account individuals suspected of involvement in the trade. Over the past month, the high-profile deaths of three teenagers, however, has brought into question the effectiveness of the programme.

According to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the latest victim was a 14-year-old. Reynaldo de Guzman, missing for 20 days, was found dead on September 6 with over 30 stab wounds.

Expressing support for the assembly meeting via a pre-recorded video message, Sison, currently in exile in the Netherlands, stated “we must not forget the wanton destruction of lives and property in Marawi City” and “the relentless mass murder of the thousands of the poor who are suspected of being drug users and pushers”.

Recalling a recent visit to the country, Reyes told the crowd of the harrowing experience of listening in to daily reports on the radio with the numbers increasing every day with no end in sight.

“I was on the way to the airport and you can see communities having wakes and funerals wherever you go,” recounted the Bayan leader.

Duterte has repeatedly expressed admiration for strongman Ferdinand Marcos who ruled the Philippines under martial law for nine years. The former Davao mayor recently declared September 11 as an official holiday in Ilocos Norte to mark the 100th birth anniversary of the former dictator.

Worried about the improved relationship with both China and the United States, Reyes also opined the country was becoming a pawn in a game between two superpowers.

“This is a government of rich people, the progressives in the cabinet are gone,” he said, hinting that the ouster of Mariano which followed the exit of former social welfare secretary Judy Taguiwalo in August was part of a politically motivated conspiracy by the Duterte regime to consolidate power in the country.

Even as he conceded that the replacement of the overseas employment certificate (OEC) with an Overseas Foreign Worker ID has been one positive for Filipinos across the world, Reyes called on the 200-strong assemblage of mostly domestic workers to rally their compatriots to protest against the excesses of the Duterte regime on September 21.

The date marks the 45th anniversary of Marcos’ declaration of martial law in the country.

“You must strengthen yourself for more intense struggle,” warned Sison.

Duterte remains a popular figure in the country but is facing increasing pressure both home and abroad to end a war that remains deeply controversial.

The president’s office was contacted but no response was forthcoming at the time of publication.