Posts Tagged ‘photos’

Hong Kong trip and thoughts on social business

Hong Kong May 22-23, 2009

Click image to view slideshow of the Hong Kong trip, May 22-23, 2009

The last time I visited Hong Kong was in 1989.

Some things have indeed changed. For one thing, it’s part of China now. Also the skyline has many new additions, including the 88-floor (415m) 2 International Finance Centre tower, which is apparently the world’s 8th tallest building and tallest in Hong Kong. This will be soon surpassed by the International Commerce Centre being constructed across on the Kowloon side which will stand at 118-floors (484m).

Hong Kong also has a shiny new Norman Foster designed airport. Clean and efficient and the landing is not as super-hairy as the old Kai Tak airport. At the old airport you passed through mountains, cleared slums and then after a steep bank landed on a strip that seemed to go out into the water. As much as this is thrilling to some, I would prefer something a lot less eventful.

Hong Kong May 22-23, 2009
Hong Kong May 22-23, 2009

Many things haven’t changed. Hong Kong still maintains itself as one of the financial capitals, a shopping haven, one of the world’s most important shipping ports and trading gateway to China. And trams still run through its streets as do ad-covered double-decker buses.

I did the usual touristy things. I wandered through the infinitely looped and connected shopping malls and made the trip up to the Peak via the Peak Tram. Another new thing, there they built the Peak Lookout and charged HK$20 to take the escalators to the top for the view down to the skyscrapered financial district. What a rip-off! But I had to commend the thorough capitalistic mindset of extracting (extorting) money even for the view.

Even as a tourist, I was very impressed at how efficient a city Hong Kong is: The 24-minute train ride from the new airport to the center of the city. Buildings connected via covered walkways so that you don’t get wet and remain chilled. Public transport is cheap and fast. HK$5 (=US$0.65) for a 4-stop trip on the MTR from my hotel in Causeway Bay to Central. And apparently this efficiency is the reason people choose to do business here, reflected in the minimal red tape. When I asked my brother, who works for HSBC, where Hong Kong citizens’ loyalty lies, it is indeed money over state. Many Hong Kong businessmen fled to Canada, Australia, UK and other countries before the handover in 1997 only to return after they secured their citizenships.

Hong Kong May 22-23, 2009
Hong Kong May 22-23, 2009

Hong Kong is by far one of the most cosmopolitan places I have been to. They don’t care where you come from, just as long as you have the money or you are willing to do business. Given how global Hong Kong is, it’s still amusing to see that taxi drivers and clerks at 7-Eleven don’t speak English and didn’t have a clue as to what I was talking about. And Statue Square in front of HSBC which is the heart of Hong Kong still gets inundated with Filipino maids on Sundays, which is their only day off.

The weather was awful most of the two short days I was there, so I hung out a lot indoors. I ended up buying 2 books: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism” by Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank, father of microfinance and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in 2006.

It’s hard to believe that it has been 20 years since I visited Hong Kong, which was half a lifetime ago. now that I have reached about the halfway mark of my life, I think it’s about time I figure out how to spend the rest of my life. I now realize the irony in my second book selection, given that I am was in one of the most capitalistic cities in the world. But it seemed appropriate that this is at the core of a decision that lately I have been thinking very hard about: whether to pursue capital gains or social gains.

According to people like Muhammad Yunus and Bill Drayton the world is changing. There is emerging a new type of business: Social business or social entrepreneurship. You know it’s gathering steam with you can see it appearing as MBA tracks in major business schools such as Oxford, Duke and Stanford just to name a few.

According to Yunus, Social Business is defined as:

Social business is a company that is cause-driven rather than profit-driven, with th potential to act as a change agent for the world.

Bill Drayton elaborates in an interview in 2007 that:

In the last two and a half decades we have seen all across the world, the structure of the social half of the world become as entrepreneurial and competitive as business.

They both forecast that we will see radical change in the way business will be conducted in the future, especially given the backlash against the greed of the past decades and the present danger to the world not being nuclear annihilation as it was in the 60’s and 70’s but the destruction of our life-giving environment and the fragile state of the world’s economy.

The current economic crisis is indeed a harsh wake-up call that there needs to be a fundamental change in attitude and values and not only in way we conduct business. If we can put our minds so singularly to solving business issues and the generation of wealth, it can also be applied to solving the crisis in environmental and social justice we are facing.

It’s strange how physical trips often lead us on thought trips.

More photos from the trip on Flickr.

Hong Kong May 22-23, 2009

Hong Kong is a harbor/port in addition to being a financial capital and shopping haven.

Postcards from Central Vietnam

Old Town, Hoi An

Old Town, Hoi An, Vietnam

I took a weekend trip to central Vietnam a few weeks ago. We arrived in Da Nang and took a taxi south to Hoi An. Hoi An seems to be known for 2 things: beach resorts and its Old Town designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999. Maybe I was tired after spending the previous 2 weeks charretting on the project I am currently working on, but I was a bit disappointed by what I saw. The architecture was nice, but it seems like one big souvenir shop. Every building was selling some kind of “cultural artifact”. Is this what happens when a place gets designated a Heritage site?

Talking this weekend to Michael Waibel, a prominent socio-geographer who has been working in Vietnam for over 10 years, he told me that before it had the designation, it was just another disintegrating town, and at least now the locals have an income and finances to restore and revitalize the area. However I begin to wonder what is it we are preserving? What is the point of preservation?

This is what UNESCO has to say about the matter in its Historic Districts for All: a Social and Human Approach for Sustainable Revitalization, a manual for revitalizing historic districts:

Cultural urban heritage related the history of the city, its inhabitants, religions and social and cultural transformations. This heritage is deeply anchored in the spatial and economic structure of the cities, their buildings and monuments. The people living and working in the city identify with it. Today, historic districts are symbols of the city’s image; above and beyond their own cultural value they fulfill an important mission in modern urban development: they create the identity and the city’s image and are key geographic factors for the local and regional economy.

Old Town, Hoi An
My Son

So the “why” in historic district preservation and revitalization seems to be rooted in a sense of identity for the local inhabitants. But the over-commercialization and the sales of mass-produced cultural artifacts you can now find homogeneously across Vietnam seems to go counter to that sense of local identity. Local crafts traditions are lost in place of what tourist will want buy. Is there a way to balance local identity with its economic sustainability? I had more questions than answers, and felt a little robbed.

Next day was My Son My son is Hindu temple complex constructed by the Champa civilization between 7th and 14th centuries, then abandoned and lost for centuries and only rediscovered by the French army in the late 19th century.

My Son is also a UNESCO Heritage site, but in stark contrast to Hoi An, My Son was relatively deeserted. The guide told me that in peak season, they get as many as a thousand visitor a day. That doesn’t seem a lot. In a well-rehearsed guide talk, he showed us on a map all the regions destroyed by US bombing during the Vietnam War. Apparently about 80% of the existing complex were lost during the carpet bombing raids.

Marble Mountain, Da Nang
Marble Mountain, Da Nang

On the way to Hu?, we stopped by the Marble Mountain in Da Nang. Don’t believe the guide when he tells you there’s only a hundred some steps to the summit. After we reached what perceived to be the top with nice temples, but he lead us rock climbing through naturally formed caves to the actual top. Ok for me but not ok for my boss who is fit for his age but close to 70. Nice view at the summit, but not worth the extreme physical effort for the benefit of our sadistic guide. What was more impressive was the huge natural caves that were used as a Viet Cong as a hospital until it was bombed. But it’s hard to know what to believe without the facts.

There are 2 way to get to Hu? from Da Nang. Through or boring tunnel or over the scenic Hai Van Pass. Our driver asked us what we wanted to do. Not having researched this fact, we elected thankfully for the Pass. Only tourists and joyriders seem to take the pass – everyone else takes the tunnel. Joyriders here are usually kids on motorcycles. We witnessed one accident where 2 kids on a motorcycles took a turn too fast and skidded out of control. Bike was damaged but the riders seemed ok.

Citadel, Hue

Citadel, Hu?, Vietnam

Hu? was the imperial capital of Vietnam during the Nguy?n Dynasty between 1802 and 1945.

Royal Tombs, Hue
Royal Tombs, Hue

It wasn’t intended that way, but we ended up doing all three UNESCO Heritage site in Central Vietnam, the Citadel in Hu? being the last one. The Citadel is a sizable complex apparently modeled in part after the Forbidden City in Beijing, but only a scaled-down version, a fraction of its size.

We took a trip down the Perfume River to visit a few of the Imperial tombs. The most interesting of which was the tomb of the short-lived Emperor Kh?i ??nh (1885-1925). His was built of cement that had weathered pretty badly, now almost dark grey or black in some places. He was a francophile and the interior was constructed from a mosaic of broken French ceramics, and took 17 years to construct. Sadly for him, it was not completed before his death.

At this point, I was so exhausted that I stopped registering any new information and just mechanically took photographs. Still some came out pretty nicely. Check out the rest of the Da Nang, Hoi An, Hue Flickr photos set.

Autumn Colors of Korea


Autumn in Namhan-San-Seong

Autumn is by far the most spectacular season in Korea, in my opinion. Since the 70% of Korea is mountainous, the transformation of color is quite dramatic. These photos were taken in Namhan-San-Seong Park, located about half-an-hour from Bundang where I live.

Autumn comes to Nahan-San-Seong
Autumn comes to Nahan-San-Seon

Growing up in Korea, going to visit Namhan-San-Seong always seemed to entail a long road trip to me, but I was shocked to see how close it had become. Seoul has expanded quite rapidly to the South since I last visited, and I now I find Namhan-San-Seong is actually between where I live, Bundang and Seoul itself.

My little ones are oblivious to these memories of Seoul’s past and present of course. As much as they seem permanent, cities do change. Both in our memory and physically.

More photos of Namhan-San-Seong in my Flickr set.

Hanoi, First Impressions


Hanoi, Vietnam

As part of my new job at JINA Architects, I visited Hanoi, Ha Phong and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam in late August. I wasn’t able to post about it since the Vietnamese government had yet to formally announce the winner of the international competition to formulate a new Master Urban Plan of Hanoi. I am happy to say that JINA, in a consortium with POSCO Engineering & Construction, a construction firm based in Korea and Perkins Eastman of the US, won the bid. I am now part of the team that will execute the project.

The first thing that strikes you in Hanoi is the traffic.

Hanoi, Girl
Hanoi, Old Quarter

The motorcycles whizzing by in all directions, the constant beeping of all the vehicles, its apparent chaos exacerbated by the dearth traffic lights even at the heart of Hanoi, is overwhelming for the first time visitor. The motorcycle thing took a little getting used to. But since Hanoi has little public transportation infrastructure, and the price of fuel is pretty costly relative to the living standards, the plethora of two-wheeled traffic is understandable. Crossing the road is a hairy experience and literally reminded me of Frogger, the 80’s arcade game and the sobering experience of Seymore Papert, one of the founding faculty of the MIT Media Lab, who suffered brain damage after he was hit by a motorcycle while crossing the road in Hanoi a couple of years ago.

Once you get used to the traffic, you realize that this is a city on the verge of exploding. Vietnam has experience massive economic growth since ??i m?i (renovation), its embrace of free markets in 1986, and evidence of the growth can be seen in the city everywhere in poorly regulated new construction sprouting up like weeds.

The word for crisis in Chinese (which is also the same in Korean) is ??. The first part ? is the character for “danger”, where as the second part ? is the character for opportunity. The crisis in Hanoi presents itself as a unique opportunity to do amazing things. Hanoi has a colorful history that dates back some 1000 years, which is when it was first established as a capital. You can still see Chinese and French influences, remnants from the war with the US (the “American War” as it is called in here), as well as more recent Soviet-era architecture imported in the post-war years. But all this is fast disappearing, and soon, without intervention, Hanoi is in danger of becoming yet another characterless modern Asian city. We’ve seen too many cities in Asia being all too eager to sacrifice their past heritage for looking modern and “developed” in the eyes of the world. Seoul, as we all know, was one of them.

Hanoi’s Ancient Quarter, a.k.a. “The 36 Streets” is a combination of market, street life and housing. According to some estimates a staggering half a million people pass through the quarter a day. It has traditionally been a place where family-based craft guilds established their presence in Hanoi. The French colonial rule and communist rule following the unification of Vietnam wiped out most of the traditional guilds, but you still see strong grouping of business by produce around the quarter.

I couldn’t figure out how this run-down market could attract so much people and traffic during all hours of the day. After I returned and read some more material about the Ancient Quarter, I discovered that it has one of the highest population density in Asia. The narrow 2-3 story storefronts hide “tube houses” that may be as deep as 100m, and home to as many as 50 people.

Hanoi, Hoan Kiem
Hanoi, Van Mieu

Another striking feature of Hanoi is water. Hanoi in Chinese means “between the rivers”, and the Red River surrounds the city. There are also two major and many minor lakes and ponds scattered around Hanoi. Tay Ho is the biggest, but Hoan Kiem is the most beloved, with its legend of a turtle that delivered a sword that brought victory to Le Loi during his revolt against the Ming Dynasty. Hanoi is indeed a city of water.

Van Mieu or the Temple of Literature dates back to 1070, and is an island of serenity in a sea of traffic and construction chaos.

Although this was my first visit to Hanoi, as a Korean and East Asian, I found Hanoi strangely familiar. It was hard to place my finger on what exactly this feeling was, but having experience rapid growth and development (and my fair share of disorientation) in Seoul, Hanoi reminded me of Seoul of the 70’s and 80’s. But that wasn’t all of it. It was a strange familiarity that was akin to, in some ways, to meeting for the first time a cousin that one has never met before: There was something in Hanoi that was already in me.

Hanoi has all the potential of becoming a truly great and beautiful city. It has a raw and yet sophisticated charm, having been layered by so many rich cultures, and imbued with natural beauty of waters and its immediate surroundings. It’s already all there. All it needs is a careful polishing.

Here’s all the photos posted to Flickr from my August 27-30, 2008 trip to Vietnam.

The World Bank and Web 2.0

From the World Bank Flickr account

From the World Bank Flickr account

Given the size, complexity and issues surrounding the World Bank (not to mention its impossible mandate of “Working for a World Free of Poverty”), it does surprise me how well it does things sometimes.

Case in point: the World Bank has a Flickr account! It has over 1,400 photos, nicely categorized into 3 collections (Africa, South Asia, East Asia) and 33 sets (that cover selected topics and countries).

Did I tell you that they also have an API to access their 114 indicators from key data sources and 12,000 development photos? This is too much. The Bank (as it is affectionately called to insiders) is more Web2.0 that a whole lot of organizations.

[Thx AC]