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Recent Notes from Hong Kong

Earlier this month I spent a few days in Hong Kong, on my way back from Europe. Hong Kong was my home for 6 years – before, during and after the 1997 Handover – and I have continued to visit on a regular basis ever since. While I didn’t directly witness any of the latest clashes between pro-democracy campaigners and the police, I did see (and hear) the knock-on effects of the past 6 months. I also spoke to a range of people living and working in the city – from local residents to long-term expats; from small business owners to entrepreneurs; from corporate employees to public servants; from teenagers to senior citizens. Whatever their particular views on recent events, their one common hope is that the situation can be resolved peacefully, and soon.

“Maze of Today” by Wu Guanzhong (2007) – Image sourced from China Online Museum website*

The trigger for the current protests was a proposed extradition law between the Hong Kong SAR and the rest of the PRC (as well as Taiwan and Macau). The bill was highly contentious, given the very different legal systems between Hong Kong and the Mainland. Serious concerns were expressed by the business sector, the legal profession and the general public. These concerns were given wider voice by the hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who joined the first of the peaceful mass marches at the start of the summer. Since then, nearly every weekend (and at times during the week) there has been direct action in the form of marches, strikes and occupations – sometimes leading to street battles between police and protestors, images of which have been seen around the world. These events have been accompanied by allegations of police brutality, the alleged use of agents provocateurs, and suggestions that the protestors are either terrorists, traitors or a threat to society.

On one level, Hong Kong continues to operate normally (although getting into the international airport is a little trickier since it was the target of so-called “stress testing” of the public roads and transport system). On the other hand, it certainly feels quieter than normal, and visitor numbers are down – as much as 40% overall on one measure, with a 90% decline in visitors from the Mainland. (My flight from Europe was barely half full.)

With the increased protest activity at weekends, public transport can be tricky. Some subway stations are suddenly closed without much warning from Friday evenings onward, and the express train from Central to the airport bi-passes the usual intermediate stops. On the Sunday I was there, there had been a mass gathering in Central, and access to the nearest subway station (for the local train service back to Kowloon) was closed, so there was an orderly queue of several hundred metres as people waited for the Star Ferry – many of the passengers dressed in black t-shirts, the unofficial uniform of the protest movement.

Given the recent bans on marches and gatherings in public places (notwithstanding Hong Kong’s right to peaceful assembly) a strange phenomenon has emerged. Each night, at around 10.30pm, local residents open their apartment windows and start chanting slogans associated with the pro-democracy movement. It is both eerie and extremely moving.

This nightly display certainly evokes the sense that no-one wants to see complete chaos or a violent end to the protests, so they chant in hope that a peaceful solution can be found. Otherwise, hope will give rise to despair, and with it the slow, painful decline of Hong Kong as a global city – a multi-cultural, international hub for trade, commerce, finance, ideas and innovation that combines notions of east and west, new and old, pragmatism and spiritualism.

The protestors have issued a set of five key demands. One relates to scrapping the extradition bill, which has now been withdrawn by the Hong Kong Chief Executive. Three relate to the protests themselves – removal of the term “rioters” to label the protestors; an independent investigation into the police response and alleged brutality (and even into police in-action when protestors were attacked by counter-demonstrators with seeming impunity); and an amnesty for all protestors who have been arrested to date.

The fifth demand, Universal Suffrage in direct elections for both the Legislative Council (Hong Kong’s Parliament) and the Chief Executive, is a lingering issue from the Umbrella campaign of 2014 (when large parts of the city were occupied in protest at Beijing’s decision to “defer” one person one vote). It’s probably even more contentious than the withdrawal of the extradition bill. To summarise: the Basic Law is Hong Kong’s Constitution. It is supposed to enshrine the city’s pre-existing common law systems for a minimum of 50 years after the Handover. Under the “One Country, Two Systems” regime, designed to govern Hong Kong’s legal, political and economic relationships with the Mainland, the people of Hong Kong were assured that their way of life would continue as before after 1997.

Article 45 of the Basic Law, states that:

“The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”

The above has to be read in conjunction with Article 15 (Beijing directly appoints the Chief Executive), and Annex 1 (defines the candidate selection and election process – which has been revised in recent years).

The challenge is that the Central government believes it has to keep control over both the candidate nomination process, and the membership of the Election Committee (election college). On current evidence, the people of Hong Kong are unlikely to get to directly elect their own Chief Executive, nor nominate the candidates of their own choosing. (And the Legislative Council will continue to comprise members who represent “functional constituencies” – elected representatives voted in by their peer groups from various vested interests.) Even if they did directly vote for the Chief Executive of their choosing, Beijing would reserve the right not to confirm them in office, and would appoint their own candidate instead.

Of course, it’s not that Hong Kong was particularly democratic under colonial rule – the Governor was technically appointed by the British Monarch (on the advice and recommendation of the British Foreign Secretary), and acted as the Crown’s direct representative.

On another level, the model for the Election Committee is something like the US Electoral College that formally elects the President, based on the delegates elected by each State. This process was seen as “a compromise between election of the President by a vote in Congress and election of the President by a popular vote of qualified citizens”.

Finally, I was given an interesting interpretation of “One Country, Two Systems” by an elderly gentleman I spoke to on the MTR one day. “Where are you from?” he asked. “Australia” I replied. “Ah, near New Zealand. Same country.”

* My reason for choosing the above picture of Hong Kong by Wu Guanzhong to illustrate this blog is two-fold:

First, the painting is called “Maze of Today”, rather an apt title for the current state of affairs. Second, while I was working as a publisher in Hong Kong in the 1990s, my company licensed another Hong Kong picture by Wu for the cover of an introductory book on the law of the Hong Kong SAR. The first edition was issued in 1996, with a second edition in 2001 – and it still appears to be on the Hong Kong University reading list for law students, and cited in other law books as recently as this year.

Next week: Startup Vic’s Impact Pitch Night

 

Recent Notes from Europe

Over the past few weeks I have been travelling in Europe – Switzerland, Croatia and Italy. It was a great trip, and prompted a few observations along the way. Here are some key recollections.

First, after making a number of trips by train, bus and boat, it reinforced the sense that in Europe, public transport is seen as an essential service and not just a means of last resort (you know, that notion we sometimes experience elsewhere that suggests “only losers take the bus”). As a result, public transport is generally clean, safe, efficient, punctual and largely affordable. One counterpoint is that as a temporary visitor, accessing and paying for tickets such as multi-day / multi-system travel passes is not always straightforward.

Second, despite the close proximity of the three countries I visited, I had to use different fiat currencies in each location – and in the case of Croatia, although it is a member of the EU, the Euro is not always accepted and it maintains a separate currency (the Kuna) that is not easy to exchange outside the country. And when you get cash out of an ATM, it’s mostly in denominations of HRK200 – but local shops hate having to change large notes. Plus, there are still instances where plastic money is not accepted.

Third, visiting the extensive national art collections in Zurich (the Kunsthaus) and Milan (the Museo Del Novecento) was a great opportunity to see works by significant twentieth century artists beyond the Dadaists and Futurists respectively – including many works that rarely travel abroad.

Fourth, for all my reservations about organised religion, you can’t deny that a key legacy of European Christianity is church architecture, and the associated patronage of the arts. The Duomo in Milan even affords visitors the opportunity to walk along the roof terraces to get closer to the decorative flying buttresses and mini-spires topped with hundreds of statues.

Finally, along with all the excellent food I was lucky enough to order in restaurants, the trip was a great opportunity to sample local and regional wines, especially while in Switzerland and Croatia. We just don’t see that much of these in Australia, for obvious reasons. Plus, the global phenomenon of craft beer is still alive and well, all adding to the gastronomic experience.

Next week: Recent Notes from Hong Kong

Startup Vic’s Secret Pitch Night

For its August meetup event, Startup Vic presented The Secret Pitch. Designed to highlight inequality in investment decisions, it combined voice-modulation software, and was a bit like The Voice meets Blind Date. Hosted at the Victorian Innovation Hub with support from Rampersand, LaunchVic, Stone & Chalk and Weploy, the Judges were selected from Rampersand, Light Warrior Ventures, AWS, Impact Investment Group and Venture Capital Exchange. By sitting with their backs to the presenters, and having to rely on only the slides and the disguised voices, the Judges had a limited idea of the identity of the presenters.

The pitches in order they presented (websites embedded on the titles):

FRDM

Described as “your closet in the cloud”, and dedicated to “making fast fashion sustainable”, FRDM is subscription-based service for “shared” clothing – customers borrow and return each item after use. Apparently, we are  buying more clothing but using it less.  The circular model is set up to break down and recycle garments over a three year lifecycle. it’s an emerging, but competitive space – competitors include Glam Corner, Le Tote, and Unlimited. Asked about their approach to circulation and cleaning, the founders assume three “wears”  with a 30% margin per customer but admit that they are still lacking some logistics experience. The goal of having items delivered on time, in the right place and in an acceptable condition is still being developed. Firmly aimed at women aged  22-28 years old, I suggest FRDM think about a their name, as my search revealed at least two similar URLs – https://frdm.co and http://frdm.io.

Assignment Hero

I have covered this startup before. It’s positioned as a collaboration platform for tertiary students. When it comes to team project work, there appears to be a disconnect between prescribed apps (Dropbox, Facebook Groups, Evernote, Google Docs, etc.) and the activity notifications and alerts they generate – in short, too much “noise” which overwhelms the students, which gets in the way of them completing their tasks.

Offering a dashboard, the platform is natively integrated with Google Docs. Users can track individual contributions to each document (based on time spent, and using track changes). To me that system is very easy to game – what’s to stop users simply editing for the sake of boosting their rating? How does it deal with plagiarism and copyright abuse? How does the app evaluate the quality, depth or rigour of contributions? Who owns the content that is uploaded to the platform?

Claiming to be signing up 42 new users every day, with repeat users, the founders offer a B2C model – providing access to suggested solutions via on-demand student services and products, and charging a 30% commission on each sale. Student sign-up is free, but the platform can recommends products to users. There is also an SaaS offering for universities, established via paid trials. But the B2B model is a long sales cycle, with the goal being annual licensing fees. Asked how about the viability of the Google relationship, the founders explained they tried using their own document editor, but customer  preference is for Google (and Microsoft) products.

Asked about how Assignment Hero compares to other collaboration tools such as Atlassian’s JIRA, Trello, Confluence, Slack, etc. the founders suggested that these are aimed more at enterprises, and that their own UX/UI is sexier than existing education tools such as Blackboard. As with all such platforms, the key is to enable users to manage the project, not manage the project management software….

Book An Artist

This two-sided market place is designed to help clients to find or connect with an artist. According to the founders, finding the right one is hard. Instagram’s search function is not location based, and the platform is dominated by big names.

With 80 artists on board, Book An Artist charges a 10% commission, and has completed around 40 transactions with an average ticket size of $2,200. Traction has been achieved via referrals, influence programs, SEO and Google Ads. Initially focused on commissions for murals and graffiti works, the founders plan to expand into sign writing, textiles, illustrations, mosaics, installations and calligraphy. With a presence in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, the founders are seeking $500k in funding. Currently using external agencies and contractors to handle administration, the funding will largely be allocated to marketing to drive engagement.

Although the commissions appear to be at a higher price point compared to other creative market places, what prevents platforms such as  Fivr,  99Designs or Canva moving into this space? Also, how does Find An Artist handle things like copyright, IP licensing, attribution or planning permission for external works?

Aggie Global

This is a food sourcing platform, connecting small farmers to large markets. Because of current market structures and procurement processes, businesses often can’t “see” what produce is available to them locally. Based on the founders’ experience in Fiji, where the local economy ends up having to import food to feed tourists, they have run an actual in-market pilot program, but are still building the e-commerce platform.

The results of the pilot achieved a 6x increase in both farmers’ income and hotel cost savings. Tourism is the 1st or 2nd largest industry in 20/48 developing countries. Importing food to satisfy tourist demand is therefore an issue.

For farmers, the service offers a freemium model, while businesses pay a 5% transaction fee and an annual subscription. Currently researching other markets, managing the supply chAIn for quality control, provenance, organic certification etc. is critical. The MVP aims to get farmers keeping proper records via face to face training, and gaining recognition for existing farming practices.

Asked about the cost of data connectivity and access for farmers in remote locations, the founders explained that data is stored offline and uploaded periodically. They are also investigating the use of AI/ML for predictive supply and demand. They also need to manage timely delivery as well as tracking environmental and climate data.

Part of the solution lies in making sure there is appropriate produce for the market, while matching local cuisine to tourist expectations. Too often, local chefs try to emulate western menus, so they need to help develop alternatives and foster innovation.

Maybe the Startup Vic organisers were saving the best til last, as Aggie Global took out the People’s Choice and was declared the Overall Winner by the judges.

Next week: Recent Notes from Europe

Top Gigs – Favourite Venues

Continuing the recent theme, here are some of my preferred music venues from over the years:

Fairfield Halls – Croydon

I can’t say this is a particularly favourite venue (its early 1960s brutalist architecture doesn’t help), and it’s more than 40 years since I was last there. But it’s where my gig-going all began, and I recall the acoustics were excellent. It’s where I saw two of my first gigs – 10cc (at the height of their mid-70s success) and Procul Harum (not quite past their best, but hardly troubling the charts in those days).

Electric Ballroom – Camden

Without doubt, this is a venerable institution, starting as a ballroom in the 1930s, and operating under its current name since 1978. The venue for two of my favourite gigs: Joy Division supported by Scritti Politti, Monochrome Set and A Certain Ratio; and Talking Heads supported by OMD and U2. Hopefully the facilities have been upgraded since then.

F-Club – Leeds

Not so much a venue, as a club residency at various locations across the city centre. It was a regular destination while I was a student at Leeds University. It was where I saw U2 play to about 50 people in late 1980 – Bono doing the same “I can’t believe I am smoking this cigarette I bummed off someone in the audience” routine he did when I saw him the previous year. F-Club was also where I saw New Order on one of their first gigs, in early 1981. The list of bands I saw there include Teardrop Explodes, Echo & the Bunnymen, Orange Juice, Josef K, Aztec Camera, Thompson Twins, Wah! Heat, Blue Orchids, Nico, Frantic Elevators (Mick Hucknall’s band before Simply Red), Rip Rig & Panic, Gang Of Four, Delta 5, The Three Johns, Mekons, Sisters of Mercy, A Certain Ratio… Glorious times.

Clarendon Ballroom – Hammersmith

Beginning as a pub in the 1860s (my great uncle recalled going to dances there in his youth), by the 1980s it was a noted venue for seeing punk and new wave bands who weren’t quite big enough to play at the nearby Palais or Odeon. In the mid-1980s it played a significant role in bringing the so-called Paisley Underground to London, where I saw Rain Parade, Green on Red, True West and Long Ryders in quick succession.

Town & Country Club – Kentish Town

For most of the 1980s and early 1990s, the T&C was the favoured North London venue for bands who had outgrown the pub and club circuit, but didn’t qualify (or desire) to play the characterless stadium arenas. It’s where I saw the likes of Pixies and Nick Cave, plus numerous UK-indie bands of the era. The added bonus was Friday nights, when Wendy May’s Locomotion continued the music, dancing and drinking after the bands had packed up, and before London’s 24-hour drinking culture….

Lyceum Ballroom – Strand

For a short period in 1980, the Lyceum appeared to be a key venue for the post-punk and new wave era. Within a few weeks of each other I saw three concerts there, the sort of multi-band bills that you don’t see these days outside of 80s revival package tours: Joy Division, Killing Joke, Section 25 and A Certain Ratio; Psychedelic Furs, Echo & The Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes, A Certain Ratio, Manicured Noise, Eric Random; Magazine, DAF, Bauhaus. That don’t make ’em like that any more.

The Corner Hotel – Richmond

Conveniently located within spitting distance of where I currently live, The Corner Hotel has provided the setting for a number of memorable gigs over the past 15 years or more. For a relatively small venue, it manages to draw some big international names in independent music, among them Mogwai, Low, Tindersticks, Wire, Gang of Four, Michael Rother, The Pop Group, Tortoise, Wooden Shjips, Gang Gang Dance, Mouse on Mars and Ariel Pink. Notable Australian bands that I have seen at The Corner include: Severed Heads, Black Cab, Underground Lovers and Machine Translation. And the rooftop bar and restaurant does a mean chicken parma – what more could you want?

The Refectory – Leeds University

This is not your usual student venue (and not the only gig facility on the campus, which in my day also included the Riley-Smith Hall, and the Tartan Bar – all with subsidised student union beer on tap). Concerts at The Refectory were typically organised by a full-time Entertainments Officer – sometimes a stepping stone to a career in music and broadcasting. Apart from Elvis Costello (twice) and The Cure, I saw a stream of early 80s chart acts play at The Refectory, such as Rezillos, Undertones, Altered Images, Bow Wow Wow, Haircut 100…. and Kajagoogoo.

The Forum – Melbourne

Featuring a proscenium arch combining design elements inspired by the Roman Empire and Victorian Gothic, The Forum is probably my favourite large venue in Melbourne. It has a sloping auditorium and a wide vista giving excellent views of the stage. I saw LCD Soundsystem play an amazing gig here, as well as Tortoise, Faust and Mulatu Astatke. It also boasts a smaller auditorium and cinema space upstairs, which is a key part of the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Brixton Academy

Parts of the The Forum in Melbourne resemble London’s Brixton Academy – similar proscenium arch design, and wide-vision perspective of the stage. Since the mid-1980s, Nick Cave has made the Academy a regular fixture on his UK tours – no doubt it’s the Gothic influence….

Next week: Startup Vic’s Secret Pitch Night