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

Pitch X’s Winter Solstice

The latest Pitch X event, organised by Academy Xi and hosted by YBF Ventures, was held a few days before the (Southern hemisphere) mid-winter – there may not have been any mulled wine, but there was still a warm atmosphere on a cold and wet Melbourne evening. The judging panel was drawn from YBF, Melbourne Angels, Linfox and Clearpoint Ventures.

The usual format applied: 11 startups were each given 90 seconds to pitch, followed by a 90 second Q&A with the judges. The top three were then brought back for a 5-minute pitch, and 4 minutes of Q&A.

The pitches, in order of presentation were (links in the names where available):

Startup 101

A self-styled online startup school, targeting university students and recent graduates. The core premise is that entrepreneurship is not being taught to undergraduates. The judges asked about the MVP, which was not clear, nor was there a breakeven forecast based on the number of students. The founder is offering a freemium model, based on memberships and services. Looking $500k for software development and marketing in China (a key demographic for this business).

Studio Ninja

This is a cloud and mobile PaaS solution for professional photographers. I first covered Studio Ninja in late 2016, when they pitched at a StartupVic event – and it’s great to see that they have managed to bootstrap themselves this far.

Professional photography is competitive, but margins are low. Studio Ninja offers an end-to-end platform for scheduling, contracts, payments etc. They have now integrated with Xero, QuickBoooks, Google, PayPal and Stripe, and have built a community via their chat app, Facebook group and Instagram account. At a basic $29.95 per month, they now have 4,000 paying subscribers, mainly in Australia, UK and US. but need to reinvest in product development, scaling and building further efficiencies. Users are offered a 30-day free trial, with an average 25% conversion rate, thanks to the hook of discounts for early sign-ups, plus a referral program.

RoamingDuck

Calling itself the “Uber of travel”, RoamingDuck offers travelers access to curated itineraries, based on their personal preferences. Using freelance resources (along the lines of Upwork and Airtaskr), the service uses a travel planning dashboard on which the customer and the curator can collaborate. With a quick turnaround, RoamingDuck can help customers build and review an itinerary within 12 hours. With the ability to consolidate and share, the content is easily accessible to users, who can plan anything – even supporting “self-plan” users with a search function.

Freelance curators come from the ranks of existing travel bloggers and services like Travelo, and are subject to a vetting process. There is also an escrow system, so freelances only get paid when the customer is satisfied. Normal travel agents are quite restricted on what they can access or offer, and services like Skyscanner are great for searching individual fares – RoamingDuck is solving the planning issue, and building the itinerary. Asked whether RoamingDuck can support actual bookings, the founder will likely implement this via APIs.

Wastr

According to the founder, households waste about 20% of the food they buy. Wastr is an AI-powered app that is designed to help consumers use what they purchase, rather than letting to go to waste. The solution allows subscribers to scan their grocery receipts, and in return they will receive recipes, notifications on expiry dates, plus other reminders. The app is offered under a freemium model, with a paid service starting at $2 per month.

VRWalker

Described as “VR for your foot” (or the “mouse” for VR), this is a motorised shoe device that allows wearers to experience”walking” within VR applications, without actually moving.
It’s an idea that has been around for a while, but the founder claims to have filed key patents. The shoes work on the concept of intuitive locomotion (linked to the dantian, or our centre of gravity), and are intended to be much cheaper and much more convenient than existing treadmill-based solutions. The founder hopes to have a working prototype by the end of this year. Likely customers will come from areas like construction, engineering and gaming. The judges asked about how insurance would be handled, and the device could be bundled with existing VR headset devices.

The Nurture Project

The Nurture Project is designed to teach life skills to deal with anxiety issues, which according to the founder, affect 30% of the population. Unlike other solutions, this treats the causes as well as the symptoms, using a well-being model built on 5 core pillars, and delivered via a 12-week online program. It is currently aimed at women in their 30s and 40s.

Natural MedTech

Designed to boost the immune, hormone and nervous system naturally, this has come out of a CSIRO project, with a scientific basis that has been peer-reviewed.

Magicast

This is a decentralised online podcast recording and editing service. Existing podcast software is either too complex, or too expensive. Instead, Magicast uses web-based programme development, publication and distribution, offering a two-sided marketplace for content, sound effects, music etc. The judges asked about international competitors, given that podcasting is very much a cottage industry, with relatively few barriers to entry.

Turtle

Something akin to an Uber courier service, Turtle enables customers to obtain goods from overseas that are not available where they live. Targeting expat and diaspora populations, the platform has an escrow function to provide a level of trust. It was not clear who would be responsible for tax, customs and quarantine issues.

Young Shaman Foundation

Having run a number of leadership development retreats on country for women in indigenous communities, the founder is now seeking funding to develop and extend the program she currently offers.

SecureStack

Helping companies to secure the cloud, with a focus on cyber security, the founder pointed out that key problems are caused by “cloud sprawl” – the uncontrolled proliferation of content, services and applications hosted and running on cloud-based servers. Using a proprietary cloud infrastructure security design, the startup has already secured two clients and $100k in revenues. Now looking to raise $2m, for an 18-month runway, in order to gain 100 clients. The solution is agnostic as to which cloud service clients use. Traditional cloud management and compliance is saturated, whereas SecureStack’s value proposition is in the security layers.

After much deliberation, the winners were:

1. StudioNinja
2. RoamingDuck
3. VR Walker

Next week: The Metaphorical Glass Jaw

Tales from Tasmania

There’s a slightly misleading advertisement for Tasmania that greets arrivals at Melbourne’s international airport. “You got off one stop too soon” is the message. But there are no scheduled international flights to or from Tasmania, so overseas visitors must travel via the Australian mainland. Just one of many idiosyncrasies that occurred to me on a recent visit to the island state.

On this trip, I experienced the snowfalls on Kunanyi (Mount Wellington), sampled the local produce at the Farm Gate Market (a popular destination, no doubt helped by TV programmes such as “Gourmet Farmer”), enjoyed tasting the wine at Moorilla, the cheese and beer on Bruny Island, and the beer at the Cascade Brewery.

I also spent a very wet day in Richmond – but some attractions in this historic village are at risk of pricing themselves out of the market, especially outside the summer season. And despite being another popular destination, the shops and galleries along Hobart’s Salamanca Place seemed tired and lacklustre, especially when compared to what else Tasmania has to offer.

In particular – MONA. Its opening in 2011 has added to Tasmania’s growth in tourism, and no trip to Hobart would be complete without a visit. It might not be to everyone’s taste, but what David Walsh has managed to achieve here is nothing short of incredible. Talk about putting your money where your mouth is…. The current exhibition, ZERO, is a powerful survey of this post-war movement in German art.

Notwithstanding the cutting edge culture represented by MONA, you can’t help feeling that Tasmania represents a microcosm of the Australian psyche, and in particular the tension between traditional, conservative beliefs, and modern, progressive thinking. Tasmania was the last state to decriminalise male homosexuality (following Federal intervention), and abortion was only decriminalised as recently as 2013. The fact that access to publicly funded abortion is extremely limited may or may not be linked to the state’s high rate of teenage pregnancy – but it is certainly the background to a high-profile unfair dismissal case.

Tasmania has been the setting for other significant social and political battles (and ecological victories), especially those involving logging and damming. The state’s natural beauty and reputation for a clean environment makes it popular with overseas visitors (and probably some prospective survivalists in the wake of New Zealand’s new property ownership laws). However, the growth of short-term holiday lettings is seen as contributing to a local housing crisis.  And the significant contribution that tourism makes to the local economy cannot hide the fact that on the basis of total and per capita GSP, Tasmania’s economy looks comparatively insipid.

Next week: Sakamoto – Coda and Muzak