Guest Entry: Typhoon Mangkhut in Hong Kong

With the permission of Aard regular and Hong Kong resident John Massey, here’s a compilation of his reporting on the impact of Typhoon Mangkhut on Hong Kong over the past day. John lives in Sha Tin in the New Territories, on the Shing Mun River. The times given are local to HK.


Friday 14 September 22:39. Well, that’s quite impressive – there’s currently one unnamed Tropical Disturbance in the Indian Ocean, one Super Typhoon (which everyone except the Filipinos is calling Mangkhut, but which the Filipinos are calling Ompong) about to cross northern Luzon and enter the South China Sea heading towards US!!!, and four Hurricanes in the Atlantic, one of which (Florence) has barrelled into North Carolina, one (Isaac) is heading for South America, and the other two (Helene and Joyce) seem to be trying make up their minds where to go (typical).

Sunday 16 September 12:04. River wall next to our place has just been overtopped, by a lot.

Sunday 16 September 12:33. Mangkhut is currently the closest it will get to HK, so hopefully things might now progressively start to ease off a bit, slowly. They need to. But with the shift in wind direction as it passes, the water levels will get even higher, so the flooding will get even worse.

I suspect the basement car park (where my car and bicycle are) is now inundated, but I can’t get down there to find out, because the lifts have been grounded, so there’s no way to get down to the car park without walking down the fire escape, going outside, and walking down another fire escape, and going outside is really not a good idea at the moment.

Sunday 16 September 14:17. The typhoon has moved enough so that the wind direction has shifted, so now we are more protected and not getting the very strong wind gusts we were getting. So it’s a lot less scary now.

Plus the water has stopped over-topping the river wall, at least for now. The amusing thing about that, if there is a funny side to it, is that now there is no way for the water to flow back into the river, because it is being held in by the wall, so the flood water is just sitting there, until the work crews can get here tomorrow or whenever and open the gates in the wall to let the water drain back into the river.

Sunday 16 September 14:30. Windows have stood up OK. My study window got hit very hard a couple of times by flying debris, but didn’t break. The much larger windows in the living room haven’t been hit by anything so far, luckily. But they have UV resistant plastic film on them, which helps resist breaking if they are hit by flying objects, and reduces resonance in the wind, which helps to resist breaking from wind pressure/oscillation. Typhoon winds are buffeting, rapid oscillation in wind pressure, so you can get those kinds of resonance effects in larger window panes. The recommendation is to put a big X of adhesive tape on the windows, which I was thinking about doing yesterday until my wife reminded me we already have the plastic film on them. Duh, yeah, I forgot about that. Even so, the living room windows were oscillating alarmingly in the strongest gusts we were getting earlier, but they didn’t go.

So, so far so good. Shouldn’t talk too soon, though, this thing is not over by a long way yet. I need to get down to the car park some time to see if it’s flooded and how the car and bike have fared. I might go down there soon, now that I think it’s OK-ish to go outside for a brief sprint to the fire escape down to the car park.

There are some people with kids sitting in the fire escape in the building, so I’m guessing their windows maybe didn’t do so well, and they have nowhere else to shelter.

Sunday 16 September 14:36. Yep, the Observatory report that the storm surge in Tolo Harbour, which is just down-river from us, reached 4.5m, but it has started dropping, which matches what I see.

Now we just need someone to come and take the plug out of the plug hole in the bath tub. They won’t be doing it today, they have more important things to attend to.

Sunday 16 September 14:58. I’m wrong – I went down to check – the people sitting in the fire escape talking to kids are the female security guard and a couple of the cleaning ladies, talking to some of the kids who live here to pass the time, because there is nothing else they can do at the moment. I guess it’s possible the building entry lobby is flooded with rainwater, which would help to explain why the lifts are out of action.

Sunday 16 September 15:26. There’s a lot of damage around different areas of HK. This being 2018, people are posting videos online, many of which are pretty dramatic. Lots of flooding, lots of smashed windows, lots of scaffolding down, big cranes leaning at scary angles, a couple of partial old building collapses. Several people have been injured, but no reports of fatalities yet. The emergency services are out in force and busy, so injured people are getting treated pretty promptly.

I have to say I think HK has dodged a bullet with this one. It has not been a direct hit, the centre of the storm is skirting about 100km to the south. But it is a very powerful storm, with a very large circulation, so we have still had the worst conditions I have ever seen here, including during the direct hit by Super Typhoon Hope in 1979, so it has been very bad, and it’s not over yet. On the other hand, preparedness has been very good – everyone saw this one coming and knew it would be bad, and most people seem to have behaved sensibly, which is not always the case.

But if it had deviated only slightly on its track and had made a direct hit on HK, it would have been a whole lot worse. If it had threaded the gap between the Philippines and Taiwan, instead of crossing the northern tip of Luzon, which caused it to weaken slightly as it crossed land, it would have been worse. Bad luck for Filipinos, with 21 dead reported there so far and counting, but a bit of luck for HK.

We dodged a bullet with Hato last year when it missed HK by 20km and wrecked Macau, we seem to have dodged a bullet with Mangkhut this year – we can’t keep hoping for the best and relying on luck.

I have now lost patience completely with climate change deniers and do-nothing politicians.

Sunday 16 September 17:48. Finally girded up my loins and went downstairs to go out and check on the car park.

Entry lift lobby is fine – one family has taken up residence there, so I presume they have a problem with their flat, but they seem cheerful enough. Maybe they just like it down there. Lifts are out, but I can’t see why – maybe they just shut them down because the building was swaying too much.

Going outside was a challenge – wind gusts are still so strong I could barely stand against them, plus I was wading through 75mm of water ponding on the podium from relentless heavy rain, so strong wind gusts plus slippery underfoot, not a good combination. Whatever, I made it. All that gym training pays off, ya knows.

Only minor bits of flooding in the car park. Car is fine – plastered with wind-blown leaves is all, and they’ll all wash off in the rain as soon as I exit the car park. So I can drive Daughter to the train station to go to work tomorrow – not having her slogging on foot all that way through torrential rain with falling tree branches and bits of buildings, etc., and her chance of catching a taxi will be zero, so Dad’s free taxi service will be operating. I am assuming all storm signals will have been cancelled by tomorrow, but that remains to be seen (but if I had to bet money, I’d bet they will be).

All schools will stay closed tomorrow to give time to assess damage, clean up and make sure the buildings and grounds are all safe before letting the kids go back, which is a very sensible decision. I have to applaud that.

It would actually be a sensible decision to keep everything closed tomorrow, so everyone can stay home while they clean up the whole place and make sure everything is safe, the roads are all clear of fallen trees and public transport is all operating OK, but I predict they won’t do that – the business lobby would scream their heads off about lost revenue; they always do. I’m keeping notes on them – come the revolution, they’ll all be going up against the wall.

Thousands of trees are down, including a lot around our place, big mature trees. Pretty sad. Some have just snapped off at the trunk, others have been shredded, and others have been torn out by the roots.

Mangkhut will cross the coast of Guangdong pretty soon – currently hammering poor old Macau, but should cross the coast by about 7.00 pm, so it will start to lose intensity fairly fast once it does that. So, effectively, it’s pretty well all over for HK, except for a massive clean-up job.

Until the next one.

Sunday 16 September 19:20. Severe flooding reported in Macau, so it’s a repeat of what they got from Typhoon Hato last year, poor devils.

Water levels are dropping all around HK, but some low lying flood-prone areas still have bad flooding. People from those areas were evacuated yesterday before the storm hit, and accommodated in temporary shelters. No fun at all – sleeping on the floor of some Town Hall, getting awful mass-cooked food from some temporary kitchen, and then when they finally get to go home, it’s to a home wrecked by flood water which they have to try to clean up and make habitable again. Water ruins everything, and the whole place stays unbearably damp for months. Everything goes mouldy – walls, floor coverings, everything.

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Ten Days In Hangzhou And Suzhou

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December smog over a Hangzhou canal

Yesterday the Rundkvists came home from ten days in China where we’ve been visiting with relatives. We spent eight days in my wife’s home city Hangzhou (pop. 8.0 million) and one day each in the city Suzhou (160 road km away, pop. 10.7 million) and the well-preserved little canal town Zhouzhuang (150 road km away). I spent most of our stay walking and cycling around on my own or in the company of Cousin E who was also in HZ to see his parents & brother over the holidays. Check out my photo album! Here are some impressions.

  • Though I hardly saw any fellow westerners on my wanderings, HZ’s citizens have become used to seeing people like us. Hardly anyone shouted halou at me, evinced surprise at my strange looks and absurd height or wanted their pictures taken with me, compared to ten years ago.
  • HZ (but not Suzhou) is swamped with cheaply available public bikes belonging to about ten different firms. In order to use them as intended you need a local smartphone and/or bank account. I had neither, but I soon figured out that there are many serviceable bikes with damaged or incorrectly closed locks that anyone can use. Of course, I had to find the ones that let me adjust the height of the seat.
  • Gas-powered mopeds are forbidden in HZ and Suzhou. This extremely wise (draconian, dictatorial) measure has been in place for at least 20 years. Instead people ride electrical mopeds, which keeps the noise level that makes e.g. Hanoi almost intolerable down.
  • Chinese urban planners make no allowance for pedestrians who want to move through the city independently of where cars can go. There are extremely few pedestrian railway crossings. HZ’s newer residential blocks tend to be very large, gated and walled. Gatekeepers never stopped me when I entered a block, but then there was no exit through the wall in the direction I wanted to go. I lost lots of time on my walks trying to move in a straight line towards my destinations.
  • Open Street Map‘s app was extremely useful. I had my location on a detailed map of HZ at my fingertips for the first time. This app lets you download entire Chinese provinces in one go before you head out.
  • Even during these cold and drizzly days in the off-season, the tourist attractions saw healthy numbers of Chinese visitors. I read that during the season, these temple complexes, stately homes, museums, parks and formal gardens are simply packed with people. It’s strange to think that these places were largely created for a small parasitic elite of connoisseurs who made sure that common people had no access. And now that anyone can come and have a look, they show up in such numbers that commoners still can’t enjoy the sites at the time of year when they’re at their best.
  • The presentation of Chinese tourist attractions is largely garish, vulgar and commercial. Most of them are old-time Chinese Disneyland. Inside the Hanshan temple precinct in Suzhou, for instance, the oldest Buddha statue I saw is being used as decoration in the religious souvenir shop. Almost all standing buildings in these cities are recent. I don’t think I’ve seen a single structure older than 1800 in Hangzhou, though this is a special case as the town was torched by crazy millennarian Christian-inspired Taiping rebels in about 1850.
  • The celebrated vistas across HZ’s West Lake are largely obscured by air pollution.
  • Peripherally located tourist sites are far quieter and less commercial, for instance the terraced tea-growing valley of Meijiawu in the hills SW of the West Lake. Here the recently re-developed landscape park and minor religious complex of Yunqi is probably delightful on an early April morning.
  • When there is any public signage in a Western language, it is a small subset of the Chinese version, written in Chinglish (or in some cases even Engrish) by someone with a weak grasp of the language. In addition, the proofing errors often give the impression that the person who made the physical sign knows no English at all and has copied it one letter at a time. The Chinese are in fact sovereignly uninterested in whether foreigners understand these signs or perhaps laugh at the erratic and flowery word choices. The best sign I read was one in French at the entrance to the Shizi garden complex in Suzhou. Not only was it good French, it contained more information than the sign in Chinglish next to it.
  • In town, I like to avoid the tourist areas completely (which confuses my in-laws) and walk smaller, slightly run-down residential lanes and back streets. Here people hang their laundry to dry on the telephone wires next to large carps and pieces of pork curing in the polluted wind. Retirees haggle for fish and vegetables at the corner shops, and the little eateries’ staff clean dishes at an outdoor sink.
  • My greatest linguistic triumph was when I managed to explain to a restaurant owner that a cat was gnawing on the pork she had hung out to cure on a rack behind the building. Wei! Ni hao. Mao chi nimende gan rou. Nimende zhu rou. Though my vigourous pointing out back probably helped a lot. She thanked me and rushed to save her bacon.
  • A lot of the recent architecture is straight out of dystopian scifi movies: hyper-futuristic steel-and-glass skyscrapers that are lit up with digital animation after dark. We experienced a full-on colossal-scale 3D digital acid-trip at Life Plaza in SE HZ one evening, with laser-lit choreographed dancing fountains. As we left, reeling, we saw 30-story Disney characters dancing across the facades towards the river.

For more commentary on things Chinese, see Aard’s category tag for China.

Dynamic Map of Chinese Unrest

The Chinese Twitter equivalent Weibo censors searches for the names of places where there are protests (currently Shenzhen). You could write a script that searches for the main Chinese cities on Weibo and plots the ones that are censored on a map. Presto, a dynamic map of Chinese political unrest! With data supplied by the Chinese government, no less. Who will do it first?

Update same day: Daniel Becking points to the highly informative web site Blocked On Weibo. It has a wide remit. The most recent entry explains why the two characters for “pantyhose” are blocked.

Fazer Chinaman Gone, Leaves Hat

Fazer's old packaging

Fazer has removed the cartoon East Asian from one of two versions of the packaging for their chocolate-covered puffed rice. Only the conical straw hat remains, an “abbreviated motif” as Karl Hauck would have put it. Tørsleff still has the guy on their gel agent. Gabob recently published the fine boardgame Wok Star which is full of cartoon East Asians.

Tørsleff's gel agent

Thinking about these images, I’ve decided that I don’t find them racist. The old Fazer and Tørsleff cartoons are certainly outdated, since few people in East Asia wear conical straw hats or queue hair any more. The Wok Star images are up-to-date. And none of the images denigrate East Asians in my opinion. Granted, it’s hard to understand why there’s a cartoon Chinaman on the gel agent, but the chocolate has rice in it and is named “Kina”, and the boardgame is about a Chinese family restaurant.

The Wok Star boardgame

I’m thinking that when Chinese cartoonists draw friendly caricatures of their own people, then they probably look a bit like this. If we can’t allow cartoons of people with non-Europid features, then we just make them invisible in part of the public space.

What do you think, Dear Reader?

Update same evening: Dear Aard regular Christina points to an ongoing fracas in Canada where a South Asian woman depicted on a draught for new paper money was replaced by a Europid woman.

China’s Tech Is Independent Of Its Ideology

I had a brief but interesting conversation with a distinguished Chinese art historian the other day. He’s my age but has been far more successful than me despite relocating to Sweden. We were talking about science and superstition, because apparently someone had described the Swedish Skeptics that I head to him as “The Swedish Anti-Superstition Society”. Anyway, he told me this (and I paraphrase).

“I’m not sure China is going the right way now with its emphasis on Western science, technology and capitalism. Just look at the environmental degradation and rapid urbanisation. If my country hadn’t been forcefully opened to these influences by the Opium Wars, we might have chosen a way of our own.”

He didn’t make it clear just what this Chinese way might have been, other than that it would be less scientific, less technological, less capitalist, not communist, and more like imperial China. Thinking about this, I’ve concluded that he’s getting it all mixed up.

To begin with, there is no such thing as Western science. There is only one world and science is the only semi-reliable way to find out how it works, regardless of what culture you operate in. From this follows that there is no such thing as Western technology. Technology is the application of scientific knowledge to the solution of engineering problems. And so, if China hadn’t lost a war against technologically superior opponents when it did in 1860, it would have lost the next such war. No amount of imperial ceremonies or Buddhist meditation would have helped.

As for capitalism and communism, neither of them is a necessary corollary of scientific and technological advances. Imperial China could have started the scientific revolution long before the 17th century when capitalist Europeans did. But we must remember that although China’s current capitalism and its recently ended communism both led to atrocities, this was in fact a continuation of a tearful history reaching back to the dawn of recorded Chinese history. Being a majority farmer or worker in China has never so far been a pleasant way of life. So my guess is that any continuation of the imperial Chinese civilisation would have been pretty draconian too.

Scientific advances lead to improved technology. And improved technology tends to improve living conditions at the expense of a degraded environment. But the way out of this is to improve technology further, not to sit down and meditate or dream of the lo-tech past.

People Messhall Pickled Cabbage

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My wife’s from Zhejiang province, and so is this can of pickled cabbage that she bought yesterday. I like the label a lot. It’s not quite Engrish: of course, we would say “people’s mess hall”, but the Chinese characters actually denote an extremely basic canteen-like eatery. A mess hall, a canteen, maybe a refectory; very latter-day Maoist. It’s a correct translation.

I endorse the pickled cabbage of the Chun’an Qiandaohu Nongxing Food Co., Ltd.. It is by far good enough to be served not only in mess halls.

Gobi Desert Romans Are Unfounded Speculation

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I’ve written before (123) about the Kenyan village with a poorly supported and recently concocted origin myth involving Medieval Chinese sailors. Now my buddy Axel Andersson has alerted me to a similar case. But here it’s sort of the other way around: a Chinese village with a poorly supported and recently concocted origin myth involving Roman soldiers.

The village of Zhelaizhai (formerly Liqian) is in Gansu province in northern China, on the border towards Inner Mongolia and on the edge of the Gobi desert. People here tend to have an unusually Europid appearance by Chinese standards, and recent DNA analyses are reported to support such a link. No archaeological support for any Roman contacts have however been reported.

In the 1950s the eminent Oxford sinologist Homer Hasenpflug Dubs suggested that the people of Zhelaizhai might be descendants of a lost Roman legion. This unsupported conjecture from a forgotten Western academic has now entered local folklore in Gansu.

If indeed people in Zhelaizhai have a much closer genetic affinity with Europeans than others in the area, then this is to my mind unlikely to have anything to do with the discreetly undocumented arrival of any Roman legion. More likely, these people are related to the Europid, tartan-wearing Bronze Age mummies of the Tarim basin in neighbouring Xingjiang province, or with their Tocharian-speaking descendants. And the Silk Road runs nearby, offering a steady supply of amorous travellers from distant parts who were more than willing to contribute to the local gene pool.

The Roman legion hypothesis is a typical attempt of an historian to pin a specific well-documented name and date onto something that actually goes way back (frustratingly, to some) into nameless prehistory.

Failed Attempt To Use Aard For Anti-Cult Propaganda

I don’t like Falun Gong, which I regard as a crazy manipulative cult. And I don’t like the Chinese government, which I regard as a repressive capitalist dictatorship. These two organisations, in turn, hate each other. And it looks like someone in the Chinese government is trying to use me to disseminate anti-FG propaganda.

This morning I received two letters from people claiming to be FG members trying to convert me. Neither letter is very long. Both contain loudly racist statements about black people and “mix-blood”. It is a matter of public record that my wife is Chinese and that we have a child. So I guess the gamble here was that I’d be angered by the racism and publish an anti-FG screed quoting the letters.

FG’s prophet actually has made some racist statements, but they are peripheral ideas in the movement and certainly not something a FG proselytiser would shove in someone’s face when making a first contact. They’re religiously deluded, but that doesn’t mean that they’re stupid.

Not the Big Chinese Power Dam

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The rivers run almost dry in Qingtian prefecture, Zhejiang province, China, because of recently built power dams. This particular dam on a tributary of the main river was completed three years ago. The resulting lake is 100 meters deep above the drowned villages on the valley floor.

And if they didn’t build these dams? Either burn coal, build more nuclear plants or stay an undeveloped nation.
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