How To Celebrate in Hong Kong

Paper dragons being hoisted into the air on New Year's Day in Tsim Sha Tsui. (SH)

Paper dragons being hoisted into the air on New Year’s Day in Tsim Sha Tsui. (Photo: SH)

By Solaire Hauser

HONG KONG – On the Southern edge of China is a peninsula, and directly underneath it are two bigger islands that stretch out into the South China Sea. These scrapes of land make up Hong Kong, or – as it is more correctly referred to – the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR).

In an article published on, you can read more about typical Chinese as well as Western festivals and how they are celebrated in the city that is currently the global trailblazer when it comes to breaking the “The sky is the limit” barrier in architecture.

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A Wish Upon A Tree

One Woman’s Choice to Pursue Enlightenment

[A long-form article]

By Solaire Hauser

HONG KONG – Jian Jue Sik, 31, kneels before a table in a small room, her face illuminated by the sunlight streaming in through the dark wooden bars of a window in front of her. She is wrapped in a gray robe, her hands folded in prayer. A statue of a man with a long black beard towers over her. The light changes, falling on the woman’s head. Her hair is shaved, only a few millimeters of stubby wisps remain.

Jian Jue is a Buddhist nun living in the Chi Lin nunnery in Hong Kong, a recent and controversial addition to the UNESCO World Heritage site short list. Since the age of 12, Jian Jue has been trying to find her path. Now, more than a decade later, she is following in the footsteps of her mother and devoting her life to Buddhism.
The story of how she came to Chi Lin is connected to two things: one of her Buddhist masters, and a tree full of money.

A Wish Upon A Tree: Jian Jue SIK

A Buddhist nun walking along the streets of Hong Kong. (Photo credit: Evita Li)

Before Jian Jue became a nun, everyone knew her as Yee Lai Heng. At that time, she was searching for the answer to a question that had haunted her since childhood.

One day when Jian Jue was 12, her mother asked her to pluck out her gray hair.
“Mum, why do people get gray hair?” Jian Jue remembers asking.
“When people get older, they get gray hair,” her mother said.
Then they get sick, and then they die.

“I felt very sad,” says Jian Jue. And that’s when she asked the question that would change the course of her life.

So Yee Lai Heng became Jian Jue Sik, a Buddhist nun on a spiritual journey towards enlightenment and a quest to find the answer to that one simple question:

How can I find a path that doesn’t lead to eventual sickness and death?


Jian Jue’s search lasted years.

Born in Malaysia, her first job was working as a secondary school teacher in her home country in 2005. She also taught 3- to 12-year-old primary school kids math using an abacus.
“I have always liked calculating,” she says with a laugh.
She took the teaching job after quitting college, where she had studied Accounting for one year.

But even then, she felt life held something else for her. Still, her efforts to find out what it was had so far been fruitless.

Jian Jue was accompanied in her search by her mother. They went to Christian church together, in case they would find their calling there. When that didn’t work, they turned to other religions.

For Jian Jue, Buddhist temples had always contained a certain fascination. While working as a teacher, she was also volunteering at a temple.

Jian Jue still remembers the first time she went to a temple as a girl. Upon entering through the gates, the first thing she heard was the chanting of the monks.
“For some reason, I started to cry,” she remembers. “It was a feeling like going home. I felt ‘touched inside’.”
Then she smelled the incense.
“I always thought it looked easy. But it’s actually quite complicated.”
Jian Jue realized that incense burning requires determination to the task. Usually, a number of sticks are used, which have to be burnt more or less equally.

Jian Jue went to temples regularly after her first visit. She also started chanting at home almost every day.
Her decision to eventually become a volunteer was sparked by her trip to a temple for Buddhist monks.
“I felt that the temple was very dirty,” she recalls. “All the books were so dusty.”
So she offered to help keep the place clean.

Even though she went to the temple three to four times a week after school, Jian Jue hadn’t yet considered becoming a nun herself.
In 2006, her mother got in ahead of her: she told her family she wanted to become a Buddhist nun. For most of them, this choice was unexpected. Jian Jue was 24 at the time.
“I think maybe she didn’t make her thoughts about Buddhism too obvious because she didn’t want to leave her husband,” she says.

That may also be the reason her mother didn’t ask to become a nun right away. Instead, she asked her husband’s permission to live in a nunnery in Malaysia. About two months later, she told him she wanted to be ordained as a Buddhist nun.
Jian Jue’s father agreed, only demanding that she go to a temple only for women.

“I was in Indonesia at that time, in a temple,” Jian Jue recalls.
But she came home to see her mother’s ordination ceremony, as did most of her other family members. Together, they watched as a Buddhist master, also called a shifu, shaved her mother’s head and presented her with her Buddhist robes.

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Simon Chau’s Tree of Life

By Solaire Hauser

Simon Chau is currently teaching Translation at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. (Photo: Solaire Hauser)

Simon Chau at the Chinese University of Hong Kong campus. (Photo: Solaire Hauser)

HONG KONG – Simon Chau is known in Hong Kong for both his environmental work as well as his achievements in the field of translation. Being the only one out of four children to have a university education, he feels that he should use it to improve the way of living in Hong Kong.
He says that “at this very moment, I think Hong Kong is in a big crisis; economically, politically and socially.”
According to him, many well-educated people left the country about five years before the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China.
“Like abandoning a sinking ship,” he says. However, Chau and his family stayed.

He urges people to do more for their country and the preservation of its environment. Chau himself is a “green campaigner”, as he calls it, setting an example of a sustainable and healthy way of living. The roots for this engagement in environmental activities reach deeply into his childhood, while the origins for his interest in translation can be found in a rather unexpected place: the Catholic Church.

A Man of Memories

By Yan Chiu, Solaire Hauser, Evita Li, Momo Mao

HONG KONG – Light bulbs, cables and fans hang from the ceiling of a small store on the side of the street. A man sits in an old chair next to the tiny door, his wrinkled hands buried in a box of shiny silver tools.

Choi Chueng Yun, 77, has been sitting in this chair almost every day from early morning until afternoon since his retirement.

The products he sells in his store in Wan Chai are former possessions of people he has helped to move out of their apartments. Ties, housewares, memorabilia and old books tell a story about their former owners. Customers rummaging through Choi’s bookshelf might sometimes even find a dinner invitation from the 1980s between the dusty pages of a Harvard Law book.

What the products in the shop don’t tell, however, is Choi’s own story.

Born in Guangdong in China, Choi came to Hong Kong when he was only 13 years old. Those times still hold bittersweet memories for him.

“Those days were not easy, but we felt happy,” says his wife.

Working used to be an obligation for Choi. Now he does it for fun.

“I could have retired. But I’ve become attached to the old stuff, so I can’t just leave.”

Interview by: Yan Chiu, Momo Mao
Camera operators: Solaire Hauser, Evita Li
Editing by: Yan Chiu, Solaire Hauser, Evita Li, Momo Mao
Narration: Solaire Hauser
Special thanks to the Choi family.

Hong Kong Taxi Drivers Fight for More Money

Text and photos by Solaire Hauser

HONG KONG – Easily distinguishable from normal cars in most cities, taxis come in different colors. In Hong Kong their signature colors are red, blue and green, depending on which area they are serving.

Drivers of the red cars, which are also known as urban taxis, have recently been on the news due to a discussion about an increase of the taxi fare.

At the moment, most drivers earn around HK$ 300-400 on an average day. Poon Shu Keung, who has been a cab driver for 20 years, thinks that the current price is acceptable. “Not too much, not too little,” he says.

On the contrary, cab driver Chow Chi Leung says that almost half of that money needs to be spent on oil and the renting fee for the car.

What urban taxi drivers are demanding now, in order to solve this problem, is a HK$ 2-increase in the taxi fare, according to a report in The South China Morning Post. They are also asking for an additional 10 cents for every 200 meters.

There have been a number of fare increases in recent years to deal with this situation. Whether this one will be approved or turned down remains to be seen.

Unable to Hear, but not Unable to Work

By Solaire Hauser

HONG KONG – “Wai?“
That’s how people in Hong Kong answer the phone. But for a person who is deaf or hard of hearing, this simple task can prove to be a challenge.

Insufficient communication skills, lack of technical knowledge or a lower level of education are only some of the factors that play a part in determining whether a hearing impaired person will be able to find a job or not.

“Blindness will separate people from the things. But deafness will separate people from people,” says Clara Lau, deputy director of the Hong Kong Society for the Deaf. This non-governmental organization has been founded for the purpose of helping deaf or partially deaf people to find a place in society and improve their interactions with the hearing world.

It all started about 50 years ago with a group of people who felt that their needs and demands were not properly met by society. After two years, they managed to get funding from the Social Welfare Department and that’s when the Hong Kong Society for the Deaf officially came into existence.

The Society also offers speech therapy to its members. (Photo: Solaire Hauser)

Today, the organization comprises of a number of volunteers and professionals, who have made it their mission to continue the work of their organization’s founders. One of the ways in which they do that is through their Employment Service. It was started in order to tackle the problem of unemployment among the hearing impaired population.

This is not only a local phenomenon, but appears in many countries around the world. While it is difficult to find official numbers for Hong Kong, a look at the statistics of other countries helps to get an overview of the current situation: In Canada, around 38% of deaf people are unemployed, while the amounts in Indonesia or Nepal went up to 60 and 85% in 2008.

The Hong Kong Society for the Deaf tries to work against this development by providing job search assistance, sign language interpreters or IT and English classes to its members. According to Clara Lau, the main barrier in the working environment is posed by communication.
“Most of them work in settings that can communicate with simple instructions, for example catering or cleaning,” she says.

Right now, the Employment Service mainly focuses on finding those types of jobs, but for the future, Lau hopes that technology will help to broaden the field of available employment. “We believe that hearing impaired people are just like you and me,” she says. And developments like the use of computers as a tool of communication could be “one step forward” to minimizing the gap between hearing impaired workers and their colleagues.

Work, Pray, Learn: An Indonesian’s Life in Hong Kong

By Solaire Hauser

Siti Khoidah, 26, in front of Kowloon Mosque (Photo: Olivia Lau)

HONG KONG – Every Sunday, a big crowd of people in colorful robes gathers at the Kowloon Mosque and Islamic Centre located on one of Hong Kong’s most crowded streets, Nathan Road. While shoppers, restaurant-goers and general street traffic pass by, Siti Khoidah walks up the steps to the entrance of the mosque, takes off her shoes and steps inside.

Khoidah is a native Indonesian who came to Hong Kong to work as a domestic helper. Every Sunday, the 26-year-old goes to the Kowloon Mosque, to see her friends and family and to learn.
Her weekly visits at the mosque are one of the reasons she came to Hong Kong.
“I worked in Singapore before. We didn’t have a day off on Sunday.”

Latest numbers show that there were more than 150,000 domestic helpers from Indonesia in Hong Kong in February 2012, and the number keeps on rising.
For many of the domestic workers who come to Hong Kong, the possibility to go to the mosque on the last day of the week is very important. Here, they do not only get to pray and meet with fellow workers, but also have the opportunity to take part in English-language classes.

Another reason the city is so attractive for foreign workers is the salary. According to the website of the Hong Kong Labour Department, the Minimum Allowable Wage (MAW) for a Foreign Domestic Helper is HK$ 3,920 per month, as of 20 September 2012.
A study conducted by the Asian Migrant Centre in 2006 found that underpayment was the most serious problem among Indonesian migrants in Hong Kong then. Nevertheless, Khoidah says that what she gets paid for her work in Hong Kong is more than what she would earn in Indonesia.

When Khoidah first came to Hong Kong about four years ago, she worked for a Hong Kong local whom she calls Mr. Kenny. Before she became a family helper in his household, she learned Cantonese. Soon she will start working for a new employer who is from Pakistan.

Even though Khoidah says she is very happy, she does not want to stay in Hong Kong forever. When her new 2-year contract expires, she plans on going back to Indonesia and finding a husband. “I would like to live in my hometown after I get married,” she says.