Bulkland – Review & Interview With the Director

Bulkland is a fascinating documentary video about a major city in China that I had never heard of. Odds are that you’ve never heard of Yiwu either, but you’ve bought stuff that was made there. This is the home of cheap crap – no name stuff that’s made to be sold in 99 cent stores around the world. What’s the deal with this city? Who are the people working in the makeshift factories there? Who are the people selling it? And what about the foreigners who have moved there from all over the world to try to make their fortunes? Bulkland answers these questions.

The official synopsis:

In Yiwu, the world’s largest market fills the shelves of discount chains around the world with electric Santa dolls, copies of Kate Middleton’s engagement ring and ear-wrecking vuvuzelas. Meanwhile, day labourers gather by the thousands in a human market and families have their children help make the zippers that might end up on your fake Chinese purse. But the recipe for success isn’t working anymore. China is getting more expensive to live in, and its army of migrant workers require higher wages to make ends meet.

And here’s the trailer:

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Farewell to PASM Workshop

“I had the time of my life …”


I’m very sad to report that PASM Workshop, the photography studio that I co-owned, closed for good yesterday. Of all the things that I did in my 18 years in Hong Kong, I’m proudest of my connection with this studio.

The idea was Victor Cheung’s (the tall guy in the center of the photo above), a photography studio that would also be a meeting place for the artistic community. When Victor told me the details of the idea, I practically begged him to let me be a part of it. Coincidentally, the opening party in 2009 took place on the day that I left Warner Bros.

The team has grown and shrunk over the years, nine partners at its peak. We did this more as a labor of love than with any expectation of growing rich. The studio held frequent parties, was the Hong Kong branch of Open Show, hosted classes from internationally known photographers such as Emily Soto and probably shot as many charity events as paid events.

My participation in the studio over the years meant that I got to meet so many other photographers in Hong Kong, many of whom were uncommonly generous in sharing advice and tips with me. For me it was a place to learn, a place to try new things and a personal clubhouse.

With Victor’s untimely passing earlier this year, with me no longer in Hong Kong, with the other partners also holding down full time jobs, there was just no viable way to keep the studio going any more. Yesterday was the last day of operations. Today it’s dark.  Read on to see some of my favorite photos from my PASM shoots over the years.

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Don’t Believe the Hype – Philippines Economy is Only Great For a Few

I’ve been saying this for awhile now. The economic growth that The Philippines has seen in the past few years has primarily benefited just a small percentage of the population. Now the World Bank is saying it too.

Mostly the media covers the overall GDP number, which at 6.9% last year was said to be the largest in the Asia Pacific region. And with unemployment lowered from 6.4% to 6.1%, it would seem to be all good, wouldn’t it?

The problem is that many of those employed are earning just minimum wage, which is almost insanely low.  The daily minimum wage for non-agricultural workers is 491 pesos. That’s roughly US$10.57 a day (based on today’s exchange rate). Those working in retail establishments that employ less than 15 people or manufacturing establishments employing less than 10 people or in agriculture earn just 454 pesos a day. But these numbers only apply to those working in Metro Manila.

In Davao, for example, minimum wage for non-agricultural workers is P312 per day. In Western Visayas, it’s P298.50 per day. In Bicol it’s P265 per day. Granted, the cost of living is lower outside of Metro Manila, but that wage probably isn’t going to allow a family to put a kid through college. Especially since in the Philippines poor families have an average of 5.2 children while wealthy families have an average of 1.9.

Add to those numbers the fact that roughly 25% of the country lives below the poverty line, earning under US$1.25 per day.

The World Bank issued a report titled Employment and Poverty in the Philippines. The link on the web site isn’t working for me, but they do provide some highlights of the report:

  • Pervasive poverty among those who have jobs is primarily due to low earning capacity of the poor and their limited access to regular and productive jobs.
  • Behind these are the two interrelated root causes of in-work poverty—low education of the poor, and the scarcity of productive job opportunities.  The labor market is segmented into “good” and “bad” jobs, with the poor working in the latter.  They hold jobs that are informal, temporary or casual, and low-paid.
  • Widespread informality means that the poor neither benefit from the minimum wage policy nor from employment protection legislation.
  • They do not benefit from wage growth either, because their bargaining power is weak.  “Good” jobs are so few, especially in rural areas, that even better educated workers are often forced to take unskilled jobs and work as low-paid laborers.
  • Better jobs need to be created, which can be attained from the growth of the formal and higher value added sector of the economy.

Incoming President Duterte seems focused on reducing the high crime rates, mostly through stricter penalties and seeming encouragement of vigilantism. In order to have long term success, the poor need to have alternatives to crime – the opportunity for better education and better paying jobs. Let’s hope that Duterte can make that happen as well.

Vichy Republicans

Vichy was the seat of the French government that collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. (Remember that scene at the end of Casablanca when Claude Rains pours himself a glass of water, looks at the bottle and sees the label that says Vichy Water and tosses it in the trash?)

“Vichy Republicans” is the name that Ken Burns has given to those who support Donald Trump.

… the candidate with zero experience in the much maligned but subtle art of governance; who is against lots of things, but doesn’t seem to be for anything, offering only bombastic and contradictory promises, and terrifying Orwellian statements; a person who easily lies, creating an environment where the truth doesn’t seem to matter; who has never demonstrated any interest in anyone or anything but himself and his own enrichment; who insults veterans, threatens a free press, mocks the handicapped, denigrates women, immigrants, and all Muslims; a man who took more than a day to remember to disavow a supporter who advocates white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan; an infantile, bullying man who, depending on his mood, is willing to discard old and established alliances, treaties, and longstanding relationships.

We see nurtured in his campaign an incipient proto-fascism, a nativist anti-immigrant Know Nothing-ism, a disrespect for the judiciary, the prospect of women losing authority over their own bodies, African-Americans again asked to go to the back of the line, voter suppression gleefully promoted, jingoistic saber-rattling, a total lack of historical awareness, a political paranoia that, predictably, points fingers, always making the other wrong.

Here’s the full speech:


SMS Scam in The Philippines

In Hong Kong you get unwanted phone calls from marketers on a daily basis. In the Philippines, you don’t get these kinds of nuisance calls – instead you get tons of bullshit SMS’s. Today I received 5 separate SMS’s offering me loans or credit cards, just text back all my details to some stranger and get the money. Right.

Today I received this SMS from Globe (the mobile carrier I use) warning me about the latest scam:


No, I have no idea why the first and last sentences are in English and the rest is in Tagalog. I don’t know a lot of Tagalog but I know about the scam they’re warning against because I get people attempting it almost every day. Here’s a recent example:


Basically what’s going on here is that first you receive a bullshit SMS saying that someone just sent you a P300 peso load. (Mobile phone users in the Philippines can “share” loads (pre-paid amounts for mobile usage) with family and friends.)

You should know it’s bullshit because it’s coming from a specific number. If the message was legit, it would have “Globe” or “Smart” up top instead of that phone number. And in this case, this particular scammer is so dumb that there are typos in the message.

Then a minute or so later you get another text message from the same number saying, basically, “Oh my god, I was sending a load to my aunt and I made a mistake and sent it to you instead! Please send it back to me! I’m so sorry!”

And then you, trying to be nice, send them P300 via SMS. By the way, 300 pesos is just a bit over US$6. People here are so fucking low that they find it worthwhile to try to rip people off for 6 bucks. So you send them 6 bucks and I have no idea what they do with it, if they turn around and sell it off or have some other way to cash in on it.

One reason you can do this is because here (as in many other countries) you can walk into a 7-11 and get a SIM card with no ID or paperwork and there’s no way to trace the number back to an individual or a location. Well, there is (ask Edward Snowden) but who’s going to go to all that trouble for six crappy bucks? Certainly not the mobile companies or the police.

Here’s the rest of the message from that particular idiot, along with my response to them:


Actually that response is more polite than the ones I generally send. More often than not I will reply with graphic descriptions of their mother enjoying sex with various animals. (They never reply. Can’t imagine why not.) I guess I was just in a good mood on Sunday.

I think I will never understand why in a country where religion is supposed to be an important part of everyone’s lives that there are so many scammers and rip-off artists (well, “artists” may be me being too kind again)(and so many godawfully shitty selfish drivers). The poor preying on the poor. And how’s that working out for the country?


Back From Hong Kong & Happy 95th Birthday Mom & Ramen

Saturday was my mother’s 95th birthday.


This picture was taken (gulp!) 68 years ago. It’s her with my father the day after they got engaged. She tells me that my father told her when he proposed, “I’m probably making a huge mistake.” But they remained together, for better or worse, for 44 years. On my mother’s side of the family, the men all seem to die in their 70s, the women last well into their 90s. I’m convinced my mother will outlive me.

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Trump Known By the Company He Keeps


Lots of reports of decades of association between Trump (and his father) and the Mafia are starting to surface.

National Memo mentions the book Trump: The Deals & the Downfall and says it “reads like a Who’s Who of Mafioso in the New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia Metropolitan Areas over the past 45 years.”

Daniel Cay Johnston, writing in Politico, says:

Beginning three years earlier, he’d hired mobbed-up firms to erect Trump Tower and his Trump Plaza apartment building in Manhattan, including buying ostensibly overpriced concrete from a company controlled by mafia chieftains Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno and Paul Castellano. That story eventually came out in a federal investigation, which also concluded that in a construction industry saturated with mob influence, the Trump Plaza apartment building most likely benefited from connections to racketeering.

“No other candidate for the White House this year has anything close to Trump’s record of repeated social and business dealings with mobsters, swindlers, and other crooks. Professor Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian, said the closest historical example would be President Warren G. Harding and Teapot Dome, a bribery and bid-rigging scandal in which the interior secretary went to prison. But even that has a key difference: Harding’s associates were corrupt but otherwise legitimate businessmen, not mobsters and drug dealers.”

From the public record and published accounts like that one, it’s possible to assemble a clear picture of what we do know. The picture shows that Trump’s career has benefited from a decades-long and largely successful effort to limit and deflect law enforcement investigations into his dealings with top mobsters, organized crime associates, labor fixers, corrupt union leaders, con artists and even a one-time drug trafficker whom Trump retained as the head of his personal helicopter service.

Last year Johnston asked these questions:

6. Trump Tower is not a steel girder high rise, but 58 stories of concrete.

Why did you use concrete instead of traditional steel girders?

7. Trump Tower was built by S&A Concrete, whose owners were “Fat” Tony Salerno, head of the Genovese crime family, and Paul “Big Paul” Castellano, head of the Gambinos, another well-known crime family.

If you did not know of their ownership, what does that tell voters about your management skills?

8. You later used S&A Concrete on other Manhattan buildings bearing your name.


9. In demolishing the Bonwit Teller building to make way for Trump Tower, you had no labor troubles, even though only about 15 unionists worked at the site alongside 150 Polish men, most of whom entered the country illegally, lacked hard hats, and slept on the site.

How did you manage to avoid labor troubles, like picketing and strikes, and job safety inspections while using mostly non-union labor at a union worksite — without hard hats for the Polish workers?

10. A federal judge later found you conspired to cheat both the Polish workers, who were paid less than $5 an hour cash with no benefits, and the union health and welfare fund. You testified that you did not notice the Polish workers, whom the judge noted were easy to spot because they were the only ones on the work site without hard hats.

What should voters make of your failure or inability to notice 150 men demolishing a multi-story building without hard hats?

They remain unanswered.

If one is known by the company one keeps, the company that Trump keeps includes:

Paul Manafort Jr, a reported top aide to Trump – a man once paid $900,000 to lobby Congress on behalf of Ferdinand Marcos running a business based on representing torturers and tyrants. Daily Beast reports: A 1992 report from the Center for Public Integrity listed Black, Manafort, Stone, and Kelly as one of the lobbying firms to profit the most by doing business with foreign governments that violated their people’s human rights.

Frank Amedia, Trump’s liaison for Christian policy, a man who admitted under oath that he tried to bribe a prosecutor and thinks he can stop tsunamis.

Steven Mnuchin, national finance chair, former chairman of OneWest Bank, a notoriously bad bank that helped contribute to the financial crisis in 2008. “It routinely jumped to foreclosure rather than pursue options to keep borrowers in their homes; used fabricated and “robo-signed” documents to secure the evictions; and had a particular talent for dispossessing the homes of senior citizens and people of color.”

But what else can you expect from a candidate whose campaign statements have rated as 2% true, 6% mostly true, 15% half true, 15% mostly false, 42% false and 19% “pants on fire”?

Stephen Hawking and Donald Trump

Not sure if Hawking would qualify as the World’s Smartest Man, but he ain’t stupid.

ITV’s Good Morning Britain asked the man who has widened the world’s understanding of time, space, stars, galaxies and black holes if he could explain the popular appeal of the billionaire tycoon.

Hawking, perhaps the world’s most famous living scientist and the author of one of the world’s best-selling books, replied: “I can’t. He’s a demagogue who seems to appeal to the lowest common denominator.”

When the Lights Go Out

When the lights go out – literally.

I lived through a couple of major blackouts when I was growing up in New York City, major events that affected large chunks of the Eastern seaboard. But that was, what?, two times in about 40 years.

Living in various village houses in the New Territories in Hong Kong for seven years had me hating thunderstorms. Lightning would flash somewhere in the vicinity, usually at night, and the main circuit breaker would pop in the house I was living in. I’d have to grab some shorts and flip flops, go outside in the pouring rain and flip a switch in a junction box on the side of the house. I lived in three different houses in those seven years and this happened in all of them; something about the way they did the wiring up there.

The Philippines is a different story. Power outages are common in certain parts of the country. A daily event in some provinces. In the run-up to the recent elections, the major power company (Meralco) made news by guaranteeing there would be no “brownouts” on election day (they were not successful). Electric bills are relatively expensive here (there seems to be a huge reliance on imported coal) and service levels aren’t world class.

This kind of wiring is a pretty common sight in the Philippines:

power lines

(GMA Network photo)

I decided to look up the history of Meralco.

The name is short for Manila Electric Railroad and Light Company. The company started under the Spanish in the 1890s as La Electricista. When the Americans grabbed the Philippines from Spain, a Detroit businessman took over the company and got the franchise for operating electric trams in Manila. Believe it or not, there were 52 miles of tram tracks in Manila until the system was destroyed in World War II. In 1962 the company was acquired by Eugenio Lopez Sr., also known as “the father of Philippines television.”

Marcos nationalized the company in 1972. When Lopez refused to hand over control, Marcos had one of Lopez’s sons arrested, charged with plotting Marcos’s assassination, in order to force the father to turn over the company to the government. When Marcos was run out of the country in 1986, the new government returned control of the company to Lopez.

Today Meralco is 49.6% owned by a consortium of PLDT and a Hong Kong investment company and 27% owned by San Miguel.

Anyway ….

When we moved into our house, the electric lines were run to the house from a pole about three streets away via a series of temporary wooden and aluminum poles. Our electric meter was on that pole three blocks over. My wife spent weeks running back and forth between Meralco, our village homeowners association and the village development company in order to get permanent poles erected so that we could get a light on our street and service from PLDT. That took about six months in total. You would think that these things would just naturally happen but noooooooo …..

Tonight a big thunderstorm moved into Manila. Just after 8 PM, our electricity went out. We looked out the windows and saw that houses to the east still had lights. But the streetlight in front of our house was out – and everything was dark looking due north. Luck of the draw, I suppose.

We went looking through the drawers of the house for candles and flashlights. We found half a dozen candles and a few flashlights, but most of the flashlights had dead batteries. I’d bought one of those emergency light things and my wife had put it in the closet under the stairs rather than having it plugged in and ready.

I called Meralco and was pleasantly surprised to get connected to an actual person in under 5 minutes. She gave us a reference number and told us to expect that it would take them from 2 to 4 hours to check things out.

I checked on Facebook and saw that some other areas in our village were also reporting outages. We had the candles and I grabbed my iPad to put on some music and get some reading done. So it wasn’t the darkness that I minded so much, it was the heat. No air con, no fans, windows and doors open but not much breeze despite the storm. I wondered how long it would take to really get things fixed. What if a power line had gone down? That could be hours, or even days.

We thought about sitting in the car and running the air con. Or, once we’re in the car, why not drive to some restaurant or bar where we could wait things out? But Friday night, heavy rain, I could imagine what the traffic would be like outside of our village. So we stayed put.

Around 9:45 my wife spotted a Meralco truck and just before 10:15 the power was back on. Meralco actually came through, and in a reasonable amount of time.

The one thing I realized was that we weren’t really suitably prepared for this kind of thing. I’m not running out to buy a generator – too expensive. But tomorrow we’ll be buying more batteries and candles. I’ll plug in that emergency light somewhere in the house.

You can’t take things for granted here. That’s just how it is. Be prepared. Lesson learned.