The Story of an Outsider

In 1956, a Shanghai boy moved to Hong Kong. He quickly mastered Cantonese and took Hong Kong as his city. Sixty years later, He is still proud of his perfect Cantonese. “I love to be one of those local boys. I will never be discriminated against, because I have spoken perfect Cantonese since I was four.”

But fate has made the little Shanghai boy an outsider all his life. Instead of shying away from this, he has used it as a gift.

It is not easy to define the identity of Chan Koonchung. Born in Shanghai,a Zhejiang descent, Chan has also lived in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the United States. In 2000, he moved to Beijing and decided to become a novelist writing about China. He sees his own identity as someone who writes broadly in Chinese, “I prefer to call myself a sinophone.”

After fifteen years, he is still considered an outsider and gets asked, “Are you from Singapore? Taiwan? Hong Kong?” People never think Chan is a Beijing native, and probably never will.

Long grey hair, a fitted dark suit, striped socks in black and grey. In all ways, Chan is too refined and elegant to be one of those Beijingers. But there is one thing Chan and Beijingers have in common—they talk about politics, a lot. “I need to be in Beijing. It’s a concentration of people,” Chan says. “Beijing talked about China, about politics more than any place. They are my sources.”

Tired of second-hand information about mainland China, Chan took the chance to go in person for a three-year business trip to Beijing in 1992. This allowed him to unveil China on his own; he ended up realizing how little he knew about this huge country. “Sometimes, it’s out of focus; sometimes, it’s in the focus. China is very interesting to me.”

“Interesting” is not the word. China’s magnetism to Chan is not a want but a need.

Though born in mainland China, Chan found his identity in Hong Kong. For his generation, people born in Hong Kong’s baby boom years after 1949, mainland China is often an isolated strange place, scary and too “red”. In the early 1970s, the Cultural Revolution swept China. Its stated goal was to preserve ‘true’ Communist ideology in the country by purging remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society, and to re-impose Maoist thought as the dominant ideology within the Party. The red wind blew to Hong Kong. A group of left-leaning students interpreted Maoism and justified what was happening in China.

Chan and his fellow Anti-Mao students at the University of Hong Kong chose their battle. “We knew and cared little about china. We want to go west, not north. Even though we wanted to go, we were not allowed anyway, “ he recalls. “To fight with Maoists, we had to learn about China.”

In 1976, the Cultural Revolution was over and the Maoist students were lost. It gave Chan and his fellows an illusion that they knew about China but his first trip to Beijing woke him up. “We’ve been talking about China all the time, until I really came to China, then I realized there was so much I don’t know about China,” he said. To make sense for himself what was happening, Chan began to write.

A political science fiction, The Fat Years, published in 2009, was the first book that made Chan the target of public controversy. In this book, set in the year 2013, a month has gone missing from official records. No one has any memory of it, and no one could care less—except for a small circle of friends, who will stop at nothing to get to the bottom of the sinister cheerfulness and amnesia that has possessed the Chinese nation.

Some critics regard The Far Years as a complex novel of ideas that reveals all too chillingly the machinations of the postmodern totalitarian state, and sets in sharp relief the importance of remembering the past to protect the future. Some do not.

“I had intellectuals in Beijing in mind when I wrote The Fat Years. As long as they read it, I don’t care about others.” Chan says. But the irony is that they were not able to find a copy of it, because the book angered conservatives. It was banned in the mainland. Though, the book was translated into simplified Chinese and published on line, so some of Chan’s intellectual friends did get to read it.

For the first two years, Chan received positive feedback, but some negative views came up later. “They thought I was too negative. I ignored the activists in Weibo, but I am right,” Chan says. From 2009, Weibo has played an increasingly important role in public affairs, yet since 2011 the Chinese government has put more pressure on social networks and has arrested some well-known Weibo activists. Now Weibo has lost its once energetic role in public opinion.

This time, the old Shanghai boy cannot fit in just by speaking fluent Mandarin. Actually, “fitting in” does not seem to be what he wants anymore. He wrote The Fat Years to intellectuals in Beijing for a reason.

It is a generally accepted fact that there are misunderstandings, prejudice, and a level of estrangement between people from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, largely due to historical and ideological reasons. Chan does not seem to have the ambition to change that, but he does try to contribute his perspective of China, a more passive and less appreciated one, and is not tempted by a seemingly prosperous economy, increasingly powerful international prestige or a ‘fat year’.

The book is all about the new normal after 2008, when Beijing held a successful Olympics and rest of the world got bogged down in the economic crisis. “Many Chinese shifted their mentality in that year. They would argue China is doing well and its repressive system might have merits, while the West was definitely not as attractive as it used to be,” Chan said.

Almost forty years later, Chan still picks the same battles, but this time he is in Beijing, not a student, and alone. Seeing loyalists becoming more assertive, trumpeting the achievements of the Communist Party, and watching others becoming reluctant conformists. Chan told himself he had to write about this new reality.

In The Fat Years, Chan used a classic metaphor originated from Lu Xun, a highly recognized left-wing writer in modern Chinese literature, “a good hell” and “a fake paradise”. When the social activist Xiao Xi asked the Taiwan writer Lao Chan which one he would choose. To win Xiao Xi’s heart, Lao Chen carefully and vaguely said, “If necessary, I may be willing to consider a good hell.”

In reality, Chan has no one to flatter. “I would probably choose the fake paradise. You may not find it’s fake. In good hell, it’s still hell.”


Mosque Schools in Yunnan

Twenty minutes before K960 left the Mengzi North train station, Yunnan, a young Chinese Muslim was cornered by three SWAT police at the ticket-counter. “It was like a movie,” Habiballah said. “I was scared, but I don’t even know why I should feel that way.”

In the middle of the crowd, Habiballah was asked to open his suitcase and hand in his ID card and passport. Ten minutes later, he packed up the mess on his own. “We are just doing routine inspection, ” one of the police said to him. “You know you ethnic minorities are troublesome.”

Habiballah gave him a smile, said nothing, and rushed to catch the train.

Since last September, he has been studying the Koran in Xinji Mosque in Shadian, a Muslim town in Yunnan, near the border of China and Vietnam. The class should be over in June, but as “the current situation is too critical” as his teacher said to them, the class has to be put to an end immediately. After four Uygur attacked a police checkpoint in Kaiyuan, a city thirty kilometers north to Shadian, on 26, March, all Muslim students and teachers came from other provinces were asked to go back home. The “double-cleaning” project in Yunnan has been restarted.

‘’I just want to study Islam. Why is it so difficult in my country,” he asked.

Habiballah is not the only one.

According the latest nation-wide census of population in 2010, there are 23 million Muslims in China. But in the atheist communist China, there are only ten officially recognized legal Muslim colleges, where the Chinese Communist Party controls what to teach. Most of young Muslims cannot receive proper religious education outside home. To meet that gap, many mosques are “secretly” teaching Islam and local governments sometimes turn a blind eye. The Taiji game between Muslim students and the Chinese authorities has been on for years, but recently the Taiji game has escalated into a guerrilla war.

Habiballah is a Salar, one of the 55 ethnic minority groups in China, believing in Islam. His name means someone who is loved by Allah, but the name on his ID card is Ma Jinfu, meaning a good wish to have more luck. He does not understand why Ma is his family name and finds Jinfu sound tacky.

Last July, after a graduation at the Minzu University of China, the best university designated for ethnic minorities, Habiballah was not busy finding jobs like his friends. Under the guide of an Imam in his hometown Qinghai, a northwest province between Xinjiang and Tibet, he went to study the Koran in Shadian, a small town generally regarded as the freest place for Muslims in China for the reason of atonement.

Shadian had one of the largest Muslim populations. During the Cultural Revolution, the People’s Liberation Army closed mosques and burned religious books. The conflicts led to a military attack in July 1975, leaving about 1000 Muslims dead. When the Cultural Revolution was ended, the Yunnan Communist Party Committee officially rectified their wrong doing in the incident and apologized in February 1979. To make up for the tragedy, the implementation of policies to ethnic groups and religions has been quite loose. Around this small town, there are nearly 40 mosques, filled with Muslim students from Yunnan and other parts of China.

However, changes have been quietly blowing across Shadian. Habiballah found since January many mosques started to display the national flags and new posters of the CCP were put up on the most obvious spots inside mosques.

“Anti-extremists, be united; religions should be mild and submissive” and “Religions are children; the government is Dad and Mom, to look after you, to guide you” are two slogans that Habiballah found most offensive.

“It sounds like the CCP is the master and we have to listen to it,” he said. “It can neither control the Islamic civilization, nor the 5000 years of Chinese history. What if it guides us to a wrong direction?”

Like many Muslims, Habiballah had a mixed feeling towards the CCP. He was born in a hereditary Imam family, where his Imam grandfather was killed by the PLA during the Cultural Revolution, and his Imam father, though thinking negatively about the CCP, was selected by locals to be a member of the National Committee of the Political Consultative Conference, so that he can still find opportunities to promote Islam.

“My father told me if we do not cooperate with them (the CCP), there is no way out for us,” he said. And with some of his closest Muslim friends having joined the Party, Habiballah knows well what “cooperate” and “compromise” mean.

Though he carefully maintains his subtly relationship with the CCP as a Muslim, pressure from the other side is increasing. On 29, March, Habiballah, representing the mosque he studied at, attended a speech contest, Knowing and Action Should go Hand in Hand, organized by the Honghe Prefecture Islam Committee. When the leader of the Committee, also a Muslim Party member, gave his highest score 98 to an Imam who said, “There will be no Chinese Muslims, if there is no the CCP”, Habiballah was shocked.

“I texted to that Imam, asking why he said that. He deleted my Wechat account,” he said. Disappointed as he was, Habiballah never thought a month later he would be the only student, kneeling in the mosque, reciting the Koran.

As several mosque schools nearby were closed, Habiballah and his classmates felt something was going wrong. In the morning of 22, April, without any previous warning, their teacher told them the administrator of the mosque had signed on a “double cleaning” agreement with the government days before. The class was over.

After the 2014 Kunming railway station terrorist attack, leaving 29 dead, 140 injured, the Yunnan government started a “double cleaning” project, asking Muslims from other provinces, specially Uygur, to go back home. Mosques were major targets. Advice on Strengthening Arabic Schools’ and Islamic Schools’ Management, released by Yunnan United Front Work Department and Religion Department last November, worked immediately. The two four-stores teaching building of the Shadian Mosque has been half empty, only having 300 local Muslims now. As the first mosque to sign the agreement, the Shadian Mosque was awarded to become a branch campus of Kunming Muslim College, one of the ten legal Muslim Colleges.

Smaller mosques were trying to take the pressure, but the Kaiyuan attack, just two days after criminals of the Kunming terrorist attack were executed, and rumors that some Uygur tried to passe China’s south border to join ISIS, made their efforts in vain.

When his classmates were packing, Habiballah spent his last afternoon in Xinji Mosque finishing to recite the 12th volume of the Koran.

Though Yunnan was lost, half of the students decided to follow their teacher to finish their class. “There are many mosques in Xining, Lanzhou, Lingxia……” Habiballah and his classmates are thinking about their next spot.

“I’m racing on a highway. If I stop here, I will never be as fast as now again.”

Habiballah plans to recite the whole 30 volumes of the Koran in his 24.

The Birth of New Luminescent Materials

Recent years have witnessed an enormous increase in the demand for energy as a result of industrial development and population growth. But at the same time, human beings are facing the consequence of over-exploitation of fossil fuels and global warming. At this critical time, the need for clean and sustainable energy sources is pressing.

Last year, researchers at the department of Chemistry of the University of Hong Kong successfully synthesized two new materials, Gold(III) Triphenylamine and NFBC, which can help to give out light in organic light-emitting diodes with less energy consumed.

According to Earth Policy Institute, an independent non-profit environmental organization based in Washington DC, about 19 percent of world electricity demand goes to lighting, and the carbon emissions generated by this sector equal roughly 70 percent of those produced by the global automobiles.

Professor Vivian Yam, the Chair Professor in chemistry at the HKU, and her team have been studying the synthesis of metal complexes that have light absorbing and emitting properties for years. The luminescent materials they created can be used in OLEDs, inside which there is a thin film of organic compounds that will give out light in response to an electric current.

In the world we live in, there are 112 known chemical elements, some of which are transition metal complexes, a kind of metal-containing compounds that can absorb UV-visible light. Because of their unique way of electronic arrangements, those metal complexes’ chromophores, parts of a molecule responsible for its color, can absorb certain wavelengths of light and present a light excitation state. In this way, complexes can display different colors.

Professor Yam adopted an innovative approach to create luminescent materials. “Unlike the conventional approach of performing chemical modification on the molecules, we use supramolecular control and assembly to tune the spectroscopic, excited state and structural properties of molecular materials,” she said.

The Process of Getting a Desired Complex

Researchers first followed the design of a rational synthetic route that included the raw materials and steps of reactions to obtain a desired complex. To conduct the reaction in a moisture-free and air-free condition, they heated the solution containing the desired product with an attached condenser to prevent reagents from escaping. The crude product was then dissolved in an organic solvent to separate the desired complex from other soluble impurities. Under a reduced pressure and increasing heating condition, the solvent was removed by evaporation, and after being re-crystallized the final product was obtained.

To identify the structure of the product, a test tube containing the desired compound was placed inside a brush pot-like machine, which was actually a strong external magnetic field. The machine was connected to a computer that showed a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrum of the compound. Through the spectrum, researchers could tell the structure of molecules by analyzing the resonant frequency of the nucleus.

Measurement for Luminescent Properties

After knowing the structure of the compound, researchers have to text them in different solutions to measure their luminescent properties.

“To perform chemical reaction does not mean that mix two reactants, a reaction must occur. From the color changes, you may sense whether or not the reaction has proceeded to completion or has been over-reacted, “ Yam said. “Chemistry research relies very much on your ability to observe the changes. ”

To begin with, liquid nitrogen was used to remove oxygen, as it often quenched phosphorescence produced by the compound. Then the same compounds they synthesized previously were dissolved in different solutions. Researchers used UV flashlight to shed light on the test tubes to make the liquid absorb it and give out phosphorescence, a property of being luminous after being exposed to light or radiation.

“It is the extent of the interaction between molecules of the compound we designed and the compounds in solutions during a non-covalent metal-metal reaction that gives rise to drastic colors and luminescence changes,“ Yam said.

Compared with other chemical compounds, organic compounds that incorporate carbon-metal bonds are often believed to have great potential in light-emitting area. Professor Kenneth Lo, studying the utilization of luminescent transition metal complexes as biomolecular probes and bioimaging reagents, at the City University of Hong Kong, said, “Many organometallic compounds can be used as luminescent materials, as they are stable, contain more color dyes and show intense emission with long emission lifetime.”

Applications in Energy Saving

The discovery of novel luminescent metal-based materials with controllable absorption and emission colors and the structure of their molecules can not only help to develop high efficient lighting devices like OLEDs, but can be used to improve new classes of solar-energy storage materials and luminescence sensors for biomedical applications.

Professor Lo, who worked under the supervision of Professor Yam for his PHD degree in 1990s, had successfully used luminescent mental complexes to diagnose and cure diseases. ”Luminescent transition metal complexes are attractive candidates to probe biomolecules and image live cells and animals,” he said.

With 28 patents in a decade, Professor Yam said her research was in the upstream stage. So far, they have not participated in specific products’ development. More applications of new luminescent mental complexes are waiting to be discovered.

Is Dr. Google Trustworthy?

How many times have you Googled your symptoms? According to a 2011 Pew report, looking for health information was the most popular online activity. But is Doctor Google trustworthy?

“Current search engines are doing a good job in answering clearly formulated medical queries,” Guido Zuccon, who studies information retrieval at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia, said to Discover Magazine.

However, due to a lack of medical knowledge, people often put inaccurate start terms that often lead to inaccurate information and make them needlessly anxious about diseases they don’t have.

In an earlier study, researchers at Microsoft and UC Berkeley had shown pictures and YouTube videos of 8 medical conditions to subjects then asked them what search terms they would  use to describe the symptoms. Zuccon and his team put those terms into both Google and Bing and looked at the top 10 results. Another group of people evaluated how helpful each website  was.

On average, only 4 or 5 of the top 10 results were helpful and only about 3 of there were “highly useful for self-diagnosis”. Zuccon said he and other researchers are developing search technologies that will return better and easier-to-understand results for medical searches.

Next time you visit Dr. Google, remember the results you get are very much determined by the terms you put.


Can neuroscientists learn from psychiatric patients?

Australian author Anthony Stratford and his colleagues said in a provocative paper published in The Psychiatric Quarterly that neuroscientists who research mental health problems should listen to the views of people who have experienced those conditions.

He said, “Traditionally, mental health consumer [i.e. patient] involvement in research activities has largely been as “subjects”… the passive recipients of research activity… This approach does little to engage consumers.”

A blogger in Discover Magazine doubted the idea. The author called Neuroskeptic happens to be a neuroscientist who had experienced  mental illness himself. “I’m not sure that my lived experience of mental illness does give me a special insight into it. I’m skeptical of the idea that experience of something automatically grants understanding of it. Experience provides knowledge but this is not the same thing,” he said.

The disappearing Honeybees

In America, an increasing number of bees mysteriously left their hives in summer. According to results from an annual survey of roughly 6,100 beekeepers released by the Bee Informed Partnership, summer bees’ losses reached 27.4 percent, exceeding winter losses that came in at 23.7 percent.

Though entomologists are not sure what causes bees to abandon their home, Discover Magazine relates the loss to a study blaming a widely used class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. Researchers exposed 12 of 18 bee colonies to neonicotinoid pesticides, and left another six untreated as a control. By spring, 50 percent of the treated colonies disappeared and the rest showed symptoms of a parasite infection, while five of the controlled group remained stable, only one disappeared.


Using Mouths to Zoom In and Zoom Out

We know that bats navigate and search for food by listening to how the sound waves they make bounce back. They can adjust the length and rate of their sound pulses to gather exactly the information they need about their environments. Recently, Discover Magazine revealed another cool sensory system of bats. They can adjust the width of their mouths to zoom in and zoom out.

Dr. Yossi Yovel and his colleagues at Tel Aviv University in Israel observed bats coming to a small desert pond for a drink of water. On their approach to the pond, bats had to fly through a confined space before entering a more open one.

By using cameras and ultrasonic microphones, researchers found that as bats flew through a confined space, they used a focused, narrow beam of sound. When they entered a big, open space, they used a wide beam to zoom back out. The bats made the adjustment by changing the width of their mouths.