Turn of the ‘tourist’ tide?

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To Macau, to see first-hand what a 50% year-on-year fall in casino revenues looks like up-close.

While busy, the Sheung Wan ferry terminal is not at bursting point the way it often has been on Saturday mornings in the last, say, five years or so, though there are lengthy lines of Mainland package-tour inmates waiting for cheapo stand-by seats. (Whatever happened to the groups of morose-looking Korean and Japanese golf victims who used to clog up the space near the ticket counters while waiting to go to Mission Hills?) At the Macau end, the terminal is uncrowded and the lines at immigration almost non-existent. Impressionistic conclusions: ferry operators are using their smaller vessels and/or cutting sailing frequencies, and selling off spare inventory cheap; the Macau authorities have failed to plan for falling visitor numbers and are assigning too many passport-checkers.

Time spent to board a free shuttle bus for the tacky casino closest to my destination: a bare minute. A stroll the length and breadth of the vast gambling hall at the Galaxy reveals a lot of unoccupied tables, and a gloomy abandoned section roped off at the back – possibly a tenth of the total area. As the Bloomberg report puts it, this can make the casino floor “look empty and lack energy…” Inescapable conclusion: a marked drop in the number of people in the casino. This could be simply because more casinos have been opening. And it could be something to do with Chinese New Year, which distorts tourist and other behaviour. But given the gradual decline in revenues reported over many months now, it looks like a genuine contraction in the whole Macau-tourist-gambler inundation. To bolster this impression, the ‘gaming’ industry is blaming Macau’s new (unenforced) no-smoking laws – which sounds as desperate as the Hong Kong retail-landlord-vampire complex whining about the Umbrella movement damaging sales of luxury tat.

From the Galaxy, it’s a 10-minute stroll to Taipa village. This is actually a touristy spot, but after the overwhelming glitz and fakery of the extracting-cash-from-cretins casino, it seems an untouched rural idyll. As if urban planners had acquired souls, just one street on the far edge of the settlement is devoted to the Mainland tourist/shopper. Yes, it is crowded with visitors buying the compulsory almond cakes, barbecued pork and milk powder from shops festooned with flashing lights. But the rest of the village is untouched by the scourge, and left for the local kids on bikes, Japanese with selfie-sticks, arty-crafty stores and vaguely traditional restaurants. This is not humane planning, just plain market forces producing a clustering effect – one that confines the Mainland-shopper monster to a specific and relatively small space. Conclusion: Mainland-shopper numbers are peaking or have peaked (for now, anyway).

(As a public service, some restaurant recommendations appear below.)

In downtown Macau, the main Avenue de Almeida Ribeiro drag remains chock-a-block with tired huddled masses of Mainland suitcase-draggers. How many branches of Chow Tai Fook jewellery can you cram into one street? I counted seven before giving up. (It seems they specialize: one for watches, one for necklaces, one for rings, etc.) Only a fool would bother coming here except in transit, but even so the signs are slightly Stan-LocalsBattleencouraging. The Largo do Senado-St Paul’s ruins area is not at the saturation point considered normal over the last few years. And, as with Taipa village, the sprawl of brand-names and locust-goodies comes to an abrupt end once you step into many of the side-streets on the periphery. Just yards from neon-splattered showcases of tiaras, you’re plunged into some unlit, grimy, slum rodent-land last subject to civil administration back in the 1920s. Macau comes in two states: gaudy, fake, plastic crap for Mainlanders, and Third-World-with-extra-dilapidation for the locals.

Meanwhile, back in civilization, Yuen Long becomes the latest site for anti-smuggling – or basic pro-Hongkonger – protests. The pro-landlord/developer Standard reports the conflict as one between local residents who love the shoppers and radical outsider nihilist loons. While the news report is wishful thinking, the paper’s editorial hints at facts, admitting that the Mainland-shopper influx really is reaching crisis point (ie, officials notice).

Long-term, maybe Macau and Hong Kong will still be zoned as Middle-Kingdom Monaco, where the natives are to be shoved aside for money-laundering billionaire princelings and shopping malls. Right now, however, the Chinese Communist Party has other priorities. Xi Jinping’s clampdown on corruption, designed to save the one-party state’s skin, really seems to be translating into fewer gamblers and luxury shoppers in Macau. In Hong Kong, the ‘parallel traders’ phenomenon is provoking what Communist paranoids perceive as secessionism. Fingers crossed – the wretched ‘tourism’ tide may be turning in both cities.

Briefly – Google for details – I can recommend: O Lopes (Portuguese, Taipa); Dom Galo (Portuguese, Avenida Sir Anders Ljungstedt, Macau); and Lou Lan (Islamic Halal Xinjiang etc, Rua Cinco du Outubro, Macau). Also, back in Hong Kong, Oh Food (Arab, Wanchai).

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Front-page screw-ups

China Daily had a front-page linguistic lapse a few days ago. The Oscars, its headline said, CD-Oscarsrevealed a ‘gaping gap’. Personally, I don’t mind gaping gaps – it’s the non-gaping ones that confuse me.

The grim gripping gaping gap gripe was one of those curious state-media whiny things – self-pitying and ethnocentric yet implicitly Western-worshipping, all in one. A Chinese actress was supposed to walk upon a red carpet at the Oscars, but did not; also her wardrobe was stolen. The Motherland is miffed. To add insult to injury, the insensitive and Sinophobic American movie awards’ judges had ignored Mainland audiences’ most revered work of cinematic art, namely Transformers.

Despite trying desperately to avoid and ignore the intense tedium of the awards ceremony, I couldn’t help but notice the name of the winning film: Birdman. Never heard of it. From what I could briefly gather, it takes place in a theatre, a guy dressed as a bird walks around the streets, and it otherwise sounds incomprehensible.

Oddly, I had already seen another award winning movie: Boyhood. The Big Deal about this film is that it was produced in real time, over 12 years of the actors’ lives, so they actually age.

Think what could have gone wrong – the player of a key character could have been fatally run over by a bus halfway through. As it is, I’m certain the kid’s sister is replaced by a fat understudy for a few scenes in the middle, but then maybe the girl concerned had some sort of real-life temporary adolescent weight-gain trauma. Also of interest is the way the script must have been written along the way to incorporate contemporary events (Iraq, Obama 2008).

It is a long film. The first half is brilliant and includes divorcing parents and other horrors adults inadvertently inflict on helpless kids who miraculously come out of it not too messed up. The second half is an extended trip to Stroppy Teenager Land and could be skipped.

SCMP-PrivateHousingOn the subject of front pages… Many, many years ago I worked in a political/economic consulting and publishing company. One morning, Senior Editor Boss Woman stormed angrily into the office I shared with a couple of other minions. She slammed a freshly printed newsletter down on someone’s desk. “Major screw-up on page one!” she half-screamed, half-spat. Then she marched out in search of a secretary to strangle. Everyone scrutinized the newsletter line by line to find the disgraceful error. Eventually, someone found it: a misplaced comma (or it could have been an unnoticeable misspelling of some Thai minister’s multi-syllabic name).

Anyway, it gives me great pleasure to declare the weekend open by naming today’s South China Morning Post as the Major Screw-Up on Page One of the Week winner. On a riveting map showing sites in Hong Kong earmarked for residential development, the paper locates bustling Fa Peng Road, Cheung Chau in the jungle-wastelands of southern Lamma…

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Easy mistake to make, I’m sure. Could have put it on Peng Chau as well – all these tombolos look the same, don’t they?

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Comprehensively developing moderately fake theories

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The Hong Kong government’s 2015-16 Budget, we are told, creates ‘buzz’ about Financial Secretary John Tsang becoming Chief Executive in 2017. Since his fiscal policies were the Stan-34bnsame tired and aimless surplus-churning of previous years, this must be to do with style rather than substance.

Not being CY Leung, Regina Ip, Antony Leung or Arthur Li obviously helps. Specifically, he expressed in his speech some apparently sincere sympathy for the younger generation (the one that rose up against the government so magnificently late last year). And he mentioned the near-fatal knife attack exactly one year ago on his friend Ming Pao editor Kevin Lau – a crime we can reasonably trace ultimately to the Chinese Communist Party. Although Tsang may be inept, he is not mentally deranged, so we can be pretty sure he has no wish to take on the thankless and impossible CE role. We can therefore assume that his comments were a way to express remorse and beg forgiveness for being part of a puppet-despotism of an administration blindly following absurd commands from Beijing to eradicate pluralism in this city. In an attempt to disguise these heresies, he also dragged in some stuff about food trucks, which similarly had no place in a Budget speech.

To the holders of real power far away in Beijing, Hong Kong is a minor matter of local regularization and rectification. General Secretary, Chairman and President Xi Jinping has spent his first few years at the top living dangerously. We have had: rumours of a coup or assassination attempt; a two-week gap in 2012 when he disappeared; the purges of Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang and General Xu Caihou, whose true evils and depravities we will probably never know; and aggressive campaigns to ban all but authorized and ‘correct’ information, messages and ideas in the media and schools. All this while steering a distorted, debt-laden, capital-misallocating economy through reforms, demographic problems and a dysfunctional outside world.

But now – he disappoints. He insists for some reason on emulating his drab, over-cautious and unimaginative predecessors by formulating a fake ‘theory’ that will be tacked on to Marxist-Leninism and Maoism as radiant guiding philosophy. For Xi, it is the Four Comprehensives. The first reads: “Comprehensively develop a moderately prosperous society,” which sounds shocking for its lack of ambition. Surely it should be: “Comprehensively take over the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and half the Pacific, SCMP-StateMediaand moderately large bits of Siberia, Burma and Sri Lanka.”

This follows Hu Jintao’s Three Supremes, which somehow enabled the Communist Party, the people’s interests and constitutional law to be simultaneously paramount, and Jiang Zemin’s famous Three Represents, which we all remember for allowing capitalists to join the Communist Party, which by the standards of these theories was clear and logical. Coming one day: the Five In Chinese It Sounds Less Clunkys and maybe in a fit of brutal honesty, the Six We’re Making This Up As We Go Alongs.

At a historic site across the border last weekend, I checked intricate carved frames around an ancient building, only to find they were made of extruded resin. (Real antiquities were destroyed in accordance with Mao’s Four Olds.) The Ferrero Rocher chocolates are counterfeit, along with the milk powder and toothpaste. The aircraft carrier is a leftover Soviet hull with no offensive capability. The generals, mayors and department heads bought their promotions. The audience on the ‘live’ CCTV gala was filmed separately and edited into the final recording, badly. Of course you have fake theories. The whole totalitarian edifice is built on shams and make-believe. If John Tsang is emboldened enough to distance himself from our end of the travesty, maybe there’s hope yet.

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John Tsang reconsidered

While we are all snoring our asses off jumping up and down in frenzied anticipation about today’s Budget, it might be a good time to revisit Financial Secretary John Tsang.

Since assuming office in 2007, the walrus-impersonating kung fu-master has made the JohnTsangBudgcrafting of government fiscal policy into a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Every year he predicts a deficit and warns of disaster – even invoking such calamities as Greece. And every year he reports a massive surplus. He stashes the bulk of this away alongside the existing HK$1.7 trillion (or whatever) of reserves; like a squirrel storing nuts in the lead-up to winter, he has probably forgotten where half of it is now. After warning of the pointlessness of throwing money away in the form of inane handouts, usually to people who don’t need to be told and don’t need it, he throws the money away in the form of the very same inane handouts.

If he had delivered this performance once, or maybe twice in a row, the citizens who created this wealth and by rights own it would regard him as incompetent. After eight straight years, it has become a source of wonder that he goes back and does it all yet again. And when he is not repeating this annual Budget charade, he spouts the same slogans about how an aging population will ruin the government’s finances, and proposes the same idiocies like convoluted new healthcare funding systems or measures to encourage ‘Islamic banking’.

But – and this is where the ‘revisit’ thing comes in – consider the things he has not done. He has not turned a widely respected police force into a thuggish political enforcement agency dedicated to pepper-spraying pro-democracy students. He has not taken part in witch hunts against academics or launched creepy and bizarre patriotic PLA-style Army Cadet units for school kids. He has not airily insisted that nothing’s happened after newspapers have their websites hacked or personnel assaulted. The closest he ever came to creating division and hatred in the community was to align himself with coffee-drinking elites who watch French movies. In an era when we are increasingly ruled by totalitarian-leaning SCMP-Giveawaysmalevolence, we should treasure such plain and simple old-fashioned stupidity and ineptitude.

Which brings us to the latest development in the great political reform saga, which seemed so important before the Umbrella Movement stamped ‘Beside the Point’ if not ‘Dead on Arrival’ all over it late last year. The Election/Nomination Committee tasked with picking two or three Beijing-approved candidates for the 2017 Chief Executive election could be expanded from 1,200 to 1,600 with Extra Special Added Sectors for women, young people and – yes we’re getting desperate – civil servants. So an anonymous government source tells the South China Morning Post (perhaps on condition that the newspaper refers to the rubber-stamp body as ‘the electoral college’).

Adding seats to rigged bodies is the oldest and lamest trick in the Hong Kong non-democratization book. Although the Election Committee and the Legislative Council have been expanded over the years, the composition has remained in proportion – safely stacked with a smallish but dependable majority of members obedient to the Chinese Communist Party, plus another 30% or 40% who are semi-reliable shoe-shiners, and a small rump of pro-democrats for window dressing. This promises to be more of the same.

Let’s say there would be 100 new seats for ‘young people’. Typically, maybe 20 of these members would be directly elected by members of student unions – meaning most would be pro-democrats. But another 30 would be returned by (say) youth bodies from the Boy Scouts to the HK Army Cadet Red Guards, whose grown-up and pro-establishment leaders would pick suitably sensible individuals. And the remaining 50 would be chosen by other community organizations, which on closer inspection would mostly turn out to be United Front groups. The SCMP source maintains that it would be more one-man-one-vote than this, but we can be sure the net result would be the status quo: a body that delivers a result predetermined by Beijing. (Why not chuck in a Middle-Aged Private-Sector Guys’ Constituency while you’re at it?)

Why are they bothering? One possibility is that (mostly local) officials are genuinely alarmed at the prospect of pro-dem legislators vetoing the reform package and leaving Hong Kong less governable than ever. Another all-too believable possibility is that (mostly Beijing) officials are concerned that popular opinion is leaning too far in support of a veto, when the aim is to avoid even a managed form of universal suffrage as too worrying to the increasingly authoritarian Xi regime – and get the public to blame the evil pro-democrats for it. Or, of course, both.

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Seeing in Goat Year

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I spent the New Year holiday across the border suffering extreme thirst, in two ways. First CNY-CCTVwas for fluids. It occurred to me around Day 3 that the problem was a shift in diet – being stuffed with endless rounds of greasy pork dumplings, oily goose organs, spiced tofu, mystery meat in chili-flour, pig pieces with pickles, fish with chili and preserved veg, and on and on and on, all laced with massive overdoses of soy sauce and salt. Biting into a clean, pure apple was an almost-divine sensation. My water-intake/peeing rhythm is just about back in balance.

Second was for word of what was happening on Planet Earth. There is no Internet to speak of up there. Instead, all you have is CCTV galas and talent shows featuring garish grinning performers singing about how the world is learning to speak Mandarin, how fortunate we are to have an aircraft carrier, how happy everyone is, and countless other variants of the Chinese Dream, interspersed with clips of mirthful audiences applauding slightly too ecstatically at slightly inappropriate moments. You can go out and see trees wrapped in gold, and join hordes of revelers all descending on exactly the same patch of peach blossoms to have their photos taken. And you can switch to the 24-hour Guangdong Real Estate channel – a perpetual cycle of advertorials for property developments for an audience unaware that the construction stretching as far as the eye can see from Shenzhen to Dongguan to Foshan to Guangzhou might be surplus to market demand. Then switch back to the China vs USA Dance Competition, with the US represented by a couple of hopelessly uncoordinated black guys doing some sort of clownish/thuggish hip-hop routine and doomed to lose as per the script. For something really heavy, there’s a never-ending war drama in which badly made-up but noble and fearless ordinary folks ambush and defeat incompetent yet evil Japanese soldiers. And you can eat more salty, fatty food. But there are no Tweets, no Google, no ideas from beyond, apart from some above-averagely mind-numbing bits of Hong Kong’s TVB that make it past the censors.

The scary bit is that after a while – in the absence of any information to the contrary – you start to get into the swing of it. Life really is quite good compared with just a few decades ago. Most people have everything they need. The future looks bright. Maybe there are things you don’t have to concern yourself with, but you don’t know what they are, so it doesn’t matter, or even register. There is no sign of anything untoward, like a property bubble or economic imbalances or pollution or bridges with cardboard foundations. No sign of any unfairness, injustice or cruelty (apart from the vague impression that some poor wretch is being forced to watch TVB and press a button if any current affairs come on). There’s no sign of any censorship. You are seeing everything there is to see, and it’s all comforting and pleasant. You don’t even need to wonder how or where this all ends.

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Why can’t they just invent stuff that works?

Back again. It says something about the times we are living in that people assume a website going offline must mean some sort of malicious Communist/United Front fingernail-pulling Gestapo hacking attack. I am touched by expressions of concern, verging on offers of bail or legal help. But, this time at least, it was something to do with MySQL (or MYsql?), databases and similar obscure technical details. Again.

When you fly, does the airline expect you to fix the engine? That’s what WordPress or host Yahoo do (not sure who’s to blame) in this year of 2015, if you want to write something and put it on the Internet. Maybe the people who write the software are more interested in creating a system that will do amazing (if unwanted) things in theory rather than just perform basic tasks with no fuss in practice. (But not Twitter. One of the reasons I like it. It’s dependable. Twitter just works. You write, push button, and it appears – no ‘database’ to be seen. Why doesn’t some genius start up an article-size version of Twitter?)

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Shoppers’ paradise, residents’ hell

‘Vanished’ entry from Monday, Feb 16…

For a second week, Hongkongers protest against the influx of Mainland smugglers/traders by converging on a New Territories shopping mall.

I was a regular customer at this one, Shatin’s New Town Plaza, way back in its early days. It was famous for the tacky musical fountain, with water spouts swaying from side to side in rhythm, accompanied by coloured lights. It also had a wide range of local chains and independent outlets selling shoes, clothing and household and consumer items (vendors in adjacent housing estates offered really cheap basics like kitchenware, bedding and, I recall, mosquito netting). Most of all, the mall boasted a Yaohan department store, with an exotica-laden supermarket and a food court of cheap ramen places.

Nowadays, the mall is full of the exact same three or four dozen jewellery, cosmetics, fashion and milk powder brands found in every other shopping centre, reflecting the peculiar consumer monoculture of Mainlander traders. New Territories residents hate the mainland shoppers because of the intolerable overcrowding on the streets and public transport. But it might just be a little bit less unbearable if the visitors could expand their horizons and try some new products, instead of endless tons of more Yakult, more Ferrero Rocher (RIP), more Sa Sa, more Burberry, more Chow Sang Sang, and on and on. The constant mind-shredding repetition of specific brand names everywhere adds to the mental cruelty heaped upon local people.

The Word of the Day is ‘forced’. In the Standard, the police were ‘forced’ to use pepper spray and shops were ‘forced’ to close. In the South China Morning Post, police were ‘repeatedly forced’, which saves ink. Anyone reading Twitter commentary from participants yesterday would get the impression that the cops’ role was to deliberately add to the chaos (using pepper spray ‘like air freshener’ as one wit put it). Certainly, the pre-2014 HKP would have handled such gatherings without such frenzied freaking-out. Is this over-reaction calibrated to portray protesters as violent (and cops, mainlanders and shop owners as victimized)? Or have the cops just been psyched-up to appease Beijing officials demanding toughness? The Police Commissioner’s recent appointment with the nation’s Public Security Minister suggests more the latter.

According to the official pro-Beijing narrative, the authorities and public opinion defeated the forces of darkness when the Occupy/Umbrella protesters packed their tents and dispersed in December. Now, a weekly Occupy Shopping Mall manifestation pops up out of nowhere.

Are the participants demanding democracy? No, it’s a lost cause. But this goes beyond Mainland smugglers. It is about the whole tide of Mainlandization: the influx of people, the displacement of local businesses, the slide in press freedom, the use of the police force as a political tool, and things like the recently propaganda campaign against Hong Kong University, which coincided neatly with Beijing’s new ideological war on Western ideas in education. It will be interesting to see how the Hong Kong government tries to squash this one back into its bottle and – assuming it finds a way to banish people from malls – what pops up in its place.

The government has a Get Out of Jail Free Card: slash the number of Mainland shoppers allowed over the border. Administratively simple, but apparently too humiliating and politically incorrect to contemplate. So far.

On a related matter: the unattributable mutterings alleging foreign interference are now mentioning something called Code4HK. Never heard of it, but it seems to be a (not so secretive or sinister) bunch of geeks who helped out during Occupy. There’s a common thread to these behind-the-scenes accusation and insinuations: an inability to believe that young Hongkongers could do complicated grown-up things like organize supplies of bottled water or counterattack cyber-hackers without help from overseas forces. That is how remote and in denial Beijing and its local proxies and cheerleaders are.

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Impossible things to believe

The White Queen famously claimed to believe up to six impossible things before breakfast. It’s not as hard as it sounds – simply flick through the Hong Kong news…

A bunch of Hong Kong street racers are arrested over the border for speeding. The background to this is rather sad. To compensate for their limited penile dimensions and other self-perceived physical and mental shortcomings, some men own expensive and usually ugly sports cars. (There was a time when designers of such machines had a sense of aesthetics, even artistry, but no more.) In exceptionally tragic cases, the vehicle is yellow or a sort of cheesy-vomit orange. Let off with a slap on the wrist, one of the inadequates claims that they couldn’t help breaking the speed limit…

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‘…because the highway was so flat, wide and straight’.

Consider the laws of physics rewritten.

SCMP-SuspectedParWe move on to the Hong Kong government, and the latest in a recent flurry of official assurances that the authorities are taking firm action against the cross-border smugglers making life in New Territories towns unbearable. The Immigration Department is doing all sorts of things to fight the menace, like drawing up a big, tough list of suspects who might be barred from entering Hong Kong, and jailing a whole 200 perpetrators per, well, year. With so much action being taken, surely residents must be happy again now.

Officials have also noticed that exploitation and abuse of foreign workers in Hong Kong seems, if anything, to be getting worse. Consider high-profile horror stories like that of Indonesian domestic helper Erwiana and an earlier one about a maid whose employers saw fit to tie her to a chair when they went away. The solution: a press release saying migrant workers’ SCMP-AttacksOnrights are fine and dandy. And that’s another problem solved.

Wen Wei Po, a newspaper that is essentially an arm of Beijing, has recently mounted a campaign of character assassination and smears against Hong Kong University law professor Johannes Chan. Pro-democrats have reacted with their usual outrage and visible signs of trepidation (just as the Communist Party wants – mockery and a shrug would be better). Academics allege that local officials have joined behind-the-scenes pressuring to make sure Chan is not appointed Pro Vice-Chancellor. The Chief Executive’s office issues a bland statement insisting that it has done no such thing. What a relief – I would hate to think our leaders could really get involved in such heavy handed and surely counterproductive idiocy.

Now here’s a headline that catches the eye…

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‘Third-mortgage trend not a concern’. A real-estate investor claims that some 12,000 fourth mortgages have flowed into Hong Kong’s ever-rising property market. Yes fourth, as in the number 4. Others dispute this (and being a participant himself, and this report being in the Standard, there could be an agenda here). So let’s say for the sake of argument that we need only talk about third mortgages. Sounds pretty scary: people doubling or trebling up their debt with non-bank lenders, backed by whatever collateral at whatever interest rate, so their kids can get into the ever-skyrocketing can’t-lose HK$3.5-million 270-sq-ft rabbit hutch game. But it’s ‘not a concern’. Phew.

I declare the weekend open with the sixth impossible thing to believe before breakfast: that there is no sixth impossible thing.

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Infrastructure update

The Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai Bridge, which is now set to cost Hong Kong taxpayers a mere HK$87 billion, will be delayed for a further year or so. The problem is to do with laying tubes under the seabed (thanks to amazing breakthroughs by scientists in Guangdong Province, this will be the world’s first underwater bridge). Apparently, everyone assumed the bottom of the Pearl River estuary had been scraped clean, and indeed shiny, by decades of trawling. It now seems that through some freakish accident of submarine geology, the seabed has sand on it, and this means the project will take more time and – I swoon with shock on learning this – money. For reasons that non-engineers are of course too stupid to understand.

The good news is that no-one from Hong Kong has any particular need or desire to go to Zhuhai anyway; the place is just a smaller, shoddier Shenzhen – though in fairness it has some OK seafood places. The South China Morning Post says the new link will cut travel time from 3 hours to 30 minutes. They are assuming the only existing connection is by road (via the Humen Bridge). In fact, on a door-to-door basis, the trip by the new bridge will be little or no faster than on the existing ferry services. This also goes for Macau, which is too small to accommodate extra traffic, and so will be insulated from the bridge by a sort of truck-stop buffer zone. As, now I think of it, will Hong Kong be for Mainland-registered cars (unless our transport geniuses decide Central can handle thousands more vehicles). So no need to panic about the delay: the bridge is destined to be largely unused, unless theySCMP-ZhuhaiBridge move the Standard Chartered Marathon onto it.

If this were the only white-elephant snag, we might overlook it. But we have a second that’s quite similar: the high-speed rail link to a suburb of Guangzhou we can never remember the name of. Setting us all back HK$71.5 billion and rising, this mega-project is also running into unforeseen difficulties. Apparently, when contractors dug down under the ground beneath Kowloon and the New Territories, they found an extensive mass of strange grey material with little black specks. To the naked eye, it looks rather like the flesh of dragon fruit. However, to the engineers’ horror, the substance turned out to be extremely hard and therefore very difficult to dig through. Scientific analysis showed the mysterious material was a stuff called ‘rock’. Experts at the MTR are striving to overcome this astonishing and unexpected challenge as we speak.

Again, the good news is that no-one wants or needs the high-speed rail anyway. Apart from a dozen passengers per week who want to visit [insert name of that GZ suburb], the target market is people who prefer to take 10 hours to get to Beijing/Shanghai by rail rather than take a three-hour flight. In other words, only a dozen other idiots. Plus another 36.2 million Mainland shoppers. So relax: no-one will miss it.

But wait! There’s more!

Back in the mid-1990s, Hong Kong’s last governor, Chris Patten, decided that a bit of Airport Express-linked reclamation off South West Kowloon would make an ideal and badly needed park for all humble citizens to enjoy. After the 1997 handover, the new regime thought this wasteful, as only a few ice-cream concessions would make any money. Instead, the area would be a ‘tourism’ attraction, possibly with a stadium. Then someone pointed that this was also a waste, as people could make even more money if the area was zoned for luxury housing – with developers having to run an arts-hub museum on the side to make it look like something for the public good. After the public saw through this scam, officials had a big tantrum and decided that, if the community wanted to waste money, they would waste tons and tons and tons of it, so there.

The result was the West Kowloon Cultural Arts Concept Themed Mega-Hub Zone District Project as we know it – a visionary plan for a huge rectangular concrete centerpiece building, alongside a huge square concrete building, across from a huge lantern-shaped concrete building, next to a long row of medium-sized oblong concrete buildings, all linked by flat concrete with plastic palm trees and dedicated to displaying pretty pictures and hosting much-treasured and wildly popular traditional Xiqu events. Most exciting of all: the mega-zone hub complex would have a giant underground parking area that, after much effort, bureaucrats calculated could become the Solar System’s most expensive ever basement, with an ever-rising price tag leaping from HK$13 billion to HK$23 billion just for starters.

Unlike the Zhuhai Bridge and High-Speed Rail, which were whims of ‘integration’ and ‘cooperation’ with the motherland, the Cultural Mega-Arts Zone Hub Concept had to have an avowed purpose – hence the aforementioned pretty pictures and music. So they needed an exotic foreigner whose official job would be to sort out paintings and singers and things, because they know all about that. But the problem is, they keep leaving (and we’re paying them big bucks). Hong Kong eagerly awaits the next thrilling episode of this saga.

As a light relief from large-scale infrastructure trauma, along comes Civil Aviation boss Norman Lo. When no-one was looking, he added extra features to his department’s new headquarters. I’m not sure how exactly a civil servant can change architectural plans and interior layout and designs without telling (let alone asking) anyone, but apparently you can. Or at least, up to a point. Then – bless them – our much-maligned Legislative Council members find out and lay into the guy.

Zhuhai Bridge, High Speed Rail, Arts Mega-Zone Hub and now the Civil Aviation boss’s en-suite luxury bathroom, and the pink Hello Kitty toilet with hot and cold bidet functions, warm air drier, built-in rice cooker, plays a medley of hit movie themes. Norman Lo: total amateur.

Yes, you’re in the wrong business

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Smugglers are honourable, and you count for nothing

Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung says “attacking malls and creating a nuisance to society” is unacceptable. So, he’s finally going to do something about the shoppers invading Hong Kong shopping centres and breaking Mainland laws by smuggling? No – he’s talking about the protesters.

Harbour Times presents a forthright contrarian view of the Mainland-shoppers scourge. Rather than oppose the influx of cross-border traders into Tuen Mun and elsewhere, it says, we should rejoice at the money-making opportunities. Mothers who complain about shortages of milk powder are “fussy whiners,” while the shoppers are “honourable traders eking out an honest living.”

The article backs this up with paragraphs on the historical and current benefits of free trade to Hong Kong and the world. Only a Marxist would disagree with that. But the magazine misses the point. Protesters are not opposing the trading: they are against the extreme over-crowding and other nuisances making life intolerable for residents.

Harbour Times has not witnessed the scenes in border towns at first hand. We can tell because it begins a sentence: “If the MTR has a problem with overuse of their facilities…”

The suggested remedies to MTR overcrowding (if it exists): charge traders extra for using special repacking zones and for carrying over-size baggage, and create special lanes in the stations and space on trains for them to use. Good luck with implementing and enforcing all that, even assuming it would miraculously provide more space. More realistically, the article questions the government’s inevitable hang-up about using industrial buildings as outlets.

In feudal East Asia, merchants were the lowest class of society, ranked beneath gentry, soldiers, artisans and even peasant farmers. Charging more than you paid for something was considered almost immoral. Harbour Times seems to turn this upside down. People engaged in this cross-border arbitrage are so noble that everyone else must make way for them, whatever the inconvenience. This echoes the Hong Kong government’s assumption that developers’ and landlords’ interests automatically override the well-being of the rest of the community (and broader economy).

From an economic-policy viewpoint, Hong Kong’s ‘opportunity’ to make tons of lovely dough from Mainland shoppers is transitory, unsustainable and short-sighted.

It relies on an artificial distortion in the form of import and sales taxes on the other side of the border. The Chinese government could reduce levies on foreign milk powder, designer-label fashions and so on tomorrow, and the whole incentive for cross-border smuggling would vanish. It imposes growing burdens on transport, retail space, living costs and the streets that we have no hope of alleviating with extra capacity in any conceivable or reasonable time-frame. And the displacement of other economic activities is narrowing our economic base and reducing opportunities for entrepreneurs.

Indeed, many of the protesters believe the whole phenomenon is deliberately engineered to reduce Hong Kong to a giant mall offering only dead-end jobs – as a means of taming the city. Sounds like a conspiracy theory. But look at officials’ total refusal to do anything serious about Mainland smugglers (which means cutting the numbers). Look at the Chinese customs authorities’ apparent indifference to the smuggling. And look at the way officials blame the victims for complaining.

Following the success of last weekend’s Tuen Mun ‘Occupy Bus Stop’, the anti-smuggler movement squeezes past all the suitcase-draggers into Shatin on Sunday.

AntiSmusslerSHA

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