Your tax dollars at work, again

April 17th, 2014

Scandal of the Week – High-Speed-Rail-Rainstorm-Delay-Gate – gets juicy. We were intrigued to learn yesterday that the MTR’s HK$67 billion Mega-Hole-to-Shenzhen project would be delayed for a couple of years because of flooding during the extreme downpours late last March. A document has now surfaced apparently showing that the MTR realized the white elephant was going to be seriously behind schedule as early as last January.

Perhaps the other problems mentioned yesterday are in fact responsible, but the engineers were too embarrassed to admit that an unexpected golf driving range and the surprise discovery of hard, solid rock under the ground had thwarted them.

“Blame that really heavy rain,” one suggests. “After all, it swept Festival Walk away, never to be seen again.”

“Brilliant!” another replies. “If those suckers are dumb enough to spend HK$67 billion on this boondoggle, they’ll believe anything.”

And now our valiant Legislative Council members smell blood. They do have their uses, sometimes.

Meanwhile, more humiliation is coming the way of officials thanks to the latest Director of Audit’s Report.

The Highways Department’s mission to cover Hong Kong with six-lane freeways ran into some sort of goof-up with the Tsing Yi section of Route 8. OK, it’s a bit ho-hum. Only another of those ‘whoops we just flushed HK$429.5 million of taxpayers’ money down the toilet ha ha’ things. Hard to get worked up about, really; it can come out of petty cash.

Of more interest is the fiscal and policy obscenity known as the Mega Events Fund, which is guilty of ‘reckless spending without achieving its ends’. It could have done ‘reckless spending while superbly succeeding in its aims’ or ‘keeping spending well under-budget but failing miserably in its aims’, but oh no.

Its true crime is to exist in the first place. This body of civil servants is tasked with funding such excruciatingly tiresome spectacles as men in shorts running around a field chasing a ball, or a man walking round a field hitting a ball with a stick, and thereby, somehow, attracting visitors to Hong Kong, thus creating some sort of employment opportunities. As the Director of Audit confirms, the Mega Events Fiends have subsidized shysters and lied about things like the number of jobs created, for which they should indeed have their fingernails pulled out. But let’s step back a minute.

We have too many tourists in this city, and we have full employment. We do not need more visitors or more low-level jobs. Indeed, by stimulating visitor arrivals and short-term menial vacancies, the Mega Events Fund lunatics are damaging the quality of life for all of us and probably causing unnecessary disruption in the labour market. They are spending tax dollars to actively make Hong Kong a worse place. We might as well have a Dog Poo-Poo on Sidewalks Fund, to give HK$100 Park N Shop coupons to pet-owners every time their canines deposit excrement in public areas, or a Vehicle Congestion and Air Pollution Fund to give free fuel to car drivers who park illegally in crowded streets. Our lives would be better if these bureaucrats committed suicide just took the cash and burnt it.

I declare the four-day weekend open with the thought that the Director of Audit might want to find out what the entire Tourism Commission does all day long. My hunch is this delusional mass of fermenting dregs is secretly funded by Shanghai or Singapore.

Click to hear ‘Delusionalism’ by Mass of the Fermenting Dregs!

HK rejoices at giant hole delay

April 16th, 2014

Hong Kong bursts into a frenzy of applause, dance and all-purpose sing-along to celebrate the latest ‘through-train’ news: the Giant Hole to Shenzhen – the planet’s most expensive rail line in per-kilometre terms – is to be delayed.

The official explanation is that the MTR’s Mega Round Thing that drills tunnels through rock suffered serious damage from flooding during last month’s extreme rainstorm. The experts are also muttering something about ‘complicated geological features’ posing ‘unforeseeable challenges’. Malevolent, low-life cynics wonder if the downpour is being used as an excuse for technical screw-ups arising from the Pointless Infrastructure Lobby’s obsessive-compulsive haste when ramming the project through in 2009-10.

As with the Huge Bridge to Zhuhai, no-one really knows what the HK$67 billion Express Rail Link is for. We were told that it would make life easier and better by replacing the current over-ground train to central Guangzhou with an underground one to a distant suburb no-one wants to go to. When this inexplicably failed to generate widespread enthusiasm, we were offered a vision of transferring onto China’s nationwide high-speed rail network (yes – the one with the terrible crash where they tried burying the wreckage before all the bodies had been found). What used to be a long, drawn-out two-hour flight to Shanghai would miraculously become a zippy, blink-and-you-miss-it 10-hour train ride! Still, amazingly, the public failed to be impressed.

The inescapable conclusion: the thing was a scam to transfer a vast quantity of public wealth into the pockets of tycoon-linked construction interests and to expand bureaucrats’ empires. Perceptive observers also couldn’t help noticing that the Hong Kong end of the Giant Hole was in West Kowloon, a neighbourhood of which we know little and care even less. The ‘interchange’ arrangements (calculated by Professional Commons) suggested lousy connectivity – as in it’s-not-for-you – with existing rail routes:

However, the terminus is right next to a big Sun Hung Kai Property development, including Elements shopping mall.

Would someone fix things so the Hong Kong taxpayer spends an astronomical sum (it works out at over US$4,700 per inch) just to deliver Mainlanders to a tacky retail hub full of the usual overpriced garbage, merely to enrich SHKP’s owners, the Kwok family? It sounds preposterous. For that money, you could build an Elements Mall in every village in Guangdong Province. Sounds ridiculous. All parties would benefit more – a genuine win-win – if you split the planned outlay and gave half to the Kwoks in cash as a gift and reserved the other half for the public purse. If something sounds that idiotically insane, Hong Kong logic tells us, it must be true!

The money has vanished down the hole in the ground, and we will never see it again. But we can at least rejoice at the thought that the parasites of the tourism-infrastructure complex will have to sweat a bit, get by without a few million extra shoppers, and – only a matter of time – come begging for more public money.

This just in: the ‘complex geology’ was at the cross-border section beneath a protected wetland (don’t you hate it when that happens?), and a pesky golf-driving range got in the way, as did ‘busy traffic’ of all things, and – surprise out-of-the-blue shock – ‘many underground cables’. Plus, the dog ate the blueprints.

An apology on behalf of the SCMP

April 15th, 2014

South China Morning Post readers may have gained the impression in recent days that the ‘through train’ link between the Hong Kong and Shanghai stock exchanges is an earth-shattering step forward in opening up China’s capital markets, a humungous ‘Win-Win’, and a sure-fire guarantee that the US Dollar will be wiped out by the mighty Yuan any day now…

It has now come to the editors’ attention that the arrangement is in fact so absurdly small in scope as to be basically irrelevant and just plain stupid

…and the previous few days’ frenzied excitement was misplaced and indeed misleading; they are pleased to clarify this and apologize for any confusion.

Seriously: what were they thinking? Back on Friday when the news came out, anyone with half a brain could see that this was yet another non-story about a non-liberalization of an economy that has to be tightly rigged so the Chinese Communist Party elders can maintain their paranoiac grip while the kleptomaniac kids carry on pillaging. The country’s leaders probably have little or no clue about which bits of the economy could possibly be opened up without the whole thing collapsing; they’re certainly not about to find out the hard way. Yet our media join in with the stock exchange officials and politicians raving about the emperor’s latest dazzling costume.

The stock exchange and government people have their own needs and agendas. They are mostly bureaucrats, mostly appointed for their political reliability, and they run organizations insulated in their respective ways from competition; shoe-shining and not questioning things are key parts of the skill-set. The net result, as we are all so frequently and vividly reminded, is that they live in a different world with its own reality. In a parallel universe where 100 million Mainland shoppers coming to Hong Kong seems do-able, cool and no big deal, the idea that Beijing would give its common people meaningful access to offshore investment markets might not raise eyebrows.

The media should, in theory, be apart. And as today’s deluge of skepticism shows, most of the journalists are indeed capable of cutting through the BS and getting down to truth and facts. (And at length. For the lazy or just jaded, the Standard offers an incomplete but brief debunking of the ‘through-train’ phooey.) So what was going on from Friday to Monday with all the cheerleading about capital controls disappearing, the Yuan trade mega-hub blooming, tons of commissions rolling in and all the rest?

Presumably, we are talking about proprietors’ pre-emptive cringes, again. However sympathetic or restrained, an objective analysis of the ‘through-train’ announcement would obviously be at variance with the official ecstatic excitement. To be at variance is to ‘not support’ the Beijing-appointed government. The tycoon newspaper owners acquired their local news empires in order to be able to show support. The secret police are probably not monitoring every column inch of the local press’s output, but you can never be sure. So weird garbage has to appear, just in case the proprietor needs to pull a sheaf of stories out to prove his loyalty to the Vice-Premier or someone and thus, hopefully, ensure that his Mainland real estate or retail investments do not suffer any mishaps.

The problem with this is clear. Let’s say a Basic Law expert we’ve never heard of, Professor Zhang from the Liaoning Academy of Advanced Hong Kong and Macau Studies, mumbles something about how the world is flat. Our own Chief Executive CY Leung jumps up to express his gratitude to the Professor for guiding us on the correct path on this important subject. So far, so good – nothing untoward. But then what happens at, for example, the SCMP? Columnist George Chen writes about how his old friends in Shanghai always used to say the world was flat, and Enoch Yiu interviews Ronald Arculli in-depth about the complete non-curvature of our planet, and so on. The interests of readers do not come into this equation.

A rather elegant solution, perhaps, would be to have some special secret sign next to fantasy-ravings masquerading as serious news and analysis, so readers can just flick past them. A little star in the top left corner above the headline, for example. It would spare everyone time and embarrassment.

Another week begins…

April 14th, 2014

Hong Kong’s pro-democrats find themselves stuck in a game of futile theatrics during meetings with Beijing officials over non-negotiable technicalities of universal suffrage with Chinese characteristics. Whether they play along politely, act sullen, or just get themselves kicked out, they are struggling for relevance, as a drowning man fights for air.

Back home, more down-to-earth malcontents focus on concerns of their own.

Inspired by Taiwan’s Sunflower movement against growing trade links with China, younger Hong Kong skeptics take a long overdue look at the post-SARS PR extravaganza that was the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement, or CEPA. Originally, it was a lengthy but pointless list of small cuts in tariffs on things like scrap-metal exports to the Mainland. Later, officials decided to give the CEPA brand some substance by applying it also to the increase in Mainland visitors allowed into Hong Kong; more recently they seem to have downplayed the linkage as the burden of visitor-numbers has become so obvious.

For years, shoe-shiners and officials at conferences and on trade delegations have bleated about the wonders of CEPA and all the rest of the cross-border partnership/cooperation hoohah thing. Few questioned it – until now. Behold: CEPA as a waste of space, if not a rip-off. Is that the Liberal Studies critical-thinking stuff kicking in?

Up in Tin Shui Wai, panicky officials rush to put out the latest fire: Topkids, the kindergarten ousted by rising rents. This is mid-2010s Hong Kong in microcosm. It’s about the insane cut-throat fight to give your one-year-old kid any hope of survival in the modern jungle of life. A fight, needless to say, in which the financially fittest have all the advantages. It’s about real estate, kept in artificially short supply by zombie bureaucrats and subject to artificially high demand thanks to the aforementioned influx of Mainland shoppers (and Mainland parents of kindergarten-age children). And it’s about property tycoon Li Ka-shing, number-one among the Big Lychee’s cartel-running plutocracy.

Except alarm bells went off at Cheung Kong Holdings, Li’s main property conglomerate. Like most of us, billionaire-developers basically just want to be loved, and they don’t want Tin Shui Wai parents naming them in protests about livelihood issues. CKH emailed and phoned newspapers like the South China Morning Post with urgent reminders that it simply owns 28% of the Fortune REIT (the kindergarten’s ultimate landlord), which is managed by a Singaporean company.

In other words, nice Mr Li has nothing to do with the dastardly rent rise. Obviously, he doesn’t personally clear every tenancy agreement, but you can understand the sensitivity. Fortune is a spin-off of some of the Li empire’s property portfolio, and CHK’s chief executive is chairman of the Singaporean company. Which is why the SCMP started a story on it a few years ago with the words: “Fortune Real Estate Investment Trust, Li Ka-shing’s Singapore-listed property fund…”

The Standard does its bit by putting the story in the context of market forces. The problem is that this is as much a case study in market distortion. Artificial shortage of land supply + artificial (Mainland) surge in demand = ordinary residents being shafted massively. The fact that anonymous ‘market forces’ deliver the actual shafting doesn’t come into it. This is especially so if we are dealing with supply and affordability of pre-school education, which the government sees fit to regulate and subsidize on the grounds that it is increasingly an essential and a right like health or police services, rather than a luxury like a Louis Vuitton handbag.

Last, and very much least in many ways, is pro-Beijing legislator Elizabeth Quat, whose academic credentials have mystified or amused many for some time. A definitive explanation of ‘Dr’ Quat’s joke qualifications appears here.

Scroll down to page 6 of the Precedence List to see how many lawmakers style themselves ‘Dr’. Some are the real deal. Kwok Ka-ki is a medic. Kenneth Chan is an assistant professor (he lists his foreign languages as Polish, Czech, Slovenian, Hungarian and Estonian, for heaven’s sake). Lo Wai-kwok is an engineer who also sometimes gives himself the ridiculous ‘Ir’ tag. The pro-Beijing ones look the most suspect. Anne Chiang Lai-wan of Vietnam cruise ship fame, for example; Lam Tai-fai seems to be using an honorary doctorate as a real one; and the idea of ‘Dr’ Lau Wong-fat, of the Heung Yee Kuk mob up in the New Territories, really stretches credibility (reciting Estonian irregular verbs, etc).

As we can see from the fact that the government’s own protocol office panders to this pretention and vanity, there’s a real squeamishness about this. The fact that the offenders tend to be from the pro-Beijing camp says more about the superficiality of patriotic shoe-shiners than about the system that covers up for them; a pro-democrat pretending to have a DPhil would be given a break as well. Preserving frauds’ faces is quietly accepted as part of the greater make-believe hypocrisy, like dancers on CCTV grinning with joy about the klepto-corporatist Chinese Communist Party, or the guys in suits proclaiming cooperation and partnership between distant cities who couldn’t – and don’t need to – give a damn about each other.

Everyone has to pretend that if everyone pretends it’s true, it is. That’s the ethos.

Massive Yuan-globalization breakthrough du jour announced

April 11th, 2014

The weekend begins with an invitation to wet ourselves with utter delight on learning that the ‘through-train’ is going to happen, allowing Mainland and overseas investors to trade Hong Kong and Shanghai-listed equities across the border.

Back in 2007, the Hang Seng Index hit 31,000 in anticipation of a similarly named arrangement. Metaphors clashed as commentators had visions of the locomotive bringing with it a ‘wall of money’. The cash would come cascading down upon us because letting Mainlanders directly buy Hong Kong stocks would effectively give them the right to move wealth out of the country as if there were no capital controls.

Why did anyone seriously think that the Chinese government would allow such a gaping, potentially economy-wrecking, loophole? Authorities in Tianjin – the dumplings-and-seaport hub up the road from Beijing – had succumbed to the ‘press button and create instant international financial zone’ delusions suffered by Shanghai, Qianhai, etc, etc, and announced that they would have sole control of the Mainland end of the loophole. OK, so looking back it doesn’t seem much of a reason, but Tianjin had this sort of vaguely-heard-of-the-place feel about it, which gave the story a kind of credibility, and people wanted to believe in this vast rent-seeking free lunch. Needless to say, it was all ultimately BS.

This time round it’s a far more modest-sounding deal, in line with the ‘feeling the stones to cross the river and taking ages about it’ approach to liberalization that makes watching paint drying so fun. The Mainland’s small retail investors won’t be allowed to join in (probably just as well), and the cross-border trading will be subject to a quota that could be exhausted after a couple of weeks. The Hang Seng Index bounced a bit yesterday, then started off this morning falling back slightly, 31,000 remaining as distant a memory as ever. The main beneficiaries seem to have been shares in Macau casinos, which the market thinks Mainland investors will want to get their hands on – money laundering by investing in money launderers? We’re supposed to get worked up about the fact that Hong Kong people will be able to buy Mainland shares directly. Don’t all rush.

Still, it was announced by Premier Li Keqian at the Boao bore-fest in Hainan, so everyone must give him lots of face by frenziedly jumping up and down with their hands flapping wildly and eyes bulging, preferably ullulating like crazed Arab women. The South China Morning Post quotes some guy as saying this will “remove the last restrictions on the capital account” between the Mainland and Hong Kong (ie the rest of the planet). And Chief Executive CY Leung thanks the Chinese government for the initiative, as if – like face masks during SARS or 10 million shoppers a week – it’s something to be pitifully grateful for. Dance with glee we must.

The only people who aren’t acting deliriously happy are Hong Kong’s ever-miserable, sour-faced small brokers, who have to find fault with everything and fear that their slowness, inefficiency and need for kindergarten-style afternoon naps might divert the limited benefits of this small-scale free lunch to their big rivals. I declare the weekend open with the thought: how tragic.

Good name for a jazz band!

April 10th, 2014

Henry Tang and his Basement Trio are all over the papers today. The scion and failed Chief Executive candidate assumes his cheesiest grin after the courts acquit three construction professionals of involvement in the mysterious unauthorized bunker at his Kowloon Tong house. Cynics and skeptics find it hard to believe someone would build the house first, then excavate a huge subterranean chamber beneath it. Think of all those workmen dragging dirt and rock through the living room. But in fairness, everyone does it that way in London. (With permits, of course, they install “…playrooms and cinemas, bowling alleys and spas, wine cellars and gun rooms,” which – firearms apart – sounds much like the Tang cavern.)

Did some gorgeous pouting PR floozy advise Henry to choose the occasion of this exciting legal decision to submit his contribution to the public consultation on electoral arrangements for 2017? By airing his political reform proposal at this time, he would distract attention from the basement/wife’s fault scandal. Or maybe it’s the other way round, and he chose the day of the court judgment in the hope that his embarrassing views on the voting system would slip under the radar.

Henry’s suggestions are, by his own admission, conservative. He proposes a Nominating Committee based on the current Election Committee, but slightly less egregiously rigged, with corporate votes replaced by human ones. And this body would put candidates forward as a group, all endorsed by a majority of the committee members; allowing someone onto the ballot with the support of just a minority would not be ‘representative’, he reasons. (Before someone goes round and hits him, we should point out that Henry was born into great wealth and comfort, and it’s a wonder he can do his own shoelaces up.)

This ‘organizational’ or ‘collective’ nomination idea is at the extreme end of the scale, because it abandons any pretense that the process is not completely rigged. Essentially, Beijing would draw up a slate of (say) three candidates, and the rubber-stamp Nominating Committee would go through a make-believe vote to make that list the ballot; the token pro-democrats comprising a 10-20% minority of the committee would look on helplessly.

It’s the joke selection process of Leninism or North Korea, or for that matter of Hong Kong’s National People’s Congress delegates. And it’s hard to believe that Beijing will impose such a heavy-handed device on Hong Kong for 2017, for three reasons.

First, unless they found a capable and popular contender to include in the list/ballot (which they never have before) such a ridiculous system would backfire. The minority pro-dems on the Nominating Committee would denounce the entire ballot, and large numbers of Hong Kong voters would boycott the ‘universal suffrage’ election, leaving the new Chief Executive with even less legitimacy than his predecessors.

Second, the eyes of Taiwan and the rest of the world will be watching, and such a farce would invite mockery and humiliation.

Third, they can rig the system well enough without stooping to such depths.

Henry has probably agreed to put this plan forward as part of Beijing’s ever-so subtle expectations-management efforts. All part of the shoe-shining and cringing. No-one makes noblesse oblige more demeaning than Communists. The rest of us don’t realize how lucky we are to have been born into our obscure pauperism.

The great man also obliquely shares with us the benefit of his opinion of the Standard/Sing Tao’s favourite contender for 2017, former Financial Secretary Antony Leung, and of the incumbent, CY Leung, who taught Henry all he knows about rigged quasi-elections.

HK at mercy of Wuxi entertainment hub

April 9th, 2014

Readers of the on-line South China Morning Post start the day with a jolt: a big picture of entertainment mogul Allan Zeman doing an impression of the Missing Link. He accuses Hong Kong’s Legislative Council of holding the city back on the ‘entertainment front’, citing a ‘major threat’ in the form of Shanghai’s new and bigger Disneyland, and how we will ‘lose out’ to other Chinese cities. The reader wonders what the great man will do to prevent the Big Lychee’s downfall as a nightlife-entertainment-tourism-hub-zone. He proceeds to regale us with details of his investments in vast new Lan Kwai Fongs in various corrupt, Internet-censoring, food-adulterating Mainland backwaters.

It is easy to accuse the landlord-entrepreneur of selfishness, arrogance, greed and a sense of entitlement (one impertinent SCMP commenter asks how many affordable housing units he has built). But maybe that would be unfair. Zeman – like our friend Commerce Secretary Greg So and dozens of others – appears genuinely not to be of this world. Hong Kong’s upper middle class, expats, parasite singles and dog-worshippers might all live in their own infamous bubbles, but at least they get a glimpse of overcrowded, unaffordable and increasingly desperate reality from time to time, if only in the papers. The tycoons and officials inhabit a parallel universe in which trains and sidewalks packed to bursting, subdivided apartments and business-destroying rent rises are not happening.

Zeman sounds sincerely perplexed when the reporter mentions difficulties facing inhabitants of Planet Hong Kong. “People do not have their own homes so they blame Mainlanders,” he complains. He is bewildered by this irrationality: Mainlanders produce profit for landlords – how can we possibly oppose that? In short, to Zeman, we are in fact him. “The reality is we have no land,” he goes on. The wretched Disney park, the desolate HK$8 billion Kai Tak Cruise Terminal, the malls full of pap nobody here wants: they aren’t sitting on land – it’s something else.

A few pages later and we are firmly back on Planet Hong Kong. It’s Kingswood Villas up in Tin Shui Wai, where the rabbit hutches go for a third the price of those on the Island, and as a result the modestly well-off middle class can afford to send their offspring to a nice kindergarten. Except now they can’t. Topkids preschool’s rent is going up, massively. Like a neighbourhood noodle place being replaced by a scented-candles-for-retard-tourists boutique, the premises are being taken by a ‘rival’ with higher fees and an eye on the Mainland market.

If this were a movie with a stupidly corny plotline, the landlord would turn out to be part of mega-tycoon Li Ka-shing’s empire. Oh wait – the landlord is part of mega-tycoon Li Ka-shing’s empire. I don’t call this being ‘held back’ on the entertainment front.

One-party state rent asunder, sort of

April 8th, 2014

We take it for granted that Hong Kong’s pan-democrat and pro-Beijing camps will disagree on almost everything. We also expect different pro-democracy factions to bicker openly much of the time. The Standard’s ‘Mary Ma’ editorial admires the way diverse elements of the patriotic-establishment spectrum ‘unite at Beijing’s command’ while the opposition lacks a ‘central authority to rally behind’. In other words: things are so much easier with totalitarianism and the punishment of individuals who express their own ideas rather than the official line.

Anyway, a few gaps are showing in United Front City. Legislative Council President and elder statesman of the quasi-Communist DAB Tsang Yok-sing is taking issue again with Mainland Basic Law expert Rao Geping. The hitherto little-known Rao’s statement that there could be no open nomination of candidates for Chief Executive in 2017 was final, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam said last month. Although she back-tracked on this, we were left with the impression that this Rao character was some sort of big deal. But – as if giddy with his new-found fame in glamorous Hong Kong – he then starts shooting his mouth off about how Beijing should impose its own national security laws here to bridge what looks like being an interminable gap before we get around to introducing our own as required by Article 23 of the Basic Law. Tsang openly dismisses the idea as unconstitutional. Both individuals are de facto members of the Communist Party apparatus, and yet one must be wrong. (Only the ‘de facto’ bit prevents this situation from breaking the laws of Leninist nature.)

The general assumption is that Rao is essentially threatening Hong Kong. Or, more accurately, thinks he is. The truth is that a national security law is mostly a danger to the pro-Beijing camp. They paid dearly for backing the last (badly managed) attempt to pass such legislation in 2002-03, when an angry citizenry overthrew the Chief Executive for his trouble. They’re not going down that path again in a hurry. The pro-dems would rub their hands with glee at the prospect. Whoever Rao represents doesn’t understand the Big Lychee, and Tsang is more than happy to say so.

Tsang is doing the pro-Beijing camp a favour by warning off hawkish cadres demanding a tightly restricted (and counter-productive) method of universal suffrage when a mildly guided one (a pleasant surprise) will do the job. He is also doing himself a favour. He would make a brilliant Reluctant Leader, forced by popular demand to abandon his customary modesty and shoulder the responsibilities of power. (“Who, me? Aw, gee shucks” – the guy is straight out of central casting.) Alternatively, a more conventional corporate/bureaucrat/sleazebag CE candidate would benefit greatly from his endorsement.

While visible divisions within the Communist Party universe may be unusual, few will be surprised to hear that one part of the Hong Kong government doesn’t know what another is doing. The story so far… Commerce and Economic Development Secretary Greg So says that having 50 million Mainland shoppers a year is terrific tickety-boo fun, and let’s move onto 70 million and then 100 million as soon as possible. With even the mildest, nicest, kindest Hongkongers starting to think that mass-lynching of tourists is the only solution, Beijing officials start to mutter about studying the city’s tourism capacity, and Chief Executive CY Leung keeps in step by openly pondering some sort of limits to visitor numbers.

What happens next? Obviously, Greg So goes back to blathering away about how we’re still on schedule for 25 billion tourists a month starting next November. We have to make residents’ lives as unbearably horrible as possible because it’s good for economic development.

What’s going on here? Are he and his officials seething at the loss of face at being contradicted, and angrily insisting that they are still right, in an infantile attempt to make themselves feel better? Is So on the take, perhaps accepting trips to Macau in private jets and a luxury apartment in sunny Shenzhen in return for making property tycoons richer at everyone else’s expense – as our last CE might have,in theory? Or is Greg a total and utter cretin? One of those great mysteries. Meanwhile, we can but look on as he demands that you definitely can get a quart into a pint pot, and his superiors tentatively suggest that it might not be possible, or at least not entirely.


Start the week with a shoe-shine

April 7th, 2014

Today’s shoe-shining spectacular is brought to you by the South China Morning Post, in the form of a glowing profile of Leonie Ki Man-fung SBS, JP. As the mere Silver Bauhinia Star indicates, Ki is not in the Hong Kong establishment’s top drawer. If she had inherited a rent-seeking textiles fortune or a property-cartel conglomerate, or if she had been born and raised within the devout Communist untouchable caste of colonial times, she would have made Gold by now. That’s meritocracy.

She came up through the government’s anti-corruption publicity outfit and then commercial advertising in the 70s and 80s. We can guess that she became part of the pro-Beijing milieu out of neither plutocratic necessity nor ideological conviction, but as a rational decision driven by ambition; post-handover Hong Kong was going to be at least as strictly divided into insiders and outsiders as it had been pre-1997.

Thus she became boss of the tycoon-funded and still pointless Better Hong Kong Foundation, and thence predictably onto government advisory bodies and company directorships. One of these was New World Development, whose family owners backed CY Leung for Chief Executive while their peers continued to support Henry Tang – a gamble (maybe) that paid off when Beijing abandoned the billionaire-scion late in the day. So Leonie now gets made boss of the government’s embarrassingly desperate cross-sector anti-poverty partnership, the Bless Hong Kong Campaign.

To many people out there, Leonie’s is a success story; that’s certainly the way our leaders would like us to see it, and the SCMP is willing to help out. “We did it ourselves,” she says. It is certainly evidence that you make your own luck in life.

The 70s and 80s were a golden age of upward mobility in the Big Lychee. You meet plenty of successful upper-middle-class types in their 50s and 60s whose parents arrived here as penniless refugees. But is it very tactful for someone of this generation to: a) rejoice in her status as a career success and accepted member of the mid-2010s elite; and b) to essentially criticize those born in later times for (allegedly) expecting government help? At best, it’s questionable. Given the way that the post-97 economy has been deliberately tilted further in favour of tycoons and other vested interests, it could come across as offensive.

The SCMP doesn’t ask her why a Bless Hong Kong Campaign is needed, or whether monopolies, artificially high rents and the distortions caused by hordes of Mainland shoppers hold the younger generation back. Instead, they let her recite without question the usual stuff about the help Beijing has given us. (“And what, Leonie, was your amazing secret to getting ahead in life when there were no economic benefits from the Central Government?”) In their defence, the paper does get Slightly Amusing Typo of the Day Award, making civil servant Norman Chan ‘Normal’.

Weekend retreat to comfort zones announced

April 4th, 2014

Everyone declares the weekend open by retreating into their respective comfort zones.

Hong Kong’s Democratic Party lawmakers have been agonizing over whether to accept the Chinese government’s generous offer of permission to cross the border and visit their own country with a trip to Shanghai. They tried to set conditions, but the wily Reds stayed silent while an extremely loud clock ticked on hotel and flight bookings. What a quandary: refuse to go, and everyone will mock your selfish, infantile intransigence; say yes, and you’re spineless, kowtowing wimps. Long in-depth discussions and debates ensued, dragging on late into the night (probably). Finally, an oh-so elegant solution is announced: two of the six will go – and not just any two, but the two most forgettable ones. Sin what’s-his-name, and the woman with the spectacles. The Communist Party is put firmly in its place.

Founding DP member Martin Lee – accompanied by former Chief Secretary Anson Chan – carries the fight for universal suffrage to the nation’s capital. Washington DC, that is. Psychologists believe that it is good for the elderly to reminisce about the glories of the past, as it reinforces mechanisms for coping with change. This is especially important for Lee, for whom the late 80s/early 90s never ended. He was in his element in that era, touring the Western world, reveling in the adulation of Commie-hating senators, and urging them to somehow force Beijing to grant Hong Kong universal suffrage. It must do him good to re-live those heady days, when it all seemed so important.

For some reason, the US never did get around to bullying China into giving Hong Kong democracy. The Commie-hating senators could always indulge themselves, however, in a safe and nostalgic dream of their own: treating an impoverished, bankrupt-in-every-way, handout-dependent, fossilized joke throwback regime in Cuba as if it were still loading up on Soviet nukes circa 1962. Now, in 2014, an embargo that should have been stuffed and put in a museum clings to life, and we proudly present: new high-tech, updated plots to poison Castro’s beard.

Closer to home, the neighbourhood withdraws into its own cozy and comfortable little milieu: whining about newcomers. Specifically, we ponder the possibility that the district has bad karma. It was a noted vice-hub in ancient colonial times, but that was relatively harmless fun. We are talking serious past sins, even evil. And I suspect it concerns collaboration with the enemy occupiers in 1941-45. My evidence is the latest in a long series of punishments to be visited upon the community, namely a restaurant called Bo-lo’gne.

Bologne is a tiny village in northeast France; Boulogne is a Channel port in northwestern France; Bologna is the Italian renaissance city known for its spaghetti sauce. This, however, is Japanese.

There are branches of Bo-lo’gne scattered around malls in town. They are bakery-cafes, specializing in what they call Danish bread. Thousands of fashionable and beautiful people line up to buy it, partly because it is made from 180 (or something) layers, giving it a sort of stringy appearance, but mostly because it is trendy. It looks like it is probably sweet and spongy, though fear of being fashionable forbids me to try it.

Apart from cloying trendiness, in which we have been smothered for some years now, the pain Bo-lo’gne is inflicting upon the neighbourhood is essentially aesthetic. Most restaurants hire professional photographers to take pictures of their dishes, with the intriguing result that every pretentious eatery in town has identical-looking fare in its publicity shots – all meticulously glossy and posed. And they stick them discreetly in menus and advertorials. This place, on the other hand, shows you exactly what the offerings look like up close in real life. Warts and all. And they are displaying the gruesome results on a large poster on a wall, forcing schoolchildren, the elderly and others to see it.

In most fine dining establishments’ soft-focus gastro-porn, spaghetti appears exquisitely coiffed and combed into elegant curls and waves. Here, it is an unruly mess with a wart sauce, dumped on the plate by the handful, juxtaposed perversely with toast and half a kiwi fruit.

This is just the start. The innocent passer-by next sees the mutant breaded pork cutlet, which has had what appears to be a furry animal’s extremely loose bowel movement poured over it (fancy places would say ‘drizzled’). The ‘curry sauce’, as the establishment calls it, is not shiny like molten gold, but not lustrous like silk – it has the patina of PVC.

It goes from unappetizing to illness-inducing, with a second barbaric miscegenation and massacre of Indian and Western cuisine of the sort only the deviant Japanese would attempt: the grey steak in ‘curry sauce’. Possibly served on a bed of toast – it’s hard to say.

Finally – and I hardly need to say it because you just know it’s coming, it’s just so inevitable by this stage – an ice-cream cone upside-down on a slice of folded-over toast. As nature intended.

I have no idea what we have done to deserve this in our midst. As for the people who are paying money to get these items and put them in their mouths, we can only tremble at the wrath of divine judgment.