A timely trivia quiz

Financial Secretary Paul Chan warns Hong Kong property buyers that the market is ‘irrationally stimulated’. The Monetary Authority, nudging interest rates up, advises that the cost of mortgages will be rising.

Let’s leave aside the case of the guy who paid HK$5 million for a parking space in Western. It was apparently some 40% bigger than a normal parking space. And he presumably needed one, and is sufficiently wealthy not to have to look at price tags for necessities – just as most of us would pick up one of Park N Shop’s new ‘noodle mugs’ if we needed a ‘noodle mug’, and not bother thinking much about the cost.

To put it in perspective, you could fit a Tesla into it. Which you can’t do with this 161-sq-ft apartment.

The noteworthy thing is the slightly-urgent tone of our officials advising citizens that loading up on debt to buy a tiny concrete box might not be a great idea just now. It takes a lot to get them to say that.

The Foreign Correspondents Club quiz last night had lots of history questions on the theme of the handover in 1997. In that spirit, here’s a couple more:

Q: Which Hong Kong official not long before the handover advised people not to buy into the property bubble, and was then attacked by those who held back and felt ‘left out’ when prices continued to balloon for a few months?

Q: Which Hong Kong official not long before the handover pointed out that housing had become unaffordable at least partly because the Chinese government had in preceding years (for reasons that were never clear) ordered the British to limit land sales – prompting the Chinese officials to go into a big Pissed Panda Tantrum Huff?

Clue: it’s the same person.

 

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MTR corporate communication case study

Problem: Hong Kong’s mass transit system has become unbearably overcrowded because of Mainland tourists and their vast amounts of luggage full of milk powder, Yakult, toothpaste, non-fake quack medicine and more milk powder.

Solution: strip out seats from some carriages to create more space for Mainlanders’ wheeled suitcases.

Problem: local residents resent the removal of their seats and having to stand on journeys, especially just to enable parasite mall-owners to hike rents for stores catering to cross-border smugglers capitalizing on corrupt Communist dictatorship forcing adulterated products on its citizens.

Solution: we have consulted government officials, and they say “Screw local people – we don’t care about them.”

Problem: front-line staff report difficulties relaying above policy to passengers.

Solution: put up signs suggesting that the seats have been removed for the benefit of unfortunates like the disabled, for whom notoriously soft-hearted local people will have sympathy…

…it might work. Worth a try.

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Surviving Tropical Cyclone Merbok

By the time the Hong Kong Observatory raised the Number 3 (Don’t Panic But Get Worried) Signal at 10.30 yesterday morning, we were experiencing occasional showers and a bit of a breeze. At times, these turned into heavier, normal-Hong Kong-summer, semi-deluges.

At around 5.30pm, the Observatory issued the Number 8 (Everyone Use Public Transport Immediately Regardless of Destination) Signal. This heralded a noticeable improvement in the weather: in my neighbourhood it was an overcast but dry and still evening, and would have been ideal for a barbecue. Later in the night, it seems to have started raining again – but in a gentle, sleep-enhancing way.

As dawn broke after 5.00am, the Observatory lowered the Number 8 and raised the Number 3 (No You’re Not Getting the Morning Off Ha Ha) Signal. The medium-drizzle turned to more of a light downpour and the wind became gustier. By the time people were getting to work, the covered but open-sided pedestrian walkways in Central were subject to the ‘horizontal driving rain’ effect that makes life in the business district so amusing during summer.

Although the weather contradicted the Observatory’s warnings, at no stage were conditions at all dangerous. At worst, sufferers of umbrella-bringing deficit disorder experienced discomfort and dampness.

Of course, this all took place on the leeside of the solid granite mountains running along Hong Kong Island, and amid tower blocks providing added protection from the elements. For all I know, people in less sheltered areas like Sai Kung were swept away to their doom, along with the fallen trees mentioned in news reports. And we salute the resourcefulness and courage of residents of outlying islands and remote villages for elbowing and otherwise finding their way home safely. And I realize that the science is so inexact that meteorologists can’t detect anything about the wind and rain until the depression is right on top of us. And I would hate to think some precious schoolkids might get soaked if the HKO civil servants didn’t issue the Red Alert every time just to be safe. And I am not miffed because the weather got worse and we still had to go to work.

 

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HK named World’s Freest Economy again!

Even by its own embarrassing standards, the Hong Kong government has rarely looked as lame and pitiful as in its attempts to justify the determined criminalization of ride-hailing apps, personified by Uber.

Perhaps Hong Kong’s officials were emboldened by Uber’s mounting reputational problems in the US, from poor treatment of its drivers to a recent sexual harassment scandal. The company’s loss of its cool and trendy innovation/tech appeal represented a perfect opportunity for our bureaucrats to give it a good kicking for willfully ‘breaking the law’ (and ‘undermining our core values’) by operating here.

But the Hong Kong public have not been so easily fooled. As not one but two South China Morning Post columns make clear, the government is simply trying to protect the speculative investments of some (well-connected) rent-seekers who hold the city’s limited number of taxi licences.

The fact that the threat to these vested interests comes from the officially hyped ‘innovation/tech Silicon Valley’ thing is a double embarrassment to the administration, which went to great lengths to establish a whole bureau to promote space-age cyber-info-blah-blah. It is a reminder of the essential principle that the Hong Kong government will favour cartels and cronies over competition and the interests of the overall population and economy. This is hardly news (see housing, supermarkets, construction supplies and dozens of other domestic markets). But in this case, the failure of governance is particularly stark.

Ride-hailing apps have become popular in Hong Kong because they meet a real social need by filling a gap in local transport options. Existing taxi services are fairly cheap but crummy and inflexible, and in practice won’t serve certain types of route.

Looking at the big picture, Hong Kong needs to embrace new approaches to how it uses scarce road space. In urban areas the streets are clogged up with illegally parked or crawling vehicles, at the expense of pedestrians and air quality. At a bare minimum the government should be pedestrianizing and pricing private cars out of the most crowded districts. Ride-hailing aps could help us use space more efficiently (essentially by better utilizing cars and reducing the need for parking space).

Looking further ahead, it will be technologically possible and practical, indeed necessary, in cities to replace single-owner cars and traditional taxis with shared self-driving electronic vehicles, operated by companies that may or may not include Uber. Under just-slightly-visionary leadership, densely developed and economically advanced Hong Kong could be pioneering this sort of change – and selling its know-how to Mainland cities, and probably to all sorts of politically correct Belt and Road markets as well.

Except it won’t because – as we approach the 20th anniversary of the handover, and the last few days of Chief Executive CY Leung – all that matters is protecting some parasites sitting on 1970s-style taxi licenses. Contrived mouth-frothing about Uber as a law-breaker just highlights the fact. And now please all rise and bow to the Chinese Communist Party for so wisely and considerately choosing such high-quality leadership for us.

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I declare the weekend open…

The week comes to an abrupt end as I am working on a grand Special Hong Kong 20th Anniversary Handover Celebration Festivities Souvenir piece for these guys.

Plus I am still slightly jet-lagged from my overseas tour. (For example… Yesterday morning I passed by a building next to the Mid-Levels Escalator and noticed a business with the website address ‘handsomefactory’. Obviously I shouldn’t have, but out of curiosity I looked it up, and found a hipster retro men’s hair stylist place offering such banalities as ‘beard trimming’ and Coconut Cool Grease Superior Pomade at HK$280 a jar. And last night, in my dreams, I was in a Japanese (Jusco-like) mega-store wrangling with an Appalachian cousin over whether we should go to watch a pretentious demonstration of a hyper-expensive ‘wet shave’ by such a trendy phony ‘gentlemen’s barber’ scissor-operative.)

More reasons to avoid long-haul travel, and indeed be thankful to be in Hong Kong for all its faults, are flooding in this morning. One of my vacation photos of Strange Products on Special Offer seems somehow appropriate to dedicate at this moment to UK Prime Minister Theresa May…

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No let-up in CY’s final days

Hong Kong had been expecting Chief Executive CY Leung to fade from the scene reasonably quietly. And sure enough, his final few weeks in office looked set to fizzle away. To pass the time, opposition lawmakers have launched a predictable-and-futile, last-minute attempt to impeach the man, who responds by maintaining with a stony face that his housing policy was a success ‘with a four-year lag’  – and lapsing back into robotic ‘Belt and Road’ slogans for kids.

But no. The action continues to the very end, as CY sends jack-booted municipal thugs to chain-saw adorable, cute, fluffy egret chicks into little bloody pieces. After several years during which intimidation and purging of localists and other dissidents has become increasingly disturbing, it seems an extreme but logical next step.

But apologists for the government claim that the fowl were merely collateral damage in the administration’s unceasing battle against the Dreaded Tree Menace. It is unfortunate, but the birds were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

CY still has three weeks to go. The squirrels in my local park this morning looked even more alarmed than usual.

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Another day closer to whenever it happens

The South China Morning Post informs us that buyers of new homes in Hong Kong are in for a rude awakening when interest rates rise and mortgage payments eat up 80% of their incomes. Elsewhere in the paper, an esteemed business columnist insists that the city’s property bubble is a long way from bursting – his logic being that serious interest-rate hikes remain years away, and the cost of mortgages is pretty much the sole factor.

It takes a lot for Hong Kong officials, with their institutional and personal interests in high housing prices, to warn consumers against buying. (They are at least concerned about the financial system, and readily urge or force banks to reduce exposure to mortgage business when the market gets too hot.) However, Financial Secretary Paul Chan is voicing alarm and actually mentioning the word ‘risk’.

He is not alone: counterparts in Canada, Australia, the Mainland and elsewhere are increasingly freaking out in their own ways about housing prices. This reminds us that this is not simply a Hong Kong phenomenon. Nor does it stop at real estate. If the SCMP’s Jake Van Der Kamp is correct, we should also expect global equities markets to stay firm. Right?

Jake disregards other variables that could particularly affect Hong Kong property and amplify locally whatever happens worldwide. These include: government land, tax and other policy, and housing as a political issue (and Beijing’s fear of local unrest); the impact of Mainland capital flight/money laundering; and the psychology of the Hong Kong herd.

Perhaps this last one struck Paul Chan – a man of humble origins and (we might infer from his icky home/family details) fearful and insecure, deep down, about his social status. He would empathize with the petite bourgeoisie currently lining up to pay HK$20,000 a square foot with 100% financing from the developer. The looks on their faces show innocents struggling to convince themselves that they know what they are doing.

The Standard, like most of Hong Kong’s tycoon-owned media, usually talks up property. But it occasionally reports investors selling at a loss, as a tragic heart-tugging human-interest story that makes a change from donkeys fed to tigers, etc. Today’s is about someone who lost HK$11 million at the Beverly Hills estate near Tai Po. (Note the per-square-foot prices for these second-hand homes, barely half the rates of the easy-financing developers’ new-build projects.)

The Beverly Hills has a reputation as a ‘graveyard’ for property investors. It is a weird development, with lots of narrow town-houses scrunched up on the hillside, like something from a Max Ernst painting. Sort of like Discovery Bay for small-statured agoraphobics who want Li Ka-shing’s mausoleum peering over their shoulder and a view of a Tolo Harbour ship-fuel dump. Judging by the number of the homes’ tiny gardens that are bursting with weeds, many of the units are long empty. It looks very much as if it might more accurately be called Gullible or Desperate Absentee Mainlander Villas.

Maybe this has nothing to do with the mainstream urban areas and new towns. All we know is that, exactly when – and how forcefully – prices move to levels that reflect the economic utility of concrete boxes will remain a mystery. Until it doesn’t.

Left: Beverly Hills, Hong Kong; Right: Max Ernst painting

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Travel broadens the mind, maybe

One of Hong Kong’s tackier tourist attractions nearly gets wiped off the map. Never mind– better luck next time.

Meanwhile… I have returned from my recent trip bursting with what may or may not be new and exciting insights.

For example, have we noticed how the Donald Trump worldview has similarities with Beijing’s? Each sees the world as hostile and lacks the capacity to accommodate alliances or partnerships. Each despises the post-war West’s liberal multilateral consensus. Each sees international affairs in crude zero-sum transactional terms (though the Chinese leadership, with its average-human attention span, works on a more strategic timescale). Each is prone to boorishness or puke-making flattery, reflecting self-delusion and self-absorption.

The difference is that the Trump/fringe-nationalist thing is a fluke, and many of those around it surely know the joke will be up some time, probably before too long. Chinese Communist Party rule, on the other hand, is institutional and monolithic, assuming a thousand-year mandate of heaven as a right. Its days are also numbered, but after it goes no-one will look back and laugh.

An outburst of commentators’ chatter invites us to believe that, following Trump’s abandonment of the Paris climate accord, Europe and others will eagerly accept and encourage China’s rise as the Planet’s Number-One Mature and Responsible Leader, as Beijing selflessly works for low-carbon free-trade rules-based globalization, and nobly takes on the role of world’s economic engine, conscience, adult, etc.

The paranoids of the Chinese Communist Party must be watching the US squandering its international reputation and influence and wondering what the catch is. While Obama was in office but otherwise engaged, China’s instinct was to make itself Asia’s regional power by semi-discreetly bullying other nations into obedience. With an idiot now in the White House, Beijing spies an opportunity and shifts to an oh-so enlightened and statesman-like approach, aiming to lure its smaller neighbours into its warm and cuddly ‘Belt and Road’ debt trap. It is cancelling its annual ‘Tremble and Obey Tributary States Conference’ to show its kindhearted sincerity.

In the long run, how will things sort themselves out? Presumably, with their subtlety gauges out of whack after trying to work out Trump, the Chinese will overreach and out-obnoxious themselves in their eagerness to fill the vacuum apparently left by the US. Beijing will find itself facing a circle of suspicious, alienated and uncooperative regional players, while the Trump freak-out-interregnum passes in the US, and more-or-less normalcy returns.

In the UK, they are about to have an election. The international media tell us that the country faces major threats. One is from mouth-frothing continental visionaries determined to punish the country for so impertinently quitting the bloated proto-post-nation-state Euro-blob. Another is online-Islamo-psychopath inadequates who are so tough and manly they can kill crowds of 12-year-old girls.

But it takes more than Eurocrats and Wahhabi-zombies to scare the plucky Brits. I was dragged to a Green Party rally in a district where the sustainable eco-types believe they have a chance of winning…

Many dozens of nice middle-class white people attended, and the mood was generally positive and calm. Maybe one in 20 households in the neighbourhood displayed ‘Vote Green’ posters, and around the same number had ‘Vote Labour’ ones…

That superficially suggests a community that wants change. The other 90% of households were being curiously reticent about their voting intentions.

As for Hong Kong, I am still catching up with the latest. I notice that someone has rumbled the truth about the city’s international schools…

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Welcome to the land of Monty Python

Taking a while to fully recover from jetlag after the grand filial piety tour – not helped by a traumatic experience mid-journey at Heathrow Airport…

I have landed from the US and met up with someone on a separate but coinciding itinerary as previously arranged – an amazing feat in itself, given the number of different airlines, departure points, terminals, and computer/terrorist horrors that could have screwed up the plan. We are about to buy bus tickets for a stay in Stonegallows, England, before resuming our respective travels.

We approach the bus company counter, staffed by a young blonde lady.

“Two open returns to Stonegallows, please.”

The young lady, apparently Swedish or Polish (ie polite, hard-working and efficient), clicks on her computer and tells us that it will be 142 pounds please, which sounds a bit pricy to those of us accustomed to CTS cross-border jaunts, but no matter. She then prints out two tickets – one for a pair of people to go, and one for a pair of people to come back.

This won’t do. We will be returning to Heathrow on different dates.

Miss Scandaslav gets a bit flustered, and (rather recklessly) seems to hint that this is somehow my fault. I take a deep breath and try to be patient. Maybe in her native language “two open returns” means “two open returns on identical dates in both directions”.

She has to phone her boss to resolve this immensely challenging problem and issue two open return tickets in which the ‘return’ bits are both actually ‘open’. And she warns that there may be an extra re-booking charge and/or a fare adjustment. I give her a vaguely menacing raised eyebrow (in honour of Roger Moore, who had died just the day before). Meanwhile, we stand aside so she can serve other customers.

After some long minutes, her boss calls back with hyper-complex instructions, and she starts clicking and tapping on her calculator and re-printing four tickets, allowing both me and my companion genuinely ‘open’ returns. She says we must pay a few pounds extra for the re-arrangement. But, before I can leap across the counter and strangle her, she announces that she must now pay us back some money. In fact, the bus company is reimbursing us around 60 pounds, which she counts out and hands over. So I calm down, and thank her.

As we leave, I am tempted to line up and make another change to the tickets – maybe get even more cash back. But we have a bus to catch.

Outside, a few minutes later, we are about to board the bus. And Miss Scandaslav runs up in a panic. She thrusts a clipboard forward and pleads with me to sign a form to acknowledge receipt of the reimbursed money.

Obviously, none of it is her fault. But whoever decides fare structures at that bus company is deranged, and trying to make the employees and customers equally so.

 

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Filial piety tour concludes

Clan nuptial and other gatherings aside, a two-week trip confirms that despite reports of their demise or implosion, the US and the UK remain world leaders in their variety of endearing or simply hellish weirdness. From the Dante-esque threat of traffic and weather every 10 minutes…

…to impala meat and other ‘new crazes’…

And then I return to this.

Quote of the journey, from a 10-year-old relative: “What does ‘self-explanatory’ mean?”

 

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