Hemlock's Diary
The ravings of Hong Kong's most obnoxious expat

26 December 2004-1 January 2005

Sun 26 Dec
Unlike most people, I wake early and feeling wonderful.  There were nine guests crammed into Odell’s 250 square foot living room for Christmas dinner yesterday.  Several of them were unknown to me and confirmed my dislike of ‘meeting interesting new people’.  One was an unfathomable Brit called Brian with a shaved head and a grating cockney accent.  “Snot like ome ear izzit, know wot I main?  Nuffink like the same atmosphere.  I mean – between you an me like – I wuz expecting turkey or sumfing, know wot I main?”  Odell’s Thai wife Mee had prepared seafood soup, vegetable spring rolls and chicken curry.  Brian’s plump girlfriend was less excruciating to hear, but even more tiresome to listen to.  She didn’t like the peas in the curry.  They’re baby eggplants, I told her.  She didn’t know what soup ingredients to eat and what not to eat.  I patiently explained the dish’s composition – chillies, ginger, lime leaf, lemongrass (don’t eat), and mushrooms, prawns, coriander and broth (do eat). 

Odell was bemused, partly because I was giving him a Christmas present for the first time ever, and partly because it was men’s skin moisturizer.  He gave me a CD of The Eagles’
Greatest Hits, almost as if he knew I was going to give him something gooey, useless and unwanted, and was determined to reciprocate.  By late afternoon, when everyone except me was drunkenly and loudly addressing the person farthest away in the room from them, my genius for lateral thinking came to the fore and I realized that there was no law requiring my presence.  I boldly announced a promise to the Po Leung Kuk orphanage to act as Santa Claus at their party and left.  After strolling around a cool and quiet Central for a while, I ended up in the pub at Lan Kwai Fong.  The bars were empty, but the street was packed.  Half the people were Mainland tourists, with their curiously outdated hairstyles and nylon clothes, staring at the decorations with their ruddy, peasant faces.  The other half were servicemen from the visiting USS Lincoln carrier group – vast white and black men joyously drinking Budweiser and awkwardly smoking cigars.  Both groups were taking photos of the other, presumably in the belief that they were capturing glimpses of typical Hong Kong residents.
Mon, 27 Dec
Could Executive Council member and prince of darkness
CY Leung be among the 12,000-plus reported victims of the tsunami that swept from Sumatra across the Indian Ocean yesterday?  The half-Rumanian Chief Executive hopeful was holidaying in the Maldives – one of the most overpriced and over-rated destinations on the planet – presumably in an exclusive resort on an outlying atoll with a maximum elevation of six inches above sea level.  Democratic Party boss Lee Wing-tat was in tatty Phuket, and being of more modest means than Leung was probably staying inland rather than on the beach.  And, to tell the brutal truth, the Democrats have no shortage of uncharismatic, forgettable men in spectacles to replace him with should the billion-ton wall of water have carried him away to his doom. 

The Hong Kong Observatory says ‘it can’t happen here’, as we are protected by Taiwan and the Philippines.  I might give them a call and remind them that these two places have tectonic plates grinding away beneath them, and a submarine upheaval off their coasts could give us an hour or so before a giant wave pulverised Shek O, Stanley, Repulse Bay, Aberdeen, Cyberport and other places of which we in Central know or care relatively little.  Still, we must look for silver linings.  What I do know about Hong Kong Island’s south side is that many people pay very high rentals to live there.  If they were left homeless by a tsunami, I could probably charge a small family HK$10,000 a night to stay in a spare room here in Perpetual Opulence Mansions.  And the vast toilet known as 129 Repulse Bay Rd might be flattened.  And CY Leung, should he return to the Big Lychee unscathed, might be in the vicinity – giving the mighty, unyielding forces of nature another go at him.
Tue, 28 Dec
The death toll from the Sumatra Tsunami, or whatever it will come to be known as, surpasses 23,000.  A third of the victims are children, but all Hong Kong politicians in the affected areas are unharmed.  How cruel can nature be!  With so much grief, it is easy to overlook a minor tragedy that has taken place closer to home – the undoing of all the hard work the
South China Morning Post has put into shining tycoon Li Ka-shing’s shoes for the last year or so.  Ever since the newspaper caused displeasure by pointing out that the 3G telephones introduced by Li’s Hutchison were useless junk, it has gone to great lengths to make amends with Asia’s richest man, who owns some of Hong Kong’s biggest advertisers.  Why, only four weeks ago, the DHL/SCMP Business Awards honoured Li’s Tom Group.  Now, just as relations with the tycoon were getting cozy again, Li’s Hongkong Electric has issued a writ against Jake van der Kamp.  In an article two weeks ago about HKE’s application to raise charges by 6.5 percent, the scurrilous columnist reminded readers of the ‘scheme of control’ that regulates our power monopolies’ pricing…
…this scheme limits [their] earnings to 13.5 per cent of their investment in fixed assets.  However, the scheme does not distinguish between different sorts of fixed assets…  Different fixed assets have different amortisation periods but investment in any of them is allowed the same 13.5 per cent return.

Think about this. If you have an asset with a useful life of only four years, you have a losing asset under this scheme. Every year you must write down 25 per cent of its cost in amortisation but you can recoup only 13.5 per cent of that cost from what you charge customers. Best with an asset like that to buy the cheapest one you can find on the market. At least you limit your loss a little this way.

But now think of what happens with an asset that has a useful life of 50 years. This time you win. You write down only 2 per cent a year but you still get back that fixed 13.5 per cent.

Thus when you want to dig cable tunnels, for instance, you give clear instructions to your underlings: 'Right, boys, time to make some money. I want you to pay top prices for the concrete, put in lots of the priciest rebars you can find, dig those tunnels deep, deeper yet and bigger, too.' And I think it is something along these lines that Hongkong Electric has done - scrimped on fixed assets with short amortisation periods and lashed out more money than it needed to spend on ones with longer periods. Its accounts do not allow me to break down exactly where it was done but it is the only way it could get its fixed asset figures so high relative to CLP
What a disgraceful slur to make about such a highly respected company!  And how dare he insult Hong Kong’s top tycoon by failing to credit Li’s Green Island Cement – a pillar of our local construction supplies cartel – with being the provider of that high-priced, generously applied concrete?  I am sure all right-thinking people will be eager to see Jake given a good hiding, just as we will regard it a privilege to pay HKE more for their excellent-quality electricity.  And who can doubt that public sympathy for our leading businessman, so wickedly persecuted by this vicious journalist, will now strengthen popular support for the bid by Li’s Cheung Kong to serve the community by winning the West Kowloon Cultureport project?

Wed, 29 Dec
A lazy morning in my apartment at Perpetual Opulence Mansions, reading the news and listening to Taverner’s
Western Wynde.  The two Filipino elves let themselves in and start ironing and cleaning with the enthusiasm and efficiency my presence usually inspires.  They are bewildered that the tsunami – 60,000 victims and counting – has left their homeland unscathed.  “But Indonesia’s near the Philippines,” they protest when I tell them the disaster was far away.   I can understand why they must be mystified.  The Philippines rarely passes up a chance to be in the way of a dome of molten lava spewing out of the ground or an intense low-pressure system producing 100 mph winds and torrential rain spinning in from the Pacific Ocean.  It seems unnatural to them, even slightly disturbing, to see their country overlooked when major mayhem strikes Asia.  I assure them that normality will return, and they will soon be reading comforting and familiar news of landslides, floods, explosions and sinking ferries from home.

EVEN KENYA reports tsunami victims. 
Hippopotamuses in inland rivers were dragged five miles out to sea.

Thurs, 30 Dec
The EK Yeoh Bad Call of the Year Award goes to Thailand’s
meteorological agency, which – like Hong Kong’s departed Health Secretary in the early days of SARS – didn’t want to cause unnecessary panic or damage the tourism industry.  Perhaps what the Thais should have done is have a Sri Lankan animal loosely tethered on every beach, with a sign next to it saying ‘If leopard runs inland, please follow it’.  It is easy to think of these things with the benefit of hindsight.

A PHONE call from delectable Administrative Officer Winky Ip, asking which relief organization is most deserving of donations to help the tsunami victims.  “The
Red Cross,” I unhesitatingly reply.  “American-based charities think they’re businesses competing with each other.  They’ll spend half your money on marketing rabble – advertising, design and public relations people in bow ties, ponytails and red-rimmed spectacles.”  She murmurs agreement.  “On the other hand,” I continue, “Oxfam is full of anti-capitalist, anti-globalization riffraff whining about imperialists and evil multinational companies.”  So the Red Cross it is.  Winky tells me that Hong Kong’s noble civil servants do a lot for charity, adding that they will all be taking part in the Community Chest’s Skip Lunch Day on 21 January.  I interrupt her.  “I’ve heard about this,” I tell her.  “All civil servants contributing twenty dollars or more will get a lunch box with instant noodles, an apple, a granola bar, a packet of biscuits, a bottle of water and some condoms and tissues.  Not exactly ‘skipping’ lunch, is it?”

“Who told you that?” she demands.  I give her the usual line about ‘reasons of national security’.  “Look, we buy in bulk,” she says defensively.  “Fifteen bucks a lunchbox – so a net gift of five dollars per participant.  And the money goes on social welfare projects – the taxpayer would fund them one way or another.”  Yes Winky, I assure her, gently putting the phone down.  What next?  Skip Aircon Day – when civil servants donate their air conditioning allowances to charity, and the Government sends little Indian boys in loincloths to their homes, to fan them with banana leaves?

Fri, 31 Dec
A calm morning in the office, reading the news.  From 60,000 to 80,000 to 120,000.  Like a stock price that overshoots and falls back – or fears of 10,000 victims on 9-11 – there will have to come a time when we hear that previous estimates have been reduced.  But not yet.

Liberal Party founder Allen Lee reports
a visit from the men in black, wanting to know which Chief Executive hopeful he favours to lead the Big Lychee into its dazzling future as an-economic-not-a-political city, with continued stability and prosperity, successfully implementing one-country-two-systems while enjoying a high degree of autonomy.  The honour of the glorious motherland is at stake.  The new man must succeed where tofu-for-brains so miserably failed, and show the world that Hong Kong was better after, not before, the barbarian British imperialists left. 

The Big Boss had his visit earlier this week, when a very smart-looking young man presented himself at the reception area on the 20th floor of S-Meg Tower, greeting Ms Fang the hunter-killer secretary in subdued Mandarin and offering a courteous smile to the company gwailo, who was
en route to his lair.  Our visionary Chairman is silent on what was said, but my impression is that he refrained from voicing a clear preference, merely pointing out that each of the candidates has very slight possible shortcomings. 

Most right-thinking people would wonder why Beijing sees slimy, dim-witted opportunist James Tien as a possible future head of the fragrant harbour.  The tragic truth is that they perceive his total lack of principles, consistency or integrity, and his clumsy forays into populism, as evidence of leadership potential.  They imagine we might like him. 

The emperor’s emissaries raise the possibility of Peter Woo out of sympathy, to give the wretch some face to augment that ‘ageing suave Nazi’ veneer, after his embarrassing attempt to be the first Chief Executive eight years ago.  Alliumphobe and satanist CY Leung is out of the running now – his core support base in Beijing has surely drifted away, like a suitcase of silk shirts floating out of a flooded hotel room in the Maldives.  Arthur Li would be entertaining.  Someone with a brain who says what he thinks, doesn’t have a background in sunset industries and has a gwaipo wife.  Maybe not.

Are the nation’s rulers serious about the That’s-Enough-Tycoons-Thanks candidate, Donald Tsang?  My suspicion is that their public displays of affection towards bowtie man – the Catholic former British running dog – are intended mainly to remind the plutocrat contenders to pull their socks up.  The idea that someone not born into substantial local wealth can possibly love the motherland and know what’s best for Hong Kong is too ridiculous to entertain.  As of midnight, Henry has exactly 30 months to wait.