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

28 March-3 April 2004

Sun, 28 Mar
Despite my best efforts to avoid exposure to the Rugby Sevens, I am subjected to a glimpse of a game this morning as I stroll through Central and catch sight of a television in a shop window.   As it happens, I learn something.  The Singapore team is fielding a black player.  I can only conclude that patriarch eugenicist Lee Kuan Yew is despairing of finding good breeding material among his obedient race of Asiatic university graduates and has decided to adopt a more radical approach to diversifying and enriching the Lion City’s gene pool.  Good for him!

Mon, 29 Mar

Breakfast at the Foreign Correspondents Club with buxom Administrative Officer Winky Ip.  To take my mind off the headline in the paper – ‘Forget about democracy or we send more tourists, Beijing warns’ – I dollop lashings of hot sauce on my noodles.   “We used to have a halfway good government,” recalls Winky.  “Then, after 1997, we had rubbish government.  And now... we just don't seem to have a government at all.”  From the mighty Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa to the lowliest taxi driver or McDonalds minion, all of Hong Kong waits, powerless, to see how Beijing
interprets the Basic Law’s annexes on political reform.   Last time we had one of these interpretations, the provision stating clearly that certain types of people had right of abode here turned out to mean that they didn’t.  “So what now?” I ask.  “I can’t believe they’ll be stupid enough to interpret ‘2007’ to mean ‘2012’.  Or is the Basic Law becoming a palimpsest?”  Winky stirs her congee, looking for a
stray peanut, or a bit of chicken.  I sip my tea.  With a deep breath she looks round the venerable Main Bar in the century-old ice house.  “Okay,” she sighs, “I’ll rise to the bait.  What’s a palimpsest?”  Aha!  The cream of Hong Kong University, being fast-tracked to the upper echelons of the Hong Kong civil service, has to ask.  “I’ll tell you,” I say, “but in return you have to tell me the meaning of ‘honourable’ – as in the Honourable Philip Wong.”  Nowadays, what does any word mean?  Or number?  As an astute, pragmatic, money-obsessed Hongkonger, I foresee a lucrative new little business – making very short-term loans of HK$2,007 to Basic Law drafters.
Tue, 30 Mar
RIP raconteur Peter Ustinov.  He used to recall the rich aroma from the nullah at Kai Tak airport that greeted travellers landing in Hong Kong in the old days…
I turned to my companion and said, “good grief – what is that smell?”  And he said, “Well… it’s um… shit.”  And I said, “Yes I know that, but what on earth have they done to it?”
They’re dropping like flies out there.  No sooner has Ustinov passed on than it’s Alistair Cooke’s turn, at 95.  An era of erudition and decency comes to a close.

Wed, 31 Mar
The mood on the Mid-Levels Escalator is nasty this morning, as Hong Kong’s disenfranchised middle class prepares to pay the second instalment of their 2003-04 salaries tax.  It is our wits and expertise that make this city 25 times richer than the Mainland.  And in return, we are compelled to support an array of parasites and vermin.  We must subsidize housing for half the population.  We must buy Li Ka-shing’s overpriced electricity and groceries.  And then we must render unto Caesar sufficient wealth to keep the bloodsucking civil service on packages 229 percent more generous than their private-sector equivalents. 

Gliding down the hill, a fellow-commuter peers over my shoulder at my newspaper.  “So what’s the chance of universal suffrage in the next few years?” he idly asks, as if he’s wondering whether he’ll need an umbrella.  I show him the story about Donald Tsang’s task force stating that Beijing has a veto.  “Well, we knew that,” shrugs my new friend.  “What else?”  I
read on.  “And then,” I inform him, “it depends on the ‘stability of Hong Kong society’, which was stable to the point of stultifying tedium, last time I checked.”  He nods.  “So, would rioting speed things up?” he asks me.  Good point.  “Apparently,” I add, “it also depends on whether Hong Kong people have a good understanding of the ‘one country, two systems’ concept.”  He groans, leans over the railing and vomits bits of cha siu bao onto the street below.  Having a tax bill to pay, I hurriedly walk on, making a mental note of the streetlights that stand next to this overhead walkway, and how conveniently positioned they will be when the time comes to rise up, demand justice and dangle overpaid public servants by the neck.

Thurs, 1 April
It is a long time since a Hong Kong English newspaper has had the flair to put an April Fool’s joke on the front page, so I am delighted to read this morning’s
headline ‘Ice broken between Beijing and democrats’.  Like any good April 1st story, it is superficially plausible but actually absurd.  Three moderate pro-democracy legislators plan to fly to Beijing to plead the people’s case.  Instead, they are lured over to the Mainland’s liaison office in deepest Sheung Wan for an unprecedented two-hour chat with suitably lowish-level officials.  Initially frosty, the meeting ends up with everyone making friends, pouring each other’s tea, swapping phone numbers and loudly insisting on paying the bill.  The butchers of Beijing lying with Hong Kong’s traitors and worshippers of foreign Buddhas – who can resist a chuckle at such an amusing fiction?

It brings to mind the last time the Hong Kong press ran a front-page joke story on this day – perhaps 10 years ago, when the
South China Morning Post reported that the cross-harbour tunnel would switch from two lanes in each direction to a three-plus-one configuration to relieve congestion at peak times.  Many readers yawned and thought, ‘why not?’  A few alert ones probably thought it sounded a bit dangerous, with one of the twin tubes having two-way traffic.  My friend Morris, then as now the greatest Glaswegian in the Hong Kong Police, received an irate phone call from an extremely senior member of the force – the top traffic cop – demanding to know why no-one had told him of this plan, which was certain to lead to chaos on the roads.  Many bad-tempered phone calls later, and the top-ranking law enforcer saw the humiliating light.  It was the SCMP’s last recorded attempt at humour.

In the old days, every day was April Fool’s Day at Xinhua, which regaled us year-round with tales of heroic nightsoil collectors, record gooseberry harvests and two-headed turtles.  Today, they focus on facts, such as
why Chinese women seek foreign husbands – even if, with only 193 such marriages in Shenzhen last year, most apparently don’t.  In a nutshell, the news agency takes delight in informing us, these women are old, ugly gold-diggers, whom only barbarians could possibly want.  Having said that, they admit, “Shenzhen men are prone to be easily tempted”.  What despicable cads.  It gets even worse, perhaps, if reason number 4 – “Wanting to find men who would respect and live peacefully with them” – actually means, after interpretation by the NPC standing committee, “…don’t beat them up too often”.  I am prone to be easily tempted to go up to Shenzhen this afternoon to investigate the desperate, gwailo-hungry hordes of Chinese womanhood prowling the streets.

Fri, 2 Apr
Alas, the love-starved, xenophile belles left on the shelves of Shenzhen will have to wait for another day.   With a three-day weekend approaching, the Big Boss demands everyone’s presence in Hong Kong.  He has spied an opportunity.  A bit of arbitrage.  One man’s unwanted, unappreciated burden is another man’s valuable, highly desired asset – as any Mainland dowager surfing the Internet for a foreign husband will confirm.  All it takes is S-Meg Holdings' core competencies – naked greed, Cantonese cunning and lavish amounts of shoe-shining, some of it expertly and lovingly planned by the underworked but indispensable Company Gwailo.
I have finally solved the mystery of the phone calls I receive several times a week in my office from people wanting to apply for a Japanese visa.  My number is almost – almost – identical to that of the Land of the Rising Sun's consulate.  The answer to the puzzle raises more questions.  How can people hit a 4 instead of a 6 on a telephone keypad, yet still manage to press the other seven digits accurately?  How come these people – invariably women – don’t find it strange that the Japanese have someone who talks like a gwailo dispensing visas in their Hong Kong mission?  And why, when I am taking down their details, are they so unquestioningly prepared to divulge their bra sizes?  I find life a never-ending series of mysteries – but then these callers probably put the phone down feeling the same way.