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

2-8 January 2005

Mon, 3 Jan
AD 2005 gets off to a reasonable start.  As always, I left New Year’s Eve to the unthinking hordes who believe that an arbitrary date on the calendar requires them to gather in large crowds on the streets for hours of tortuous, contrived boisterousness.  In the calm and warmth of Perpetual Opulence Mansions, I slept through it.  At 7 the next morning, I amused myself with a detour through Lan Kwai Fong to observe the last of the drunken detritus.  Two men in kilts, clearly racked by the misery of alcohol poisoning and lack of sleep, staggered towards a taxi.  No-one forces these people to do it.  Under peer pressure, they simply lack the independence of mind to consider whether resting in a comfortable bed might be more pleasant than vomiting in a cold alleyway.  I saw the contrast between my clear-headed energy and everyone else’s self-inflicted distress at such an early hour as a positive sign for the coming 365 days. 

After a trip to the ATM to pick up some Renminbi, I hopped on the ferry for a 50-minute ride to Shekou, where I was met by Jenny the girl-from-Beijing-but-she’s-got-an-American-passport, who had invited me to inspect her new apartment.  After coffee, she dragged me to one of Shenzhen’s famed massage centres, where we were subjected to two hours of pummeling and kneading of the neck, arm, fingers and, especially, feet by uniformed girls wielding lotions, steaming towels and bags of hot pebbles.  I can think of worse things to do than lying on a huge easy chair, watching a large-screen TV and nibbling tiny tomatoes (they had run out of watermelon).  Having a root canal done, for example.  But I was at a loss to see what we were supposed to be enjoying, beyond mild delight at finding that the whole ritual cost RMB35 each.

Yesterday morning, trying not to trip over the excitable golden Labrador puppy, I went into the bathroom, had a shower and then remembered that Jenny always gets her hair washed in salons.  Faced with no choice, I used dog shampoo – quite pleasant-smelling.  After breakfast of frog congee at the local Western Style Steak Restaurant, I bade Jenny farewell and took a taxi back to the ferry terminal.  ‘Shuh-ko Xianggang ma-toe’ does the trick.  A trip to Shechuanese- and Hubeinese-inhabited Shenzhen is a vivid reminder of the pointlessness of Cantonese, though I used the Hong Kong dialect to tell the woman at the ticket counter that I wanted to go to Central.  She asked in Mandarin if I wanted the 10.15 sailing.  I nodded and said yes, in English.  She asked me for RMB110 in English and gave me the ticket.  I thanked her in Mandarin.  This all seemed totally normal.  I arrived back home in time to fix lunch for the Hong Kong chapter of the Anglo-Swiss Michael Tippett Appreciation Society – a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

And today, back to work.  The Big Boss adopts a stern tone in the morning meeting.  S-Meg Holdings will deliver unprecedented returns to shareholders this year, he declares – a sure sign that various elderly aunts were haranguing him about low dividends over the holiday.  “We’re going to hit the ground running!” he shouts to the bemused senior management team, banging his fist on the table in dangerous proximity to the north-facing ceramic three-legged toad that so singularly fails to perform its feng-shui-ordained, profit-boosting mission.

Tue, 4 Jan
It is thought that eight Hong Kong children may be among the 150,000 victims of the tsunami.  Who can fail to sympathize for their classmates returning to school after the holidays and finding an empty desk where there had previously been a friend?  Reading through the news, I grow even sorrier for these poor youngsters.  As if they aren’t going to suffer enough, they will have to contend with grief
counselors – the vultures of quack psychology who swoop on innocent people and feed on their innermost thoughts.  What could be worse, at a time when you most want to be left alone, than to have some stranger in your face asking personal questions or telling you how to feel?  The emotional benefit from counseling services will go to the bureaucrats and school administrators who feel they have been professional, caring and proactive by finding a way to avoid the awkward and tiresome job of personally commiserating with their distressed students and helping them come to terms with the fact that life must go on.

Wed, 5 Jan
Breakfast with curvaceous Administrative Officer Winky Ip.  “Well,” I ask her idly as I stir chili into my noodles, “we’ve had the Hunghom Peninsula and the aborted Link REIT, and the West Kowloon Cultureport is brewing nicely.  What’s the next Government-collusion-with-tycoons crisis going to be?”  After giving the matter some thought, Winky says she would put money on Gordon Wu’s ‘
Mega Tower Hotel’ project in Wanchai.  As she blathers away about the Wanchai Outline Zoning Plan and other riveting matters, the full extent of the Government’s quandary becomes clear. 

Twenty five years ago, Wu started painstakingly accumulating plots of land between the run-down slums of Queen’s Rd East and the pastoral demi-Eden that is Kennedy Road, with a view to forming a large enough site for a visionary property development that would revitalize the area.  He first applied to the Town Planning Board for permission to build a 57-storey office tower in 1982 and submitted more ambitious plans over the years, including one for a 93-storey hotel, which was approved in 1994.  “To Sir Gordon,” Winky says, “it’s a matter of rule of law.  He was given the green light ages ago, and he’s spent millions buying out property owners in the place.  Other developers have been allowed to build high-density projects nearby.  He’s also scaled it down to 60 floors and offered to include big public spaces as part of the deal.” 

But times change.  Other high-rises have gone up in the area, and traffic levels are already approaching gridlock at times. Yesterday’s visionary plan to replace grimy slums and smelly trees with two 600-foot tall towers is today’s lunatic idea – a hotel with 2,280 rooms, bigger than the Conrad, Marriot and Shangri-La combined , with all vehicular access through a road designed for rickshaws. “Residents in Kennedy Road will see their property values hit badly,” Winky continues, “so of course they’re whining.  And the structure will block everyone’s
view of the trees and hills from the street.  And the traffic!”  The thing is a monster.  There is no way the Town Planning Board can give the final go-ahead without everyone in Hong Kong accusing the Government of doing a favour to mad evil property developer Sir Gordon Wu GBS, KCMG, FICE.  Yet Wu will be livid at the injustice and tyranny if he is turned down. 

“So,” I ask Winky, “are we in store for some entertainment?”  She nods grimly.

Thurs, 6 Jan
“Double espresso?” asks the woman at the till as I approach the counter at IFC Mall Pacific Coffee this morning.  Based on previous experience, she is able to anticipate what I am planning to order.  After staring at her silently for a few seconds, I assert clearly that I want a tall latte.  I don’t need this sort of impertinence at 7 in the morning.  I, and I alone, will decide what I will drink.  I am not a number – I am a free man.  Having to drink a greasy, insipid latte will be a small sacrifice to make to instill a bit of deference in the girl.  Standing beside me, wild American friend Odell meekly accepts her presumptuous choice of morning beverage.  This is what happens when you are married. 

At Odell’s insistence, we sit in the corner near the noisy serving area, in order to be as far as possible from the creepy girl who says grace before eating a muffin and studying a Chinese New Testament.  “I don’t know what your problem is,” I tell him, “it’s me she mentally undresses, not you.”  He’s in no mood to argue, being hungover from last night, and planning another evening of debauchery later to celebrate the birthday – the 40th, rumour has it – of Kevin the Australian doorman at the pub in Lan Kwai Fong.  Looking towards the displays of carrot and jojoba yoghurts and wholegrain croissants, he mumbles about how it’s a good thing they don’t serve booze here.  “Ah,” I reply brightly, looking straight into his glazed eyes, “but they do!”  He tries to shake his head, but finds it painful.  He refuses to believe me.  So I tell him my exciting true story from last Sunday.

“After buying my ferry ticket at Shekou, I had to wait 20 minutes before going up to immigration and onto the boat.  I felt a bit thirsty and reached into my bag for my water, only to pull out a half-empty bottle of Pacific Coffee guava juice – 100 percent natural, no additives.  I’d bought it around two weeks before and forgotten about it.  When I opened it, it hissed loudly and frothed up – I had to screw the cap back on quickly.”  Odell nods dully, trying to take this in.  He looks uncomfortable.  “I drank it.  It was OK - fizzy, and sort of yeasty tasting…”  Struggling to keep his coffee down, Odell gets up to dash to the men’s room.  “But quite pleasant, and probably about as strong as beer.”  He heads for the door.  “They don’t pasteurize it!” I call after him.
THE EVENING’S party in the pub for Kevin the Australian doorman goes well.  “Wow!” he says, accepting my offering, “I never expected to get presents.”  He tears open the bright wrapping paper showing deer and Santa Claus frolicking amid snow-clad phrases like Joyeux Noel, Boas Festas, Buon Natale and Nadolig Llawen and holds up the CD of The Eagles’ Greatest Hits.  “Excellent – thanks!” he says, his lips spreading upwards in a valiant attempt to overcome his tragic congenital inability to smile.  He places the gift proudly on a shelf behind the bar, between a birthday card from his mother and a tube of men’s skin moisturizer.  All this, and he has been promoted to bartender at the age of just 40, after a mere eight years on the job! 

To celebrate, he is taking his Filipino girlfriend Peachy on a boat trip on Sunday to see the famous pink dolphins off the coast of Lantau.  I tell him what an unforgettable and romantic experience it will be.  “You know they’ve trained those dolphins to talk,” I tell him.  “They bob their heads out of the water with a cheeky grin and say ‘greetings friends, and welcome’ in Cantonese and English.  Peachy will be thrilled to bits.”  Kevin smirks again and, yes!, hands over the free beer I was hoping for – though of course, spreading joy is its own reward.
Fri, 7 Dec
Collusion with tycoons, collusion with tycoons and more collusion with tycoons.  It numbs the brain.  As with culture, sport and high technology, Hong Kong has a lamentable record when it comes to official scandals, let alone serious depravity.  In the Philippines, diminutive sexpot President Gloria Arroyo is trying to
spring an ex-congressman and convicted child rapist from prison as a political favour.  From Indonesia, we have gruesome tales of traffickers picking orphaned children out of the tsunami debris, to sell on some unspeakable international market.  How can the Big Lychee hope to compete?  The best we can manage is the resignation of Lam Woon-kwong, Tung Chee hwa’s chief of staff, after being photographed in a Tokyo hotel with a woman who is not his wife.  But it is an old story.  There isn’t even a blurry DVD of the pair rutting like rabbits and spilling champagne on a Grand Hyatt kingsize bed.  I call delectable Administrative Officer Winky Ip and ask if the rumours are true, and Lam had simply had all he could take of the crop-haired one’s ineptitude.  “Yup,” she replies.  “And he’s not alone.  The decision not to let to Mayor Ma of Taipei into town.  I mean…  I mean…”  The poor girl is too exasperated to find the right words.  “What a…”  In an effort to be helpful, I suggest the word ‘fuckwit’.  “Exactly!” she blurts out.

WK Lam’s finest hours were as Secretary for the Civil Service.  Under Governor Chris Patten, he fired Immigration Director Laurence Leung for handing names of British passport-carrying Hongkongers to the evil Red Chinese communist bandits.  And under Fat Pang’s successor, he would have downsized Hong Kong’s bureaucracy with the extreme and bloody, maximum prejudice it deserves to this day, had tofu-for-brains not wet his pants at the first sight of placard-carrying civil servants trudging through the streets, sweating under the weight of their wallets.  Safely off the sinking ship now, he will be back.