|The ravings of Hong Kong's most obnoxious expat
9-15 January 2005
|Sun, 9 Jan
I count them – 29, 30, 31... A total of 32 emails in the last 10 days asking if I know the whereabouts of Conrad, writer of The Gweilo Diaries. I’m not surprised so many people miss the hilarious parody of American neo-conservative blogs, with its ranting about the satanic United Nations and barbarous Mohammedans, its glorification of George W Bush and praise of the contentment of post-Saddam Iraq – all spiced up with imaginative, salacious tales of Wanchai at night and tasteful pictorial appreciations of the Asian female form. Being reluctant to divulge the distressing truth, I deny any knowledge of the matter. Nor do I mention these emails when I see ‘Conrad’ this afternoon, outside a jeweller’s store in a back street in Causeway Bay. He is begging Formica, his 19-year-old, seven-months-pregnant Filipino fiancée, to accept a HK$350 gold-plate and zirconium wedding ring, arguing that her friends will never know the difference, and that they need the money for more important things. “How will she take to life in that trailer park in Jonesboro?” I ask him, as the sulking girl teeters back to the shop window on her platform shoes. “She’s never been to Arkansas has she?” He shrugs and mumbles about how they won’t be staying with his sister Becky-Mae and her six kids for long – just until they sort something out. I nod reassuringly. After an awkward silence, I glance at my watch and feign alarm at my lateness for an urgent appointment. We shake hands and agree to keep in touch. “Everything will turn out fine,” I tell him, as Formica stomps back up to us, hatred burning behind her tear-filled eyes.
Mon, 10 Jan
The mood on the Mid-Levels Escalator this chilly morning is tense. A new threat looms over Hong Kong’s clean-living, hard-working, tax-paying, disenfranchised middle class – a malign force seeping out of the dank, fetid tenements across the harbour, creeping stealthily towards us, to suck what remains of our blood and spirit. Already, we must support parasitic tycoons, whose cartels crush competition and demand extortionate prices for life-sustaining goods and services. The world’s most bloated, overpaid and arrogant civil service wields deviant laws and contracts and insists on its right to sinecures, allowances and pensions, whether the wealth to pay for them exists or not. Meanwhile, the dandruff- and acne-ravaged lower orders demand incessant subsidies, free lunches, cushions from reality and immunity from the laws of economics – and probably, before long, eternal life.
With our visionary Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa giving his annual policy address on Wednesday, the word is that the Government’s next big thing will be poverty. My fellow commuters nervously finger their wallets as they read of plans to appoint a high-level commission. An anxious-looking marketing executive wonders aloud how she can feed her own children if she has to support every wastrel from Sham Shui Po to Yuen Long. “Hong Kong is an expensive place,” she tells us. “Why do these people come and live here if they can’t afford it?” Her comment prompts some sharp intakes of breath. This is the truth that must not be uttered. There is a clear correlation, going back years, between the rising number of unemployed and the number of unskilled immigrants arriving from the Mainland. But no-one must say so. It is ‘sensitive’.
“Don’t worry, the Government is over a barrel,” I tell my companions as we glide down the hill. “They don’t dare plunder the middle class for more – they can’t risk us asking where all these extra unemployable people came from. So if Tung wants to alleviate poverty, the extra resources will have to come from the tycoons or the public sector.” On the walkway over Queen’s Road we collapse in hysterics at the absurdity of that idea.
|Tue, 11 Jan
Walking west along Des Voeux Road, I wonder what it’s like to be one of those poor sufferers of morbid loneliness who must talk into or stare at a little box as they stroll the streets or ride the train. They deserve sympathy. I feel especially sorry for the ridiculous-looking ones who mutter into a little microphone dangling from a wire around the neck, or into empty space, their fascinating reflections on human existence being picked up by a plastic probe hooked onto their ear. What sort of agonies would these souls endure without their little electronic crutches? Would they have agoraphobic panic attacks, or tremble and sweat in torment at not being ‘in touch’ – or would they just start sucking their thumbs? As I approach Li Ka-shing’s Fortress electronics store, my mind turns to the great, long, red-legged scissor-man who dealt so effectively with children too ill-disciplined to wean themselves off a substitute teat.
Not without apprehension, I enter the store. I loathe gizmos, but I have determined that it would be useful to be able to email pictures. After reading reviews on the Internet, I have concluded that an Olympus model with the ludicrous name of mju 410 would fit the bill. The spotty young assistant behind the counter lets me examine the contraption. It comes with everything. Would I like the special limited-edition Sanrio model? He shows me a pink box with the portrait of the famous mouthless cat on it. He can see I am tempted at this unnecessary luxury, but I resist. “No, I’ll take the basic one,” I declare, taking out my wallet and slapping my credit card down.
|The great tall tailor always comes
To little boys who suck their thumbs;
And ere they dream what he's about,
He takes his great sharp scissors out,
And cuts their thumbs clean off—and then,
You know, they never grow again.
|Usually, vendors lure customers into making a purchase by offering extras before (obviously) the customer makes up his mind. But in the parallel universe of Hong Kong’s cartelized retail sector, the bait comes after you pay. “Free extra battery,” the assistant says, putting a pricy Lithium-Ion power pack into the bag. “And 128 Meg of free memory,” he adds, slipping in a couple of chips. “Oh, and free gift,” he tells me, putting another box on the pile. An MP3 player. I hold my hands up to indicate total satisfaction, lest the fiend forces a mobile phone on me. A strange sales technique. They missed the chance to shift a premium, Hello Kitty camera there.
Wed, 12 Jan
Few customers at the IFC Mall branch of Pacific Coffee pay attention as wild American friend Odell climbs onto a table and shouts at the top of his voice. “Resolutely unite to follow the glorious and correct guidance of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa!” The creepy girl who reads the bible looks up disapprovingly, while the staff smile and get on with their work. Today’s the big day, and high spirits are only to be expected. I sip my hot, brown, water-flavoured liquid as Odell sits down in his seat again and we discuss the main question – where shall we watch the Chief Executive’s Policy Address? It has to be somewhere with a big screen and happy hour all afternoon. Odell suggests the Whiskey Priest in Lan Kwai Fong. ”It’ll be too crowded,” I tell him. “Packed full of fat gwailos in rugby shirts all screaming their heads off.” So what about the Dublin Jack, just off Lyndhurst Terrace? “Certainly not,” I retort. “They’re criminals – lawless Fenians obstructing the sidewalk with barrels and showing disrespect to the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department.” We leave and walk across the plaza next to Exchange Square, swapping ideas on how the crop-haired one will tackle the Big Lychee’s biggest challenges. Around the corner on the walkway, an unpleasant sight awaits us. Two paramedics are leaning over a beggar writhing in agony, dripping blood over his plastic bowl and coins scattered on the ground. A few yards away, a well-coiffed woman in a fur coat and long leather skirt holds her head high in defiance as a policeman handcuffs her. A passing young secretary explains how the mendicant pestered the lady once too often. She snapped, pulled a Gini coefficient from her bag and bludgeoned the poor wretch senseless with it. Odell winces. I look away and catch a line in the newspaper folded under the office worker’s arm. ‘Maintaining social stability and harmony will be among Mr Tung’s key messages.’
THE FINAL line from paparagraph 26 of tofu-for-brains' address, if my sneak preview is to be believed... “The ultimate aim of universal suffrage as set out in the Basic Law can be achieved at an early date.” There's a hidden ‘if’ there.
Thurs, 13 Jan
The Big Boss expresses pained disbelief in the morning meeting that Tung Chee-hwa implicitly admitted in his policy address that collusion between government and business takes place and that transfer of public wealth into corporate coffers is wrong. “How could he say that?” the dynamic Chairman splutters. “He sounds like the anti-business politicians! Crazy! He thinks they’ll like him if he talks the rubbish they want to hear.” Members of S-Meg Holdings’ management team look round for someone who can offer soothing words, their eyes finally resting on the company gwailo.
I mention that Tung has promised to boost spending on pointless infrastructure projects ‘to relieve unemployment’. “The current capital works programmes have created 45,000 jobs at an average of, say, 10,000 bucks a month,” I remind everyone. “But those projects cost the taxpayer over 50,000 dollars a month per job. Where’s the extra money going?” The Big Boss takes a deep breath and nods. S-Meg’s lucrative little construction interests are safe. “And he’s still ruling out anti-trust legislation – surely the ultimate act of collusion.” The tycoon smiles slightly. Our niches in wholesale and distribution cartels will remain licences to print money. Even so, mutters the great man as we all leave the big conference room, Tung’s an idiot.
|Back in my office, I am inspired by the crop-haired one’s visionary decree that the Hong Kong economy will henceforth revolve around cultural and creative industries. Taking a photograph with my new Olympus is easy. Point and shoot. Apparently, the thing can make movies – with sound. But that’s for wimps who read instruction manuals. The tricky bit is beating the enormous, 5 zillion-megapixel photos into submission on a computer screen. Olympus provides a program called Camedia Master. Does it crop and re-size pictures? Who knows? Camedia Master is to software as a pile of dog excrement laced with strychnine and glass shards is to food. Meanwhile, in Bosnia, a modest genius called Irfan Skiljan has written a free program called irfanview, which works. I will write to Tung and advise him to give the brilliant Balkan a visa. My first work of photographic art – a still life taken on a filing cabinet in the gwailo’s lair –comes out rather well, I believe|
|Still life of Long Hair model, pack of tissues and Maxim’s cake coupon.
Limited edition prints,
signed by the artist
US$10,000 (inc HK Sales Tax)
|Fri, 14 Jan
Am I alone in thinking that Tung Chee-hwa does a rather good ‘mister clean’, tofu-wouldn’t-melt-in-my-mouth act? Probably. But who can help being impressed by his new-found abhorrence of the evil that is government-business collusion? Which doesn’t happen, anyway. And if it does, he demands, legislators must get with the team and show him the proof. Fortunately for the stability and prosperity of the fragrant harbour, no-one in the Circus has the wit to furnish our Chief Executive with such evidence. It would be too much at this stage in his unique political career for the crop-haired one to reinvent himself as the gritty and determined defender of righteousness, taking a sword and chopping the corporate tentacles that penetrate every orifice of the body politic.
Detractors will attempt to take up Tung’s challenge. They will point to the singular luck enjoyed by Li Ka-shing and his family. The land policies that let him corner the private residential and commercial property market. The lack of anti-trust laws that allow his companies to gouge the people every time they buy fuel, power, food and groceries. The way Cyberport fell into the hands of his son. The technicalities that allowed him all those waivers when he listed his visionary Tom.com during the tech-bubble. The almost tailor-made criteria for the fast-fading Cultureport project. But Superman is invincible. Bullets bounce off him, like a dull meat cleaver off the gristly bit of a Park N Shop steak.
I do have evidence. But I will keep it to myself. What purpose would it serve to lift a lump of concrete so everyone could see the murky achievements of Dr the Hon Raymond Ho JP scuttling out of the light? His almost-successful attempt to win billions of dollars for his friends in the construction industry through the building of a vast unnecessary prison. His push to force property owners to hire men in hard hats to inspect sewers for no good reason. His valiant efforts to ensure that our taxpayers’ hard-earned wealth is delivered lovingly to our noble engineering professionals via infrastructure projects that are wasteful or pointless – ‘less cost effective or low economic return’, to use the technical jargon. And this is just one legislator representing corporate interests. The natural order is at stake. I know nothing.