Hemlock's Diary

The ravings of Hong Kong's most obnoxious expat
11-17 January 2004
Sun, 11 Jan
I spy American friend Odell sitting in the entrance to a Lan Kwai Fong bar in mid-afternoon.  He is listening to a well-dressed, earnest-looking young gwailo who is leaning close to his face.  "Look after your slopes," I hear the stranger urging Odell as I approach.  I am introduced to Arnold.  After we shake hands, Arnold pulls a packet of moisturized tissues from his pocket.  "After touching objects," he tells me enthusiastically, "always clean your hands immediately."  He gives me a tissue and stares me in the eye.  "Let's join hands to create a healthy and hygienic environment in Hong Kong!"   My Perrier arrives, and I glance up at the big TV screen on the wall of the bar.  Arnold taps me on the shoulder.  "There are many different types of television programme," he tells me solemnly.  He seems pleased when I nod in agreement.  "Enjoy the pleasure of watching television with your children."  I spare him the benefit of my opinion of either TV or children and return to the movie, in which, after a few minutes, a crook from central casting is handling a plastic bag of white powder.  "Drugs are dangerous," intones Arnold.  He turns to Odell.  "They will ruin your life."  Odell tries to look interested.  "Say 'no' to drugs."  Muttering something about wet floors in toilets, Arnold strolls off to the men's room.  I look at Odell in disbelief.  "He works for Government Information Services or something," he apologises. "I didn't ask him to join me."  Sensing an opportunity, I suggest that we abandon our half-finished drinks and run.  Just yards from the bar, we hear a voice behind us.  It is Arnold, holding a green bottle.  "Let's remove stagnant water," he calls as we quicken our pace.  "Eliminate mosquitoes for healthy living."

Mon, 12 Jan
Do Anita Mui fans have to be quite so visually unappealing?  I can forgive them for looking morose, attending, as they were, the pop star’s funeral.  But why such unintelligent faces and obese bodies, so unlike most of Hong Kong’s keen-eyed, lithe humanity?  Occupying considerable space in most newspapers this morning, they put me off my noodles.  Perhaps I am in a bad mood because I find I have missed the CEPA Expo in Beijing – a thrilling,
fun-packed event that clearly captured the significance of this historic economic agreement, which reduces Mainland tariffs on ice cream, buttons of base metal (not covered with textiles), sewage sludge, plastic bags, horse hides, and 365 other market-beating products of Hong Kong’s mighty manufacturing sector.

Tue, 13 Jan
The most boring news story on the planet refuses to go away.  It is like the spirit of a dead unmarried woman, whose lack of a family lineage deprives her soul of a place to rest.  (When will we hear the first reports of Anita Mui’s ghost roaming the corridors of some Kowloon karaoke palace?)  Under pressure from the World Health Organization, Guangdong authorities release full details of the two suspected SARS cases being held in isolation wards
- HUANG LING, 20, waitress and civet cat strangler at the Ever Joy restaurant, Shenzhen, tall and slim, WLTM NS U grad for LTR, no kids.
- ZHOU WEN BIAO, 35, stallholder at the Healthy Wild Meat Market, Guangzhou, likes travel and movies, into threesomes.

Hong Kong is petrified of SARS coming back.  We fear the tedium, as this single ailment becomes the main news story, day after day after day.  We dread the excruciatingly detailed accounts every morning for weeks of how many new cases have been found, how many victims have recovered and how many grannies have passed away from this one illness – as if grannies have hitherto enjoyed eternal life.  We are terrified of the prospect of Government announcements telling us to scrub our children with boiling bleach before taking their temperature and sending them to school.  There are many unanswered questions about viruses.  Are they strictly speaking a life form?  Could they be more closely related to their civet cat, chicken and other hosts than to one another?  But most of all, how can such a tiny speck of protein create such vast quantities of laborious, irrelevant and boring news?  We wait in fear.
Wed, 14 Jan
Without my two Filipino elves, life as I know it would end.  Dust would accumulate on bookshelves.  Sinful stains would multiply on bed linen.  Empty spaces in stores of essential household commodities would increase.  Mountains of clothing and saucepans would rise from the floor and the sink, threatening to engulf my apartment and eventually the rest of Perpetual Opulence Mansions.  It is therefore a matter of great concern to find an anguished message awaiting me on the kitchen table this morning, left yesterday by these loyal, part-time servants.  "
Dear sir we are sorry but you must give us more pay because HSBC have made the interest rate lower on our savings."  This is true.  HSBC has reduced annual interest on deposits from 0.01% to 0.001%.  I doubt the elves have
more than HK$10,000 each in their local accounts – as well as having thousands of grasping, baby-producing relatives in Cebu to support, they give tithes to a religious shyster with a fleet of Mercedes.  So let’s say their interest income is being slashed from HK$1 a year to just 10 cents.  "I will compensate you for the difference in its entirety," I write below their missive, making a mental note to give them an extra 7.5 cents a month.  Plus unwanted S-Meg Holdings corporate Year of the Monkey calendars!  I spoil them.

To the Foreign Correspondents’ Club for the monthly quiz.  As always, my team plans to hold back to give others a chance.  This evening, however, there is no need, as the malevolent question master has hit a new low in her task-setting.  Each team is given a photograph showing all 130 members of the England tiddlywinks squad.  The team – and there is one – that has such a sad, loveless and infantile existence that it can put a name to each and every face wins.  Everyone else loses.  

Thurs, 15 Jan
Another day, another anguished message – this time an email from a fellow employer of ruthless, exploitative and unappreciative domestic helpers... 
You are spoiling it for the rest of us.  Give them the calendars; please don't give them the money.
On reflection, I’m sure he’s right.  Employers have to eat don’t they?  And anyway, Hong Kong would sink under the weight of nimble-fingered Southeast Asians looking for clothes to iron if we were all so profligate. Pay rise cancelled.
"The idea was to break the skin open on both buttocks with the first stroke of the cane, and then hit the exact same spot with each subsequent stroke."  Over lunch at Jimmy's Kitchen, Roger the Old Colonial recounts his experiences of Hong Kong as it used to be.  "Two officers would take it in turns, so their arms didn't get tired.  After three strokes, there would be blood on the floor, and most prisoners would lose control of their bowels and bladder."  Cutting a slice of rare steak and dabbing it into some Dijon mustard, I remark that it sounded messy.  "Went through a lot of sawdust," he growls.  "I never saw a man stay conscious for six strokes.  We'd finish the sentence a few weeks later when they'd recovered."  He swigs his Cabernet Sauvignon, relishing memories of a time when the Correctional Services Department meant business.  I never gave it much thought in the days, not that long ago, when young Kowloon thugs were routinely sentenced to this unsubtle form of British justice.  It was just a paragraph in the paper.  But Roger brings it all to life.  The brief medical check, the reading of the sentence, the strapping of the half-naked prisoner to a trestle, the quarter-inch deep groove that disfigured for life, and the mental scars.  "They didn’t re-offend," he says.  "They couldn’t.  It crushed the spirit out of them."  He stares in silence, as if struggling to resolve a deep, inner conflict.  "Hmmm...  Yes, I think I’ll go for the bread pudding."
Fri, 16 Jan
In the morning meeting, the Big Boss expresses displeasure at the absence of so many of S-Meg Holdings’ senior management.  He rails at their selfishness and disloyalty – putting family matters before the company’s interests and leaving town for Chinese New Year.  But family considerations are paramount for these people as this festival approaches.  If they haven’t got on a flight to Bali by today, they’ll be stuck in Hong Kong over the holiday, and they’ll have to take their kids to see the wretched parents-in-law.  Stampede from S-Meg Tower to the airport.  At least the faithful Company Gwailo is in attendance. 

"Look at this rubbish and tell me why I think it’s excellent or whatever," mutters the irritable tycoon, flinging an extremely dull-looking document towards me.  My heart sinks.  It is the
paper sent by Donald Tsang’s Task Force on Constitutional Development to the Legislative Council.  Flicking through it, I feel sorrier than ever for our tireless officials, who have slaved away trying to find problems that might delay consultation on democracy.  What desperation!  They’ve even dug up an old speech by late Basic Law supremo Ji Pengfei.  Where are legal and constitutional obstacles when you really need them?  You spend most of your time finding ways to bypass laws on right of abode, harbour reclamation, sex discrimination in schools and all the rest – and then, when you actually want the law to forbid you to do things, it doesn’t.