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

12-18 December 2004

Mon, 13 Dec
The Big Boss is in a jovial mood at the morning meeting, for three reasons.  First, reclusive American magnate Cornelius V Roch has thanked him for my valiant efforts in Macau to track down his missing son and heir, Lucas, who has made a prodigal phone call to his father.  A favour is worth a thousand shoe-shinings.   Second, the dismal New World Group, which wanted to level seven towers of 2,740 never-occupied apartments, has
backed down because they ‘do not want to see the community divided’.  In fact, the community had been in a state of rare unanimity, believing the developers to be the sort of unprincipled, money-crazed vermin whose popular esteem has declined so noticeably in Hong Kong since 1997.  It is unfair to blame the conglomerate for the faults of Government housing policy, but that’s not the point.  New World and its partners could have made HK$6 billion in profit.  Now they won’t.  The Big Boss is beside himself with glee at his fellow tycoons’ anguish. 

The third reason S-Meg Holdings’ Chairman is in good humour today is that his Chief Economist and I provide conclusive proof that James Tien, the slimy
idiot savant who runs our pro-cartel Liberal Party, is making a fool of himself by proposing that Hong Kong reduce itself to being a casino centre.  Liberal Party members are lobbying the great and the good to support this banal idea, and the Big Boss is rightly irritated.  Tien believes he is pushing a big, grown-up policy proposal, just like real adult politicians do.  It would boost our economy, he claims, as if this year’s GDP growth of 7 percent weren’t enough.  It goes without saying that any utterance from this reptile’s mouth must be moronic, but the Big Boss wants the whole morning meeting briefed on it.  The Chief Economist hands out some data that took him five minutes to assemble.
                    Macau           HK
(2003 figs)
Population          0.45mn          7.8mn
GDP                 US$6.8bn        US$158bn 
Gambling revenues   US$3.69bn       US$9.16bn
No of casinos         14               -
I stand up and explain to S-Meg’s keen-eyed management team that the Big Lychee’s economy is 23 times bigger than that of the quaint Luso-sleaze backwater.  To get a Macau-style economic impact, Hong Kong would need 23 times the number of casinos.  In other words, 322 gaudy, space-consuming gambling dens, presumably attracting 23 times the amount of money laundering, loan sharking, cigarette butts, spittle and whores.  Only someone 23 times as stupid as a regular Hong Kong politican – take a bow, James Tien – would even think about it.   I tell my colleagues that in fact Tien proposes a ‘complex’.  Assuming three casinos would yield three-fourteenths of Macau’s gambling revenue, we are talking about US$750 million – less than 0.5 percent of our GDP.  A drop of Mainland tourist phlegm in the ocean of Hong Kong’s economy.  The Big Boss concludes the meeting by mocking Tien’s ambitions to be Chief Executive one day.  “It’s as likely as all of us winning the four million Pataca blackjack jackpot at the Sands Casino.”
Tue, 14 Dec
Like anyone who’s anyone, I face the prospect of having a meaningful amount of beer money tied up in my application for the Link real estate investment trust.  It should be a simple enough deal.  The Government privatizes 180 seedy, inefficiently managed shopping malls and car parks attached to public housing estates where people shouldn’t live if they have enough money to go shopping or run a car.  The new management will lay off surplus workers and replace cheap, scummy tenants with higher-paying ones, thus unlocking value for shareholders.  The shares are being sold to retail investors at a discounted HK$10.51, and I expect to push the ‘sell’ button at around HK$12.6 some 10 minutes after trading begins on Thursday, thus boosting my beer money by 20 percent for no effort whatsoever, while consigning hordes of evicted, working-class shop owners to a slow and painful death by starvation – all in line with nature’s inarguable intentions.  Inarguable, except to a scurvy pair of representatives of the lower orders, who have
gone to court to block the offering, claiming, in their gap-toothed dementia, that the taxpayer has an obligation to provide their neighbourhood with business premises at below-market rents.  Such is life in Hong bastion-of-capitalism Kong, where respect for market forces is fast being eradicated.  It would never happen on the Mainland – but that’s run by communists.
HOW CAN Hong Kong dissuade parasitical Mainland tourists from giving birth in our publicly funded medical facilities?  The mothers-to-be have obvious incentives to drop their single permitted brat in Queen Mary’s, Queen Elizabeth’s, the Prince of Wales, or other exotically named hospitals in this corner of the People’s Republic of China.  Unlike in the Mainland, they will not be wheeled out of the ER and dumped in the gutter if they have no money.  And, unlike in the Mainland, the doctors and nurses will be trained, and they won’t sell the afterbirth to soup restaurants.  And the forceps will be sterile.  But wait – there’s more!  At no extra charge!  The little emperor will get a Big Lychee identity card entitling him to a life of free speech, trial by jury, welfare, half-decently regulated securities markets, no foreign exchange controls and no capital gains tax, right here in the fragrant harbour.  I am not impressed with the namby-pamby suggestion that the Government withhold the birth certificate until the bill is paid.  I will write to the authorities with my own, far more rigorous, four-step solution to the problem.  I instinctively know this would work...
1.  After the baby has been born, let the mother play with it for 10 minutes to ‘bond’. 
2.  Take the infant away. 
3. Give the mother a mop and tell her to clean up the mess she has no doubt left all over the delivery room, adding that this is just a taste of the cleaning she needs to do to cover her medical costs, and, yes, credit cards are accepted. 
4.  As a last resort, sell the baby to one of those wholesome but deranged American couples who adopt Asian children. 
Wed, 15 Dec
Breakfast at the Foreign Correspondents Club with buxom Administrative Officer Winky Ip. “It must feel terrible in the Government right now,” I tell her, crocodile tears dripping into my congee.  “The administration’s like a punch-drunk boxer, reeling from one blow, then barely starting to recover, only to get smacked again from the other direction.”  She chews her noodles and pretends not to listen.  “The Hunghom Peninsula saga was hilarious,” I go on, trying not to smirk.  “The Government just sat there looking helpless while the public forced the property developers to climb down.  Next up, the West Kowloon Cultural Hub.”  I show her Henderson Land’s proposed vision – an artist’s impression of lots and lots of lovely, hygienic concrete, in delicate pastel shades, with a mysterious absence of luxury, high-rise, HK$18,000 a square foot apartment blocks. 

Winky patiently puts her chopsticks down and leans forward to enlighten me.  “Actually,” she tells me softly, “it wasn’t ‘the people’ who forced the property developers to back down at Hunghom.”  She looks at me knowingly.  I raise my eyebrows slightly.  “No,” she whispers.  So, um… who?  She silently mouths two syllables.  Bei...  ...jing.  I nod.  Of course.  Someone somewhere has to exercise some leadership, monitor the public mood and snuff out discontent before things get out of hand – and it’s not going to be Boom Boom Tung, half-conscious and draped over the ropes.  Roll on,
Cultureport.  This is going to be real entertainment.
Thurs, 16 Dec
It is not a pleasant sight first thing in the morning – dozens of people leaning over the side of the Mid-Levels Escalator and vomiting onto the hapless schoolchildren and Nepalese street sweepers on the road below.  I feel ill myself when I see the cause of this outbreak of mass nausea – a
South China Morning Post headline venerating Chief Secretary Donald Tsang.  ‘Tsang juggles political hot potatoes with ease’, the paper gushes.  ‘Chief Secretary’s aplomb in public reverses image of mere figurehead’ it adds, lest any breakfast remains in our stomachs.  So the Post has finally noticed that bow-tie man thinks Beijing will make him Chief Executive if he successfully delivers Cultureport to the property developers and meaningless local political reforms to the rabble.  Handing the West Kowloon reclamation over to the tycoons, Donald tells us with a straight face, “will help create synergy between the cultural and business sectors.”  How could Hong Kong fail to prosper under the leadership of someone with such a way with words and such a vivid imagination?

MORE EVIDENCE of Donald’s intentions lands on my desk with the Big Boss’s copy of the Fourth
Report of the Constitutional Development Task Force.  Unusually, the covering letter, signed by Tsang Yum-kuen himself, is in Chinese.  Flicking through the document, I struggle to stay awake – until I come to the emails sent in by concerned citizens...  “Your consultation is meaningless and a complete waste of public fund[s].”   “An insult to all Hong Kong residents.”   “…the point I want to make is not how to select the chief executive but how to recall him.”     “God bless [the] people of hong kong.”  I am sure our masters in Beijing will be most encouraged by the enthusiasm of their loyal subjects here for Donald’s constitutional review.

Fri, 17 Dec
Our crop-haired Chief Executive
lashes out at the ‘mastermind’ behind the legal challenge to the Link REIT listing of Housing Authority properties.  In his clumsy and amateurish way, he sees an opportunity to recover some face and popularity by publicly rounding on legislator Albert Cheng, thus appearing to side with the hundreds of thousands of people with money tied up in applications for this IPO.  He also, as the Big Boss gloatingly points out in the morning meeting, hopes to divert attention from the basic truth – the court case wouldn’t have been possible had the Government done a better job of preparing the sell-off.  By frothing at the mouth about how wicked Cheng is, CH hopes that we will not notice that he mishandles privatization with the same flair he bungles his other Big Ideas, like hubs and logistics.  It is impossible not to feel sorry for the wretched, tormented man.  Meanwhile, I learn that I will be eligible for the grand total of 5,500 shares in the Link REIT – a fraction of what I applied for.  Hard-working, tax-paying, medium-sized retail investors have been squeezed out by 109,000 of the great unwashed who each applied for – and will get – the minimum lot of 500 shares.  Assuming a 20% bounce in the price when trading starts, I will gain around HK$10,000.  An insult to my bank balance.  What am I supposed to do with it?

THE ANSWER arrives on my desk.  I can buy 85 copies of the new-look, 10-times-a-year
Far Eastern Economic Review at its newsstand price of US$15.  Although it announces itself as being ‘Vol 168, No 1’, this is clearly not the publication that struck FEER into the hearts of Asian tyrants in the old days, nor the children’s version introduced under Dow Jones.  It is a Foreign Affairs wannabee, non-glossy, strictly for grown-ups and with no pictures.  It is published in Hong Kong, despite an earlier announcement – presumably by someone on hallucinogenic drugs – that it would somehow come out of Beijing.  The articles, mostly by little-known academics, look readable at first glance.  Book reviews are by the usual suspects – Gordon Crovitz, Jonathan Mirsky and the esteemed Mr Joe Studwell.  The back page has a cartoon and a painless and brief Travellers Tales, with a request for contributions – there must be a backlog of steamed crap out there.  I would probably not pay money for it, but I will gratefully accept the Big Boss’s copy.  It is printed on nice, absorbent paper, so it’s bound to be useful for something.  And, I am delighted to find, American spelling is being used, which is guaranteed to irritate bores and inadequates the length and breadth of Tartary.