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

12-18 September 2004

Sun, 12 Sept
Election day.  The woman in charge of the ballot box tells me off patiently for folding up my ballot paper the wrong way.  Apart from this inadvertent attempt to unleash anarchy and mayhem in the polling station, I cast my vote painlessly and uneventfully.  Civic duty done, I stroll down to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club for an early lunch of
nasi goreng.  The FCC version of the dish is served with no fewer than four variants of chicken – fried (a leg on the side), grilled (two pieces of satay on the side), stir-fried (shredded and mixed into the fried rice) and unborn (the egg on top).  Plus, of course, a prawn cracker, which is to Indonesian cuisine what ballot paper-folding regulations are to Hong Kong democracy – that little touch that makes everything perfect.
Mon, 13 Sep
As the sun rises over Hong Kong, who should I bump into as I stroll along Lower Albert Road than shapely Administrative Officer Winky Ip?  Being on election duty, she did not get to bed last night.  She explains the reasons for yesterday’s ballot paper-folding
woes.  Ballot boxes filled up unexpectedly fast, she says, owing to the amazing stupidity of Hong Kong voters like myself, who don’t understand that there is a correct way – and only one correct way – to fold a piece of paper.  It is not like skinning a cat.   As a result, there was a shortage of ballot boxes.  Some ballot boxes therefore had to be opened, so female election officers could jump up and down on the contents, like they do with their suitcases before taking a weekend in Bangkok.  Fed up with waiting, some voters later yesterday wandered off without voting.  “Isn’t it true,” I ask her, “that people who vote at that time of the day tend to be weighted more towards the younger age group, and thus the pro-democracy camp?  That’s why the weather can affect the outcome of a vote.”  She mumbles something about how the effect is purely marginal.  “But so’s the gap in total votes between some candidates,” I remind her.  She sighs.  I can’t resist giving her a suggestion.  “Maybe next time we should hand over our election administration to the Philippines,” I tell her.  “We could have nuns guarding the ballot boxes, grinning soldiers with automatic rifles guarding the nuns, and a ban on alcohol sales to make sure everything is above-board, happy and wonderful.”  I get a tired, withering look.  Poor Winky obviously needs some sleep.  She would do well to stay in bed for a while.  Days, if not weeks, of insufferably tedious debate are looming
I flick through the election results and find them largely unremarkable, given the perversities of the proportional representation system and the DAB’s ability to mobilize Hong Kong’s extensive senile-geriatric vote.  Several victors promise to keep the circus entertaining in the next four years.  Leung Kwok-leung, or ‘long hair’ – a genuine communist who will dazzle fellow legislators with his ability to speak without notes.  Chim Pui-chung – a convicted criminal, once again representing the Financial Services constituency, this time with deep malice in his heart towards the Government.   And Albert Cheng – the former radio commentator who combines the forensic skills of a pit-bull with the public policy expertise of a hamster.

Tue, 14 Sep
On the top floor of S-Meg Tower, the Big Boss is in a good mood in the morning meeting.  Not one, but two members of the next Legislative Council attribute their victories on Sunday to his assistance.  They are well-connected, and officials in Hong Kong and Beijing will be pleased, even relieved, to see one of them elected.  The Company Gwailo played a role, working unnaturally hard by his standards last week, helping the two candidates to fashion last-minute appeals to voters and offering purely hypothetical examples of how real or imagined details of opponents’ private and business lives might affect their electability.  Are we not all prostitutes?  I doubt that our efforts made a difference, but that doesn’t matter.  The Big Boss is glowing after receiving a word of thanks from a senior member of Government.  That’s all that matters.  He is carried away with gratitude.  “I’m giving Hemlock a few weeks off,” he declares to Human Resources Manager Ms Leung Yuk-mei.  She looks crestfallen.  You can’t run a company like this, her eyes say as she nods dumbly to the visionary Chairman and Managing Director.  The downside of this ‘rule of man’ approach to corporate management is that decisions can be reversed.  “Have a couple of weeks’ extra paid leave” can swiftly become “Be back on Thursday” when the Big Boss has second thoughts about the scale of his generosity.  Which is why I am making frantic phone calls to airlines and travel agents.  I have 24 hours before he comes to his senses.

Why are all the flights full?  Don’t people have jobs to do?  Don’t they have access to teleconferencing systems?  Don’t their brats have schools to go to?  After much effort, I finally book a seat for tonight.  Slumming it in business class, I will be deposited in Paris at dawn tomorrow.  I will transfer to a flight to Zeb Al-Kebir, for my first visit in years.  No-one knows I am coming, so it will be a surprise.  After a few days, I will be off to the UK.  And if all goes to plan, there will be an interlude in and around the Mid-Atlantic region of the US – the un-deep South. 

Before going home to pack, I have a few beers in the pub in Lan Kwai Fong with wild American friend Odell.  He brings the grinning Mormon missionary Edsel with him.  Odell recounts his one and only visit to the UK, back when he was in Edsel’s position.  “I’d just become a missionary,” he recalls.  “They sent me to some place called Preston.  People spoke with funny accents.  Know where it is?”  I think about it.  I’ve heard the name somewhere.  Scotland, perhaps?  Somewhere up north.  “Well, anyway,” Odell continues, “when I left I was at Heathrow airport.  I met a soccer hooligan about to go somewhere.  He had a six-pack of strong beer.  He made me help him drink it.  He said the cans would blow up in the plane when it took off.”  Odell sighs and scratches his head.  “He hadn’t flown before.”  Edsel is still grinning away.  He doesn’t touch booze.  He won’t have a Coke.  I’ve ordered diet water for him.  Odell looks slightly embarrassed.  “So that was, like, the beginning of my decline.”  I haven’t heard this story before, but it makes sense.  Edsel puts down his water and announces something.  “We’re going to Wanchai this evening.  Apparently, there are a lot of lost souls there looking for the truth.”  I make my excuses and leave.

Back at Perpetual Opulence Mansions, I have time for a shower and a change of clothes.  Then it is off to the airport.  I aim to be out of Hong Kong until early October.  I will take this diary with me, but as we all know, nothing interesting ever happens outside the Big Lychee, so I will probably have nothing to write in it. 

Next stop – the plane.
Wed, 15 Sep
Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Hong Kong anymore.  The immigration officer thumbing through my passport has a black moustache.  The customs officers extracting cash tips from migrant workers all have black moustaches.  In the dusty arrivals hall, the young teenage boys in pale coloured smocks are all trying to have black moustaches.  I ask one to show me to a taxi to go straight to Sidi Zarba, rather than go into downtown Zab El Kebir.  He leads me out of the terminal, past people, boxes and grimy vehicles to a big, battered Peugeot station wagon.  The driver straps my pack to the roof rack.  Within 20 minutes, he has assembled a full load of fares – local men returning from jobs overseas, a couple of women in veils, a small child and me. 

Months of this sunshine have left the winter barley fields dry and yellow.  After driving 10 miles, we come to an unexplained mid-wilderness halt.  Two young men get out and trudge off across the parched landscape.  We drive on a few hundred yards, up to a roadblock.  Brown uniforms, a Land Rover and automatic rifles guard a strip of thick canvas studded with upturned nails placed across the highway.  A black moustache appears at the window.  A finger counts passengers.  He shouts something about a ‘nazrani’ – one from Nazareth.  A second hirsute upper lip approaches and leans down.  The owner peers at me.  Not interested.  He strolls away and shouts at another soldier, who rolls up the strip of nails and nods to us.  We drive on for a minute, then slow down and wait for the two surplus passengers, plodding towards us in the dust. 

Half an hour later, down a slightly malodorous but tidy alleyway, I knock on a large, old wooden gate.  A smaller door within the gate opens and a woman pokes her head out.  “Teacher Hemlock not here,” she informs me through a purple shawl.  “In Kasbat Hadla.”  She looks at me suspiciously.  “Tomorrow,” she adds.  I smile.  No problem, I tell her.  God be with you.  I walk back to the main square and hurry over to the dilapidated Hotel Sidi Zarba before any of my fellow travellers, some of whom are waiting to be met, insist on burdening me with their hospitality and their families with an unnecessary guest.  I get a room overlooking the school and the market.  The 40-watt bulb in the ceiling works.  The hosepipe next to the recently-cleaned en-suite hole in the floor is in top condition.  The bedsheets don’t look infested with anything.  Toto nods in agreement.

Thurs, 16 Sep
I wake to a knock at the door.  “This is Al-Qaeda!  We come to slit your throat!  Open up, you Zionist dog!”  I do as I am ordered and find cousin Jay Madison Hemlock, English teacher to the gentry.  Witty as ever.  “Brilliant surprise!” he shouts.  “You should’ve told me you were coming!” Over breakfast of coffee, croissants and apricot jam at the café next door, he explains how he was away last night comforting a homesick Peace Corps member – a nurse from Oregon.  Public-spirited as ever.  The café has a picture of Bob Marley on one wall, and one of Bruce Lee on another.  Kids in grimy tunics and plastic sandals run in from the street, shout “Christians sons of Jews!” at us and dash out, giggling.  Across the street, an elderly man in a cloak and a turban strokes his white beard.  Holding his other hand is a woman in a familiar-looking shawl.  “Remember my landlord, Moulay Abdullah?” asks Jay.  Of course.  We go over to greet him.  He is nearly blind now, but says he is pleased to see me looking well.  He ignores the children who run up to him and kiss his sleeve, hoping some
baraka will rub off onto them from this direct descendent of the Prophet. It might teach the little brats some manners.

Jay is in class all day.  I stroll the streets and hear “hello”, “where you from?” and “excuse me, what’s the time?” from every young adult male in town – Jay’s pedagogical achievements.  Near the market, I follow a calf being led, with obvious reluctance, into the small abattoir.  The butcher in his thick leather apron grasps the creature by the head and wrestles it neatly to the ground.  Within seconds, his knife has worked round from the left of the throat  to the right, severing the head at the neck completely, except for the spine.  Its heart pumps a final spurt of blood onto the concrete floor, pink froth oozes from the windpipe, and its big brown eyes stop rolling, fixed on me.  Minutes later, it is hanging from the wall, skinned and eviscerated. 

Back at Jay’s place, behind the big wooden gate and up some stairs, I test the local Internet connection.  Through a creaky dial-in, I read that the fairy-tale marriage of a Discovery Bay belle and a Danish prince – a story that captured Hong Kong’s heart nine years ago – is
to end.  How do I explain my glee on learning about this misfortune befalling two strangers?  It can only be because the Copenhagen divorce leaves long-forgotten, hackneyed writers of long-discarded, sugary newspaper articles looking silly.  I felt the same way over the wretched Diana. Media-created fantasy crashes into reality, heartless cynics worldwide rejoice at being proved right. Full details at 10.  

In the evening, Jay and I cross his empty, murky courtyard, go along a short passageway and into a much nicer courtyard with a tree and banquettes in it.  Moulay Abdullah puts down a grandchild and ushers us into a long, dark room to the side.  His two sons join us, and we sit on cushions on the floor around a low round table.  His wife comes in to say hello.  She is upset that I was turned away yesterday.  Daughters-in-law – the newest one being she of the purple wrap – bring in bread, fresh out of the open-topped oven, and two earthenware bowls of steaming, spiced stew.  A small black girl, no more than nine, brings a silver bowl, soap, a jug of water and a towel.  She moves round the table and we each wash our right hand.  After a quick “bismillah” from the old man, we squeeze pieces of the rough bread in our fingers and dip into the tajin.  For a special treat tonight, it is beef – young and tender.  I pull out a gleaming piece of meat from the cumin-laced oil and take a look at it.  So… we meet again.