|The ravings of Hong Kong's most obnoxious expat
14-20 November 2004
|Sunday, 14 Nov
In our continuing effort to find Soho’s worst value-for-money restaurant, wild American friend Odell and I try the new Venezuelan-Asian fusion place on Staunton Street. He chooses Arepas Rellenas Con Guiso De Carne, which is served with a medley of seasonal vegetables. I go for the barbecued alligator tail, which comes with a rhapsody of seasonal vegetables.
Odell shows me his finger so I can inspect a fungal infection under the nail. By strange coincidence, he informs me, his Thai wife Mee also has a fungal infection. “In her, um, private parts,” he mutters. Sensing a fast-approaching need for a change of subject, I give a friendly nod to the family at the next table and recommend the roast leg of free-range plantain with spicy chocolate gravy. Before long we are chatting with Sanjoy, his wife Sharmila and their two obedient children. “Isn’t it wonderful having a Sunday off,” asks the beaming Sanjoy, his wife eagerly nodding in agreement. After pointing out that it’s not that unusual, Odell and I discover what must be Hong Kong’s worst value-for-money employer – Sanjoy’s 84 year old Indian boss, who runs a small trading company. “Standard hours are 8am to 8pm, Monday to Saturday” Sanjoy tells us, “but 10 til 4 on Sundays and public holidays. I’m on leave today.” We try to convince him that this is illegal. Even Indonesian domestic helpers get a day off a month to keep them halfway sane, or at least get them out of the apartment when they’re in heat. “Nobody can leave until the boss goes,” says Sanjoy. This man does more hours in a week than I do in a month.
Our meals are served, and it transpires that a rhapsody is a medley with no carrot.
Mon, 15 Nov
On the 20th floor of S-Meg Tower, in the central business district of Asia’s international financial hub, the invasion of the 2005 corporate desk diaries begins. Massed ranks of them – big and small, fat and thin, leather-bound and strange-smelling plastic-bound – charge into Private Office proudly bearing their logos, nipping at the ankles of panicky secretaries, and leaping up onto desks in an effort to secure positions at the right hand of forward-thinking, well-organized executives. Within minutes, they start to infiltrate the company gwailo’s lair, sprinting for cover behind a filing cabinet, jumping onto a guest chair and then storming the barricades of my ‘In’ tray. One by one, I swat them off into the bin, until I am overwhelmed and wave the white A4 sheet of surrender. Fortunately, there is no shortage of deprived wretches who see tacky and burdensome corporate gifts as objects of desire. Ms Fang the hunter-killer secretary will have the big leather-bound planners, to dispense to the lower orders of clerical staff as evidence of her high status. The smaller leather-bound diaries can go to the three Stanleys in the mailroom, for distribution among venerable, gap-toothed grandparents in the darkest recesses of public housing estates and Guangzhou pig farms. The rest will be graciously bestowed upon the two Filipino elves up in Perpetual Opulence Mansions, who will integrate them into the foreign aid programme that keeps Manila and Cebu supplied with towels, Lux soap and second-hand toys. I will manage to get rid of them all, but only with great and resented effort. Those who claim ‘Promotional items ensure that your clients remember you’ speak the truth.
|Tue, 16 Nov
‘Another perfect storm brewing’ reads the title of activist Christine Loh’s latest email. She hails the West Kowloon Cultural Development as the new Cyberport or Article 23 – a lightening rod for public discontent with Hong Kong’s visionary Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa. She reminds us that under the original 1994 plan the area was supposed to be a huge open park. She drops phrases like ‘disguised property project’ and ‘instant art’, and claims that the project “would lead to control of the Kowloon property market for the winning developers.” The latter will presumably be the consortium involving Li Ka-shing, to whose son Richard the crop-haired one saw fit to transfer a staggering amount of the public’s wealth in the form of the Cyberport luxury residential project. “The government had promised a 6 months consultation period,” notes Christine, “which has now been shortened to 6 weeks, including the upcoming Christmas/New year holiday period.” Steve Vines joins in with ‘Just another Cyberport’.
|And before me, glamorous Administrative Officer Winky Ip winces as I pour a bowl of chili sauce onto my breakfast noodles at Yuet Yuen restaurant, and continue pressing her to spill the beans about the vast canopy that, she claims, absolutely, definitely, must form part of Cultureport, this monstrous vanity project and gift to the developers. “Go on,” I urge her “admit it – it’s because old tofu-for-brains wants the thing to be visible from space – a monument to his greatness as the first leader of Hong Kong after its return from the evil barbarians to the glorious motherland.” Just a rumour I heard. She shakes her head. “Well come on,” I beg her in my best little-boy-wanting-a-cookie voice, “no-one’s listening – why is this huge roof so important?” With a sigh, she puts down her chopsticks and tells me the prosaic truth. It’s the only way the Government can stop the developers from covering the site with massive towers. Without a physical barrier, they will find a loophole, produce an ambiguously worded clause in the contract or simply suffer a tragic case of forgetfulness, and construct yet another ugly, view-obscuring wall of skyscrapers. The stunning official incompetence underlying this ludicrous explanation is all too believable. I find myself reduced to staring into my congee in silent wonder.
Wed, 17 Nov
The Big Boss rails against Hong Kong’s blind, self-indulgent pro-democracy movement in the morning meeting. “They’re stupid,” he splutters, moving the ceramic three-legged toad to one side – a sure sign he is preparing to thump the table. “All this nonsense about a referendum! It’ll be 2020 before there’s democracy here at the earliest, and it’ll be their fault!” Like other closet reformists among the Big Lychee’s patriotic tycoons, the Big Boss leans towards universal suffrage for practical rather than idealistic reasons. It is partly an exasperated reaction against the disaster that has befallen the city in the form of Tung Chee-hwa. Anything would be better. But it is mainly driven by sheer jealousy and loathing of the prime contenders for the job, who are mauling each other behind closed doors this very moment.
The Big Boss gestures to his Mainland fixer Freddy Mao and asks who he thinks will be the next Chief Executive. CY Leung, ventures Freddy hesitantly. “Impossible!” shouts the great man, banging the table with his fist. Quite right, too – the idea of a jack-booted half-Rumanian Satanist running Hong Kong sends a shiver down the spine. The Big Boss invites HR manager Ms Leung
|Yuk-mei to offer a prediction. Peter Woo, she suggests. “Pah! Never,” mutters the emperor of S-Meg Holdings, waving his hand dismissively. Indeed – replacing a talentless, economically illiterate son of a shipowner with a talentless, economically illiterate son-in-law of a shipowner is too much punishment, even for a place that was occupied by the British for 150 years and liked it. And besides, Woo is ineligible on the grounds that he openly lusts after the job, saliva dribbling from his sadistic lips at every mention of the phrase ‘CE’. The Chairman’s finger points at other members of his loyal management team in turn, eliciting a range of responses – the nice-but-dim Henry Tang, the educationally sub-normal stand-up comedian Ronnie Chan, Rosa Klebb’s evil twin Rita Fan and others – all greeted with derisive snorts, insults and table-slaps. Turning closer to my direction, the Big Boss asks the spotty accountant what he thinks. James Tien, comes the reply. The Big Boss screws his face up as if he is being offered a plate of dog’s diarrheoa – which, indeed, he is. Finally, it is the company gwailo’s turn. “It should be you,” I say righteously. This prompts a slight grin and a grunt. I glance across to my colleagues. That’s my year-end bonus in the bag. – too bad about the rest of you.|
|Thurs, 18 Nov
The great debate continues, as Mainland legal experts are dusted off and wheeled out to explain to the mischievous folk of the fragrant harbour why a referendum is unthinkable. The Basic Law does not make any provision for the consumption of mangos, they seem to suggest, therefore we are forbidden to eat mangos. Indeed, eating mangoes is a challenge to the sovereign power in Beijing. A threat to the nation. Perusing my copy of our Really Special Administrative Region’s mini-constitution, I am intrigued to find that not only does it not mention referendums, but it also avoids any references to puce lipstick, rear spoilers on Toyota saloons, tattoos, tongue studs, baldness, McDonald’s french fries and a thousand other forms of ugliness too numerous to list. Indeed, nowhere does it say we should have a local leadership that is too weak to do the things it should do and too incompetent to avoid doing the things it shouldn’t. Hong Kong must uphold the Basic Law, they tell us. When do we start? My thoughts are interrupted by an email from my old friend Mimi, the public affairs manager at the MTR.
|Guess what? True story. I was showing a group of middle-ranking officials from the Transport Department round yesterday on a familiarization tour. One of the questions they asked me was “do your trains run on diesel?”|
|Fri, 19 Nov
The boredom index today is high. People suffering from lack of interest are advised to stay indoors. An email from Mimi informs me that the MTR is considering a slogan to improve its accident-prone image – what do I think about ‘We’re 100 times better than the London Underground so shut up’? I like this approach. The Government could ditch ‘Asia’s World City’ and put up posters everywhere saying ‘Look on the bright side – you could be in Singapore’. I am interrupted by a phone call from Ms Fang the hunter-killer secretary. The Big Boss is at the airport, she tells me – do I want to speak to him before he boards his flight to Manila? Of course not. I never want to speak to him. I could ask him to bring me back a big bag of calamansi and some balut. But no – if he wants to head off to the land of cake shops with armed guards, I will let him be. I now declare this weekend officially open, and it’s not even mid-morning.
|OUTSIDE S-MEG Tower, I bump into Polly the lipstick lesbian and her podgy-faced lifelong companion Alice B, who drag me into the Mandarin coffee shop for tea. Alice B claims that the Chinese Government is considering legalizing the Falun Gong. The ridiculous cult’s on-line newspaper says so. “They would be creepy if they weren’t so absurd,” I say, “sitting in the lotus position on big raw pizzas and…” I am cut off in mid-rant by a sharp kick in the ankle courtesy of Polly’s Dolce & Gabbana violet snakeskin pointed-toe shoe. I forgot. Alice B is an occasional practitioner of the demented religion, sitting on the ground doing her breathing exercises while the law wheel in her abdomen spins round. I notice a copy of The Schedule for Sending Forth Righteous Thoughts at Set Times Around the World by her bag on the chair next me. I take a sip of tea and look at Alice B seriously, straight in the eye. “In Fa-rectification,” I tell her, “all of the cosmos's final, remaining things will be born anew as they are disintegrated and re-created, and the moment when the Fa rectifies the human world draws ever nearer.” She eyes me suspiciously. “Once the current time period is over,” I continue solemnly, “the first large-scale process of weeding out sentient beings will begin.” I look down, seeking spiritual inspiration. “For a Fa-rectification period Dafa disciple, personal liberation is not the goal of cultivation.” Alice B starts to look slightly mesmerized. “When you came, saving sentient beings was your great aspiration, and that is the responsibility and mission history has bestowed upon you in Fa-rectification. Thus great numbers of beings are to be saved by you.” Polly leans across the table and snatches the open copy of The Schedule for Sending Forth Righteous Thoughts at Set Times Around the World out of my lap. Time to go.