Hemlock's Diary

The ravings of Hong Kong's most obnoxious expat
16-22 November 2003
Mon, 17 Nov
An email from an admirer in a mid-ranking Hong Kong company, seeking guidance and wisdom.  She asks if I can recommend a way for her colleagues – some bullied to tears – to wreak righteous vengeance on a bitchy boss, a 32 year-old marketing manager who claims she’s 28 and is widely known to be desperate to get married.  The boss expects a present from her adoring staff for her forthcoming 33rd/29th birthday.  Serendipity!   Someone has devised a product specifically for this set of circumstances, and I am delighted to advise that they buy one as a gift for this unpleasant-sounding woman.  It’s a book – Find a Husband After 35 Using What I Learned at Harvard Business School by one Rachel Greenwald.  To quote the cover blurb…
“…These innovative tactics will empower any woman to find a husband quickly and efficiently – and not just any husband: a wonderful husband.  In her bold, no-nonsense style, Greenwald tells women how to package their assets, develop a personal brand, leverage niche marketing, use direct mail and telemarketing to get the word out, establish a husband-hunting budget, and hold quarterly performance reviews to assess the results...”
It is essential, I point out, that everyone in the office write cheery, personal birthday greetings, complete with little smiling faces, in the front of the volume.

When a man is tired of IFC Mall, he is tired of life.  Despite its staffing problems, CitySuper is a gourmet's heaven.  The Pacific Coffee is not just another branch of the latte-and-sofas chain, but the one where the beautiful people go to see and be seen.  Then there's Pret a Manger to satisfy sudden urges for lobster-ginger-alfalfa wholemeal sandwiches accompanied by guava and camomile yogurt.  And there's a downtown airport check-in and the Airport Express station for a quick getaway.  And as if all that weren't enough, the mall now has a cinema.  For the first time in several years, I watch a movie.  The seats are like the armchairs in Pacific Coffee – is that normal these days? I spend the afternoon watching
Goodbye Lenin, a German adaptation of Rip Van Winkle in the era of Erich Honecker's departure.  I must be the only person in the theatre who ever actually went through Checkpoint Charlie, with its huge steel revolving turnstiles and electronic gates.  The contrast between life under communism and capitalism clearly amuses the Hong Kong audience.  And the story features a delicious extra dimension for us fans of Shenzhou V – patriotic and ultimately vacuous celebration of East Germany's first man in space.  Hearing the chortling around me, I can't help wondering why I am not alone at this movie.  Don't these people have jobs to go to on a Monday afternoon?   The answer surely is that they have the right to choose.  IFC Mall – a monument to capitalism and freedom.  And being a shareholder of Sun Hung Kai doesn't hurt.

Tue, 18 Nov
Gliding to work on the Mid-Levels Escalator, Hong Kong’s middle class are in a joyful, almost festive mood.  There are two reasons.  First, the unemployment rate has
fallen to an auspicious 8 percent, and our visionary Government can take the credit.  Having hired every middle-aged Nepalese woman in town to scrub the streets with nailbrushes, it has now recruited hundreds of shy, gawky teenagers to stand around Lan Kwai Fong in blue singlets, acting as tourism ambassadors.  They perform a simple, three-step duty.  1) Approach anyone with a white face, offer a map and say “welcome to Hong Kong, city of life.” 2) Smile inanely on being told “I’ve lived here longer than you’ve been alive.”  3) (In the case of females) awkwardly consider a tempting offer of a free English lesson back at Perpetual Opulence Mansions.  The second reason for middle-class jollity is confirmation that the long-rumoured new weekly Spike appears this Friday.  As is always the case with a publication run by the esteemed Stephen Vines, the better it is, the sooner it will fold.  My bookmaking friend Heung Kwok-leung is offering attractive odds on the publication vanishing by April, which suggests it will be very good indeed.  The list of contributors has an almost inevitable predictability about it, with one omission – Nury Vittachi, whose enthralling accounts of bad English on Phnom Penh restaurant menus would probably keep the new publication going until June, at least.  Still, such a short lifespan will make it easier to buy every issue as an investment.  Like my carefully stored, mint-condition boxes of Darkie Toothpaste, a bound set of Spike will surely be worth millions one day.

Wed, 19 Nov
In the absence of a functioning government in Hong Kong, strange alliances are forming.  Later today, the Democrats will put forward amendments to two motions being moved in the circus, revealing a curious, almost obsessive interest in the establishment of a “river-loop industrial zone” on the border with Shenzhen – just like Li Ka-shing
proposed to President Hu in September.  To offer one such amendment raises a few eyebrows.   To push Superman’s idea through identical amendments to two unrelated motions looks embarrassing and desperate.  Anyway, the motions themselves should not be amended – they should be rammed up their proposers’ backsides with red-hot pokers.  One motion calls on the Government to lavish public wealth upon tycoons who move factories back here from the Mainland, or “treat backbone industries as part of the infrastructure”, to use legislator Lui Ming-wah’s elegant phrasing.  The other, from the loquacious Chan Yuen-han, eschews blatant self-interest in favour of plain dementedness and asks our leadership to “…collect views from different sectors of the community for the purpose of reviewing and improving the existing policies relating to various industrial and commercial sectors and, having regard to the characteristics of the different sectors, implement the policies flexibly…” and make everything wonderful, to cut a long story short.

Thurs, 20 Nov
The sound of sliding drawers and rustling paper permeates Hong Kong’s more civilised neighbourhoods as the city’s hard-working, clean-living, disenfranchised middle class pull out the dreaded green envelope and prepare to pay the first instalment of their annual salaries tax.  They bear an insufferable burden.  Wholesale and retail cartels suck their blood with every purchase of essential goods and services.  Across the harbour, entitlement-crazed lower orders demand to be clothed, fed, housed, schooled and healed.  And then there is the world’s most overmanned, overpaid and arrogant civil service to support.  Typing pools with nothing to type since 1992.  Traffic wardens who mysteriously issue double the usual number of parking tickets when they are accompanied by an Audit Commission official.  Mike Rowse, serving the community by chucking millions of its dollars down the drain.  Hordes of street cleaners and tourism ambassadors knocking a tenth of a percentage point off the unemployment rate by sitting on railings and looking at their mobile phones.  Administrative Officers on six-figure packages devising expensive schemes to enhance, encourage, stimulate and assist free enterprise out of existence.  It is good to know that my salaries tax will be used to the full.  Does the noble CH Tung have a sense of history, I wonder?
“…HE has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harrass our People, and eat out their Substance … IN every stage of these Oppressions we have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble Terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated Injury. A Prince, whose Character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the Ruler of a free People....”
Fri, 21 Nov
Hong Kong Police step up patrols outside the UK Consulate and HSBC’s HQ.  Al-Qaeda chose those targets in Istanbul yesterday, so obviously they would do the exact same here, wouldn’t they?  The world changes, but our public safety agencies never lose their near-autistic assumption that tragedies replicate themselves in tiny detail.  The response to the Bali bombing last year was to post a van full of constables in Lan Kwai Fong every evening, as if godless, booze-guzzling gwailos are the only target in town and congregate nowhere else.  The response to a fire bomb attack on immigration officials was to source special flame-retardant jackets with built-in extinguishers, as if it would never occur to other deranged right-of-abode protesters to go berserk with any other weapon.  The response to fatal landslides one stormy summer was to cover every hillside in town with ugly concrete and give it a number, as if forces of nature and laws of physics are subject to Civil Service approval.  The response to the deaths of revellers in Lan Kwai Fong one New Year’s Eve years ago was to become obsessed with crowd micro-management in that specific location, and develop a morbid fear of squirty foam.  Not that I envy anyone the task of guarding against fundamentalist Moslem suicide bombers.  Their choice of career, like that of all martyrs from St Joan to Saigon’s self-immolating monks, indicates an extreme version of the mental health problem that is religious faith.  Even the most lateral-thinking law enforcers don’t stand a chance.

There is probably a book here.  Another instance occurs to me of Hong Kong officials going to bizarre lengths to ensure there is no repetition of almost-irreproducible mishaps.  The autistic (as it happens) boy who somehow slipped passed immigration controls and was sent “back” to Shenzhen when he tried to return – never to be seen again.  The response was to train immigration officials to detect signs of autism, as if people with any other neurological condition would be immune from the system failures that allowed the boy to exit Hong Kong with no papers.