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

17-23 October 2004

Sun, 17 Oct
An afternoon barbecue on the lawn of the Peak residence of fragrant socialite and art gallery owner Rosabelle Lam.  The air carries the aroma of exquisitely marinated, sizzling cuts of caribou from Siberia, swordfish from the Pacific Ocean and wild boar from a New Territories golf course.  A quartet plays under a canopy.  Cheerful Filipino waitresses in black and white maids’ uniforms zip efficiently and unnoticed among the guests.  There is a price to pay.  Much as I dislike meeting ‘interesting new people’, and would be perfectly content to dangle Babycakes the poodle by its hind legs over the swimming pool, I am under orders to mingle.  So I do. 

One of our hostess’s fellow traders of artless Chinese photo-realist paintings tells me how she is struggling to come to terms with the murder of another art gallery owner in the Philippines last May.  An actress who appeared in
Raise the Red Sorghum grants me a well-rehearsed fleeting hello.  The debonair senior executive of a European luxury goods company pours me champagne and says he brought six cases with him.  Jenny the girl-from-Beijing-but-she’s-got-an-American-passport reports the recent purchase of a luxury property in the Mainland for her parents, noted Communist Party veterans who once served the people and denounced landlords.  A newly elected member of the Legislative Council is thinking of ditching Canadian citizenship in anticipation of possible appointment to the post-Tung Chee-hwa Government.  The champagne is very above-average, and by the time I get to the plump CEO of a large, locally listed Chinese company, I am in excellent form.  I start talking to him about the political situation in Hong Kong, and the complete disconnect – a Christine Loh word – between Beijing and local people. 

“Why did China insist on having Hong Kong back in 1997?” I ask the red capitalist.  He gives me a silent, serious look.  “The British offered to carry on running it for another 20 years,” I explain in a puzzled tone, “but old Deng Xiao-ping had a hizzy fit over that, so they said – ‘OK it’s yours’.  But why did Beijing take it over if they can’t handle it?  Why take over a city if you don’t trust its people? Crazy.”  He just nods.  I sense that I might not be getting through.  Is he a deaf mute?  Maybe he just doesn’t understand English.  Maybe he’s a deaf mute with no English.  Embarrassing for both of us.  Rosabelle should stick warning labels on people like this.

Mon, 18 Oct
The week gets off to a bad start with meddling, do-gooder NGOs yet again spouting lies through the liberal media.  This time, they are claiming that people living in poverty
aren’t happy.  Like many people on this side of the harbour, I envy the poor for the simplicity and convenience of their lives.  How quick and easy it must be to clean an apartment when there is one person for every 60 square feet of space – no need to hire any Filipino elves.  How economical it must be to exercise by dragging boxes of waste paper up steep streets, rather than pay monthly fees to a gym.  Such contentment among the lower orders obviously causes despondency among the NGOs, whose livelihoods depend on the existence of misery – hence all the recent hand-wringing about the poverty gap and the calls for a minimum wage. 

I discussed all this yesterday with the newly elected, potential ex-Canadian Legislative Councillor at Rosabelle’s.  Hong Kong currently has fairly high welfare and fairly low tax, I said.  But in the long run, we have to choose between the two.  Either we have high welfare and high tax, or low welfare and low tax.  If we take the high welfare/tax route, there’s more redistribution of wealth, we have stability, and everyone’s happy.  The poor, the middle-class investors, the cartels – everyone gets a slice of the action.  But the economy stagnates.  If we take the low welfare/tax option, we have to replace free lunches with more economic opportunities.  That means privatizing public housing, breaking up cartels, releasing more land – you upset existing interests.  But you get a vibrant economy.  I made it plain that I favour the latter.  Small government and ‘trickle down’.  “Let them eat Laffer Curves,” I remember shouting as the novice Legislator hurried away towards an old friend.
A PHONE call from the fragrant Rosabelle.  “Daahling,” she gushes, “just lovely to see you yesterday – thank you so much for coming!”  A wonderful party, I agree, adding how much I’m looking forward to the next one.  She suddenly turns slightly serious.  “A couple of guests mentioned that someone got a bit troublesome.  Loud and boring – you know.  A Westerner.  You wouldn’t happen to know who, would you?”  I raise the mouthpiece to my scalp so she can hear me scratch my head.  In a subdued ‘between-you-and-me’ tone I suggest that the culprit was the French character who brought crates of his company’s champagne.  “Jean-Francois?” she replies.  “No, he’s such a sweety – and he’s half Senegalese.  They would have said if he was black.”  I promise to find out and ensure that the individual concerned behaves in future.  She thanks me profusely.  “Babycakes is missing you already…”  I bid her farewell and hear her drift into the distance as I put the phone down “…aren’t you baby?  Mmmm, yes, give mummy a kiss.”
Tue, 19 Oct
It was exactly 17 years ago at 7.30 this morning that Albert Wong stared at me in horror from the bathroom of the apartment we shared in an old, three-storey house on Robinson Road.  Blood was streaming down his face and dripping on the tiled floor.  I hadn’t touched him.  I had simply announced a number – 508.  I wonder what became of bumptious Albert, the trainee fund manager who bought yuppie status symbols he couldn’t afford or use, like coffee-making machines.  He never read the papers, except for the financial section.  And he certainly didn’t listen to the news on the radio in the morning.  “Heard what happened to the market last night?” I had casually asked him   Of course he hadn’t.  He expressed a nonchalant interest in how many points the Dow had fallen.  He should have stopped shaving while I
told him.

“IT WOULD have been tomorrow Hong Kong time.”  A phone call from the alert princess of public service, shapely Administrative Officer Winky Ip, reminds me that Hong Kong learns of 19 October stock market crashes in the US on 20 October.  But she is not calling just to teach me about time zones.  “Although it’s complete rubbish,” she tells me, “your website is at least quite wholesome.  There’s no nudity.  Very little obscenity.  And even the occasional scenes of violence and animal cruelty are acceptable if you look at them in context – Jehovah’s Witnesses and dogs.”  I thank her for these compliments.  She obviously wants a favour.  “Umm, have you thought of entering it into the
Ten Healthy Websites Competition?” she asks.  “They need some more entries.”  I demand to know more, and she gives me the whole story.  Her colleagues at the Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority needed to spend money at short notice, otherwise they might have their budget cut next year.  So they called up the Salvation Army, who are famous for helping people in danger of financial distress.  And they suggested a campaign to stamp out onanism and on-line gambling among the spotty, spiky-haired youth of our fair city – or as Winky puts it, “to encourage youngsters to visit the cyber world in a positive and healthy manner.”  Reluctantly, tempted by the prize of three nights’ non-stop rutting in Bangkok, I let Winky nominate my healthy site.  Healthy, at least, compared with the organizers’ own on-line presence, which suffers a deceased English section and, when viewed on Mozilla Firefox, has a Chinese section stricken with leprosy, tertiary syphilis and halitosis.

Wed, 20 Oct
So it was exactly 17 years ago at 7.30
this morning that Albert Wong stared at me in horror with blood dripping from his chin – plop, plop, plop, onto the tiles.  The voluptuous Winky is smart.  She is wasted in the civil service, but the private sector can’t compete with the Government’s outlandish pay scales.  I find myself wondering – what is the opportunity cost to the economy of so many fine minds sitting around doing nothing useful in Lower Albert Road?
THE BIG Boss drags me off on a courtesy visit to the Hong Kong Mortgage Corporation in their palatial headquarters at the top of the gargantuan concrete penis that is IFC2.  I think it is the first time I have ever set foot on the 80th floor of any building.  After pleasantries, a suave official gives us a short history of this public-sector empire, founded to purchase and securitize banks’ mortgage portfolios and currently making a big profit.  Then the briefing gets interesting.  “A while ago,” he says, “we noticed that a nasty little company called Pan Asia was starting to offer innovative mortgages to the market.  As a huge, Government-owned entity, we naturally did all we could to stamp out this private-sector competition.  However, our business faces even more challenges.”  He explains how the supply of mortgages is drying up, and the interest rates on many of them are too low.  He looks at us expectantly.  Obviously, he is going to tell us that the Corporation has essentially completed its mission and will now be trimmed down, sold off or simply closed.

“So we are seeking opportunities to expand into new areas of business,” he tells us with an enthusiastic grin.  “There are all sorts of mortgage products that we haven’t offered in the past – we’ve been leaving too much to free enterprise.  We can securitize other sorts of consumer debt, and maybe even rental incomes.  And why do we need to stop in Hong Kong?  There’s a whole world out there.”  The Big Boss and I leave the gold-trimmed, plush-carpeted, luxury offices in silence, depressed by the way public-sector parasites are killing capitalism in Hong Kong.  The Trade Development Council crowds the private sector out of the trade fair business.  The HK Productivity Council drives independent consultants out of the market.  Cyberport and Science Park lure tenants from private-sector landlords with below-market rents.  The Government owns the luxury Le Meridien hotel.  And we will soon become the only place in the world with a state-owned Disney Land.  The Opportunity Cost of Having Gifted Empire Builders in the Public Sector – Chapter 6 of
How I Trashed Asia’s Greatest City by Tung Chee-hwa.
Thurs, 21 Oct
The day gets off to an interesting start when I emerge from the Egyptian cotton sheets of my bed, cross the Kashgar carpet and find that my bedroom door is jammed.  After much pushing, I eventually open it about six inches – just enough for my slender and lithe form to pass through into the hallway.  I wade towards the main room up to my knees in thick drifts of paper.  Small, oblong pieces of paper, red, brown and yellow in colour, mainly featuring the familiar face of Bonzo the retarded lion, the mascot of our leading financial institution.  It is, of course, money, and it takes me half an hour to gather it up in large black plastic garbage bags – relieved and flattered, no doubt, to be filled with something pleasant-smelling and valuable.  All becomes clear when I sit down to rest and open a backlog of mail.  It is dividends, courtesy of Swire, Petrochina and the
aforementioned HSBC, among others.  Why do I go into S-Meg Tower every day and pretend to work?  More to the point, how can I live with myself – enjoying comfort and abundance and wanting for nothing, while so many others suffer poverty, despair and misery?  I am struck by guilt.  I resolve to spread my wealth around a bit.  En route to the office, I will drop by Pacific Coffee in IFC Mall and treat ex-Mormon friend Odell to a cup of hot, brown, water-flavoured liquid and a wheatgrass muffin.

Fri, 22 Oct
Chung Yeung festival.  The ninth day of the ninth moon.  And a day that would threaten boredom for those of us with no graves that need sweeping, were it not for the Internet.  ‘
My name is Ulrich Haarbürste and I like to write stories about Roy Orbison being wrapped up in cling-film'.  My holiday is complete.