Hemlock's Diary

The ravings of Hong Kong's most obnoxious expat
18-24 May 2003
Sun, 18 May
A distraught phone call from Mee, the Thai wife of ex-Mormon missionary Odell.  Very garbled, but it seems her better half is in a cell at Wanchai police station. I go down there and demand, as his lifestyle counsellor, to see him.  They show me into a windowless room with a desk and a couple of chairs.  After a few minutes, Odell is led in and sits down.  I lean across the table.  "Mee says you were arrested at 2am for assaulting a female taxi driver with a hammer," I tell him.  He leans back, runs his fingers through his hair and takes a deep breath.  "No, man, not a hammer – Mee didn't hear properly.  It's worse than that."  He looks at me despondently and bites his lip.   "It was a hamster."  We stare at each other in silence. Thank God we don't have the death penalty any more. "It's the US Senate's fault!" he cries.  "Bastards just voted to tax US citizens overseas for all our earnings.  I'm barely keeping my head above water as it is.  So I got drunk last night.  To relieve the stress."  I see his point. What kind of barbaric country makes you pay tax when you live offshore?  But will a Hong Kong jury see it that way?  At this stage, a policeman enters and I am ordered out to the front of the station.  After 30 minutes, a relieved Odell emerges.  "The cab driver is refusing to press charges!" he says triumphantly.  "She admits it was all consensual – if some passer-by hadn't called the cops, none of this would have happened."  And off we go.  Honorable taxi drivers, and you can get a hamster after midnight. Is this town great or what?

Mon, 19 May
The unfortunate organizer of Operation UNITE drops by my office. “This thing has taken on a life of its own,” he says.  “You raise too much money from tycoons for a worthy cause, and you get this spontaneous eruption of pointless activity – you can’t stop it.”  “Like the
Better Hong Kong Foundation,” I suggest. “A dozen tycoons cough up HK$5 million each in 1995 to say things will be fine post-97, and eight years later it’s still there, organizing tedious events and issuing self-important press releases.”  He nods.  “So what do you think about this?” he asks.  “After the WHO lifts its SARS travel advisory in Hong Kong, we get thousands of people near a runway at the airport all wearing red, forming a big heart. Then a pop concert.”  Too polite to tell him what I think, I shrug.  “Don’t you see the symbolism?” he asks.  “Airport! Hong Kong takes off again!  Get it?”  I try to look excited and inspired. Without all this money, Hong Kong would send out the perfect message to the world by simply getting back to business as usual.  Because of all these funds, however, the self-appointed worthies behind Operation UNITE have to produce an embarrassing, patronizing publicity stunt that has “low self-esteem” written all over it.  We’d be better off if tycoons kept their money to themselves.
As it is not April the first, I must conclude that hallucinogenic drug use has broken out yet again among the South China Morning Post’s editorial writers, who call for Hong Kong to switch from “the British way of driving on the left” (as opposed to the Japanese, Thai, Indonesian, Macanese, South African, Australian, NZ or other methods of sinestral road use) to “driving on the right like the mainland does”.  It would then be possible, they say, to drive across the border without “worrying about crashing into oncoming traffic” when switching lanes.  They admit that planning for road rearrangements and the introduction of left-hand drive cars would be “elaborate”. Will email them and gently point out that a system of traffic lights at border crossings would probably suffice.
Tue, 20 May
An old family feud makes the Big Boss happy in the morning meeting, as he gloats over the fate of Lai Sun Development, whose share price has gone from HK$9.42 in 1997 to 2.3 cents today.  He laughed when Lai Sun’s 83-year-old Chairman Lim Por-yen was arrested in Taiwan in 1998, and 10 years ago, when blackmailers knocked Lim‘s son unconscious and videotaped him having sex with a man.  But mostly, he relishes the fact that Lai Sun makes S-Meg Holdings look brilliantly run.  Did Hong Kong ever see a sorrier collection of second-rate brands?  They have
sold their stake in ATV, the station no-one ever watches, at a HK$100 million loss – the opportunistic purchaser brilliantly screwing a lower price out of them because of SARS.  They still own Crocodile, the dowdy clothing chain that caters mainly for men who are 5 ft 6 and have 24-inch waists. And then there was the Furama Hotel, the base camp for Japanese office ladies planning daylight assaults on Central’s boutiques, and famous mainly for the “Revolting Restaurant” on the top floor.  They bought that for HK$6.9 billion at exactly the time the market peaked in mid-97, and sold it at a HK$2.3 billion loss.  And the Group still owes HK$8 billion or so.  The wonder of Hong Kong family-owned firms.  “My daddy was rich, therefore I am a gifted businessman.”
Wed, 21 May
How lucky I am to live in Hong Kong, where – apart from in Shatin, where time and space as we understand them have no meaning – life is blissfully normal and boring.  In the UK, people are
trying to be infected with HIV – and failing.  In China, morose-looking freak of nature Yao Ming is venerated as a living god because, at 7 ft 5, he can put a ball through a hoop without trying.  In New Zealand, the Italian ambassador is denouncing the plucky little nation as a “small Anglo-Saxon country where people … tell on each other” after gallant Kiwis quite rightly report his Latin driving habits to the police.   Meanwhile, for a bit of light relief, Indonesia is invading itself.  And here in uneventful Hong Kong?  Our only excitement is a feeble HK$3,000 tax rebate due in July.  And even this will be made less thrilling if dark forces have their way and the rebate comes not as cash, but in the form of vouchers good for purchases in our tiresome, SARS-hit retail outlets.  What an impertinence!  We would have to sell the coupons for 90% of their face value, leaving us with 10% less to spend in Shenzhen.
To the circus, to see the clowns debate whether Hong Kong should have democracy.  The most entertaining is the Liberal Party’s Powerpuff Girl, the ridiculous James Tien, who sits in silence, squirming and wishing he’d never once said he supported universal suffrage.  I come away in no doubt that democracy is a Bad Thing because: my daddy was rich, therefore I know what’s best/gwailos like it/you never know what might happen/we’d end up in chaos like the Philippines, where people are always late for appointments.  The pro-democracy camp’s arguments are less convincing.    A reasonably intelligent 14-year-old who reads the newspapers would probably make the point that a popular mandate would enable the Government to face down interest groups and get property developers, Mainland immigrants, civil servants and other parasites off our backs – but there are no 14-year-olds in Legco.
Thurs, 22 May
On Saturday, I will go to a workshop at Pacific Place Conference Centre on how to get a book published, run by noted author, satirist and philosopher Nuri Vittachi.  I can’t wait to show him the outline of my novel,
To Live and Die in Hong Kong – a series of vignettes, in each of which people narrowly avoid disaster thanks to a quirk of fate. The main common thread running through the stories will be the awfulness of the South China Morning Post. I have done four so far.
1. Mild-mannered secretary Amy Chan sees an ad in the SCMP for a sale of Hello Kitty accessories. However, a misprint in the rag leads her to the wrong address. Her disappointment is interrupted by the sound of screaming people and wailing ambulance sirens down the street, where the sale is actually taking place, and where hundreds of Hello Kitty fans perish in a stampede.
2. HKU graduate Harry Wong is applying for an Administrative Officer position in the civil service. Knowing that he will be asked to give an "opinion" in English on current affairs at the final interview, he memorizes SCMP editorials by rote. The interviewers, amazed at Harry's ridiculous views, reject him. Months later, the successful applicant is assigned the job of providing foot massages to horse-faced Commerce and Industry Secretary Henry Tang.
3. Seven year-old Chang Siu-fong buys a gerbil from a pet shop in Mongkok and gives it some pages of the SCMP to use as bedding in its cage. The ink in the paper poisons the creature, which an autopsy later shows to have been hosting enough bubonic plague-carrying lice to wipe out all of Siu-fong's SARS-surviving neighbours in Amoy Gardens.
4. Superstitious Karen Yeo is upset because she hasn't enough time one day to read and act upon her horoscope in the SCMP. Unknown to her, all-seeing astrologer Edwin Ma is warning all those born in the Year of the Ox (like Karen) to abstain from lotteries that day. The Mark Six ticket she would not have bought had she read the SCMP wins her HK$2 million – enough to buy her father the life-saving transplant of an executed prisoner's liver in Guangzhou.

I will take tomorrow off to prepare another 10 instructive and heart-lifting tales of this sort.