Hemlock's Diary

The ravings of Hong Kong's most obnoxious expat

19-25 January 2003
Fri, 17 Jan-Mon, 20 Jan
A wasted weekend, in both senses.  Crossed paths on Friday with S-Meg's spotty accountant in the lobby of the Manila Hotel.  He had already visited Magdusaka Investments and found it worthless. "One of the Big Boss's ideas," he said.  "Stay here a few days. I'll tell everyone you're still checking a few things."  Good man!  But what to do with four days in Manila?  Call an old friend – Fat Fritz the German factory manager, who left Hong Kong 10 years ago with a Filipino wife and has since gone native. He is thrilled I am in town. "Don't check into the hotel!  You stay with us, ja?"  Things go downhill from this point.

Since my last visit to Manila, Fat Fritz's wife Imelda has given birth to another three children, bringing the total to eight.  Most of them pull up two hours later in the family jeepney, Imelda waddling under the weight of number nine, due in a month.  We take a two-hour trip through half-built subdivisions with names like Dexterville Legacy, Moonwalk, and some place where all the streets are named after beauty queens, where we nearly collide with a van driven by a drunk American.  The Philippines hasn't changed.  Swarms of barefoot but well-manicured children, police cars with doors missing, three-legged dogs, cars with box-like home-made bodies, cake shops with armed guards. A sign says "Our Lady of Pillar Medical Center announces the opening of its animal bite center".  The moral of the story is, don't get colonized by the Spanish. Do the Malaysians and Singaporeans realize how lucky they were?
Fat Fritz's house is big.  And it needs to be, as large numbers of Imelda's extended family have installed themselves, lured from the provinces by the novelty of running water and electricity. A bright yellow karaoke machine the size of a US-style refrigerator occupies the driveway and draws an eager crowd of teenagers from the neighbourhood. It will be in use, at full volume, non-stop, for the next 72 hours. Indoors, more sappy pop music blares out from a CD player, while children attempt to pick out unrelated tunes on an electronic keyboard and the TV excitably urges everyone to buy canned sardines.  Dogs yap everywhere.  This is auditory hell.

Occupants of a spare room are told to make way for me, though no-one tells the ants in the bed.  The absence of toilet paper in the bathroom I can handle.  But I do need shampoo. End up using a bottle of "feminine wash” – if it's good enough for what I think it's for, it's good enough for my hair.  Memories of the three-day party are a haze. Half the neighbourhood turns up.  I consume large quantities of lambanog and ginebra, coconut and sugar cane spirits with hallucinatory qualities that mercifully numb the senses to the sound of karaoke, TV, children, dogs and other irritants. At any given time, someone is cooking bat adobo or something in the kitchen.  A pig is roasted on a spit at some stage.  At 3.00am one night, Fat Fritz produces coconut-size fireworks, which are fired from a 6-inch diameter tube. They shake the earth when fired from the flat roof of a half-finished house across the street, shoot hundreds of feet into the air faster than the eye can follow them, and explode into a chrysanthemum.  Quite an experience when directly beneath them, after lambanog. 
Dropped off at the airport by Fat Fritz and his brood on Monday afternoon.  I float into the departure hall hearing a voice shouting "Vee must do this again, ja?"

Tue, 21 Jan
Western men’s fondness for Filipino women is in evidence in the letters page of the
South China Morning Post, where an expat, oblivious to the principles of market forces and possibly overdoing the lambanog himself, suggests a bizarre scheme to ensure that employers pay their maids the full official wage.  Consider writing to point out that they put up with less because it’s still two or three times what they’d get back in the land of doorless police cars.  Amazed I can actually think about this. The mind-warping affects of the Filipino alcohol must be wearing off, probably helped by the relative silence, calm and solitude, after three days at Fat Fritz's, of downtown Hong Kong. 

Wed, 22 Jan
The evil coconut and cane juices are definitely wearing off now, judging by the adroit and lithe way I squeeze through hordes of plodding office fodder on the Mid-levels escalator, musing about how much nicer Hong Kong will be when all the mobile phone users have died of brain cancer. Hang around S-Meg Tower for a while for appearance's sake, reading the newspaper.  At the top of page 1, the
Post reports that presumptuous Euro-rabble imagine they have a say over whether Saddam Hussein is dealt with. "French need good slapping again," the headline should read, but doesn't.  Lower down the page, is an ad for a tacky men's watch. “Almost as complicated as a woman,” it says, “except it’s on time.”  A scratching sound spreads through Hong Kong, as thousands of women, proud of their punctuality, erase IWC-brand “chronometers” from their Valentine’s Day gift shopping lists. This is what happens when Hong Kong’s advertising agencies feel compelled to avoid using Hitler as a marketing gimmick – the copywriters are left helpless.
Thurs, 23 Jan
Expat whining about air pollution undergoes its annual temporary surge in volume as a gentle north-westerly breeze gathers several days’ dust and fumes from the Pearl River Delta and jams them up against the hills behind Central and Causeway Bay.  Personally, I like it.  It makes a nice change not to see these ugly buildings for a while, and we can be sure that we’re getting our minerals. Furthermore, it diverts these ridiculous people’s attention from how MSG makes their precious little heads ache, and there aren’t enough golf courses, and the infotainment TVs on the buses make a terrible noise, and the cable system didn’t have English commentary for the Botswana tiddlywinks finals, not to mention the lousy choice of baco-bits in Park n Shop.  Call this a world city?

Fri, 24 Jan
Bump into our dependable Chief Secretary Donald Tsang taking an early morning stroll on Lower Albert Road, pondering ways to induce the children of the lower orders to learn English. He thinks Legislative Council sessions in
the tongue that Shakespeare spake would help.  Wondering how avidly young folk in public housing estates follow political debates, I nod in agreement.  It seems the Government is also thinking of asking canto-pop stars to sing in English, to make the language seem cool and trendy among schoolkids. It can’t fail to inspire the youth of our city, I assure him. Wishing to be helpful, I make a suggestion of my own.   ‘Have you thought about beating their buttocks raw with rattan?” I ask.  “If they won’t take it in one end, they might take it in the other.”  The old-fashioned incentives are the best.  He says he’ll think about it. I suspect that Hongkongers’ bad English is more myth than reality – rather like Koreans’ kimchee-laden breath, or Mongolian women’s complete lack of breasts. But if trying to fix this non-existent problem keeps civil servants from wreaking havoc elsewhere, we should support their efforts.