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

24-30 October 2004

Sun, 24 Oct
To Wanchai for lunch with Polly the lipstick lesbian and favourite married couple Lincoln and May, who since we all last met have become a proud mother and father.  They have also reversed their tearful decision to flee Hong Kong for Vancouver.  Beijing seems to be acting less psychopathically towards their hometown, they explain, and their parents were taking their planned emigration personally.  While listening to this, I eat too much – and I think I know why.  On my way to the seafood restaurant I had to fight my way through busloads of Mainland tourists trampling paddy field mud all over pristine Lockhart Road.  So numerous were the gold-toothed, perm-haired, nylon-clad peasants that it was impossible to see the 50-something, obese British men and their petite, 20-something Filipinas who usually parade through the neighbourhood on Sundays.  The sight of these oddly mismatched couples always serves as a highly effective appetite suppressant.  Yet another reason to halt the influx of Mainland tour groups.

The new parents go home to rescue their baby from a doting, overfeeding grandmother, and Polly and I go to Victoria Park to inspect the Rockit open-air concert.  In most places, a rock festival would comprise a large crowd of excited people surrounded by relatively empty green space.  In Hong Kong, it is the other way round – the festival enclosure is an oasis of tranquillity and solitude, while the rest of the park is bursting with the throng of Muslim headscarves, clove-scented cigarettes, puce lipstick and rolling ‘R’s that is the Indonesian domestic helpers’ monthly day off.  And all those wristbands made of American and British flags – the Southeast Asian ladies’ way of expressing support for the war on terrorism, no doubt.  When I see domestic helpers wearing T-shirts and bandanas in the pattern of the Belgian or European Union flags, I will know the world is in trouble.  And mingling in all of this – even more sinister and exotic wildlife.  Grim African men in silk shirts and dark glasses strut around, looking like enforcers for the Liberian secret police.  Practitioners of a demented martial art sport comic-book Chinese smocks and gently pummel one another’s hands.  A trickle of Westerners look for the rock festival, unaware that they just passed it.  And, inevitably, Mainland tourists – slightly traumatized and wondering what on earth it was that reunified with the glorious motherland in 1997.
Mon, 25 Oct
I hesitate to remark upon stupidity among lawmakers – it is like noting that the air is polluted, or the
South China Morning Post lead story is bowdlerized Xinhua.  But two disturbing cases of imbecility in the circus are worth recording.  Walking past Chater Garden this morning, I encounter the Hon Wong Kwok-hing, a Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong member who represents a functional constituency of pro-Beijing labour unions.  I greet him and ask what is in the document he’s holding in his hand.  He is reluctant to let me see it, but he is a weedy, easily intimidated little worm, and I snatch it from him.  It is a motion he is introducing in the Legislative Council on Wednesday, urging the Government…
…to formulate a policy to stabilize the confidence of civil servants so as to boost their morale, and … before formulating such a policy:

(a) cease the corporatization of departments, contractization of staff employment and indiscriminate outsourcing of services;
(b) cease employing temporary staff in place of permanent staff; and
(c) review the policy of imposing operating expenditure [cuts] across the board and the practice of reducing civil service pay, benefits and establishment.

so as to consolidate public confidence, give impetus to healthy social interactions, promote social prosperity, and help build up the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
I am tempted to give him a sharp jab him in the chest.  As one of only 17 salaries tax payers in this town, I am well-accustomed to this presumptuousness.  So self-centred are our civil servants that they take it as a law of nature that the Government, indeed Hong Kong as an entity, exists solely to provide them with unnecessary jobs and packages that are 200 percent higher than in the private sector.  “You are demanding that the Government deliberately waste public funds,” I shout into his face from inches away.  “How the hell can that help public confidence and prosperity?”  I leave him cowering against the wall of the Legco building, shocked by this healthy social interaction.
The second example of rank stupidity comes from the cherubic Mandy Tam, who accidentally found herself representing the accountancy functional constituency after half the bean counters in town ran for election last month.  She shares her views on the scrapping of death taxes with the SCMP
Crucially, abolition would hurt accountants and lawyers as their services may no longer be needed.  “The Government must take care of these professionals before abolishing estate duty,” she said.
So the sole purpose of our tax system is to provide work for accountants and lawyers?  Many people have long suspected as much, but it is interesting to see this ridiculous woman so blatantly display these professionals’ selfish disregard for the other 99 percent of the community.  The Government must take care of them, indeed.
Tue, 26 Oct
The Big Boss is in a good mood in the morning meeting, until we get to ‘any other business’ and Number-One Son raises his hand. The scion's smirk gives way to a goofy grin, indicating that he is about to display the leadership qualities that will take S-Meg Holdings to new heights when he eventually steps into his father’s shoes.  Blinking and trying to look serious, he asks whether the company should hang Halloween decorations up in the lobby of its headquarters, 20 floors below us.  The Big Boss turns to the company gwailo with a quizzical look.  Of course not, I mutter, shaking my head slightly.  “Of course not!” the great tycoon thunders at his progeny.  “Stupid boy!  My father would’ve taken his belt off and given me a good whipping for suggesting something like that!”  The visionary Chairman wipes his mouth with his silk handkerchief.  “That reminds me,” he announces, “I think our elevator music is low-class.”  He glowers at his loyal management team.  “I want high-class elevator music!”  His most intelligent executive decision in years.  Sensing easy brownie points and fun up for grabs, I swiftly volunteer to draw up a suitably elegant and sophisticated playlist for the building management.

BO-BO the killer crocodile, formerly frolicking in freedom in Yuen Long, is now cruelly incarcerated in a New Territories reptile prison but finds liberty on the Internet.  Or will do, once the
website has some content.  I hope to be the first to send the beast a message from a Hong Kong schoolchild as soon as that exciting on-line function is up and running.
RIP JOHN Peel (65, heart attack, Peru), who lured a couple of generations of teenagers into rule-breaking and lack of sleep by broadcasting his radio show after lights were ordered to be out.  I owe him for Sir Henry at Rawlinson End by Viv Stanshall and This Charming Man by the Smiths, among others.
Wed, 27 Oct
What invention has made the single most important contribution to human progress and happiness?  Some would say the wheel.  Without the wheel, there would be no cars.  Cantopop star Nicholas Tse would be a pedestrian, leaving a trail of dead and mutilated innocents on our sidewalks.  Some would suggest decimal place value notation and the zero.  Others, scratching their heads at this, would suggest the
Frisbee, without which people and dogs would visit beaches and parks only to stand motionless, feeling awkward and wondering what to do.  It is an old debate, but I can now declare it resolved.  The answer is Google Desktop Search.  It is to MS Windows XP’s ‘search’ function as a Bach fugue is to cavemen banging rocks.  Typically, a user has forgotten a filename.  Bill Gates’s dismal search system begins by asking the user the filename.  With reluctance, it will allow an ‘advanced’ search, where it will seek files containing a specific word or phrase – in return for which the user must watch a cartoon dog.  With sloth-on-valium efficiency, the miserable Gates’s multi-megabyte creation sifts through folders and may or may not produce a useful result.  Google Desktop Search simply Googles its index of the user’s hard disk in a flash.  Bill Gates must feel humiliated, ashamed and belittled at having his product shown so vividly to be of less value to mankind than cockroach droppings.  Who can have any doubt that he will drink rat poison and slash his wrists before the week is out?

WHAT SHALL we froth at the mouth about today?  Reading the news, I recall the last time I was in Saigon.  There was a curious whining sound in the air.  I had heard it a few days earlier, further north in Danang.  I eventually learned that this barely audible noise floated across the South China Sea from the northeast.  It was generated by six million people complaining about air pollution, rapacious cartels, incompetent government, free gifts that were advertised but had run out, property prices and insufficiently cruel treatment of boat people.  I found it displeasing, but to people around me it was the irresistible song of a siren.  And so it remains.  Hong Kong seethes as Vietnamese riffraff pay smugglers to deposit them at our border with two live bullets and a knife.  Attempting to cross illegally, they are caught.  Possession of the cheap and basically useless weaponry guarantees a
serious prison sentence on top of the immigration rap – the Vietnamese for ‘serious prison sentence’ being ‘free food, clothing, housing, health care and a decently paid job’.  Our punishment is their paradise.  What they dread most is to be sent home on the spot, but this would be de facto legalization of bullets.  Common sense offers only one solution – cut their hands off.
Thurs, 28 Oct
Breakfast at the Mandarin Coffee Shop with Morris, the greatest living Scotsman in the Hong Kong Police.  I read him the advice that Edwin Ma, the
SCMP’s uncannily insightful soothsayer, has today for our Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa.  “It may be best not to struggle too hard against any adversity that comes your way.”  I get a wry smile from the Glaswegian law enforcer.  “I was born in the Year of Ox too,” he says.  “Oh aye – an’ I wouldna take that advice.”  After ordering the most expensive eggs benedict in town, he explains how the police and the Government are headed for a major showdown over pay and conditions.  “They’re grinding us down,” he says.  “They’re going to cut our air conditioning allowance, our furniture allowance, our kids’ overseas education allowance, our home leave allowance, our baggage allowance...” I interrupt him with the news that in the private sector, colonial allowances are history, salaries have dropped in line with deflation for five years, and people pay market rents for housing. 

He glances at his Rolex, leans back and waves at a waiter.  “M’goi, Jimmy – lei yau mo Cumberland sausage a?”  Then he looks back at me.  “You don’t understand.  Morale is just falling apart.  My men are in despair.  The rest of the civil service is hugely overpaid, you’re right.  But we’re different.  Without us, this city falls to pieces.  And that’s what’ll happen.  If the Government carries on like this, you’ll see standards plummet.  Corruption in the ranks will come back.  Crime rates will go up.  Investors will flee.  Hong Kong will descend into anarchy – riots, looting, bombings.”  I nod silently and thoughtfully.  I never realized the full significance of  air conditioning allowances.  “Oh aye – big fight coming,” says Morris.  “But we’ve planned everything.  We’ll show ‘em.”  He puts his knife and fork down and unbuttons his leather jacket to reveal a T-shirt bearing the slogan
amat victoria curam.  “Victory loves those who take pains,” he announces solemnly.  I raise an eyebrow slightly.  Does victory love those who are pains?  “The public’ll be right behind us, too,” he adds.  Coffee spurts from my mouth onto a plate of toast as I choke.
Fri, 29 Oct
Barely a month after a weekly magazine featuring a column by noted humourist Nury Vittachi closes down, a weekly magazine featuring a column by noted humourist Nury Vittachi closes down – sending the Hang Seng Index
up 2.14 percent.  Unlike Spike, the Far Eastern Economic Review was a venerable institution in its day, with mad curmudgeons like Derek Davies and Philip Bowring serving up Asia coverage so dense and deep that no-one could actually read it – they just carried it around to impress other people.  Dow Jones took the opposite tack and aimed the publication squarely at impressionable children willing to absorb the company’s undemanding political doctrine.  It lost revenue because, rather than buying it, these youngsters would read the whole thing at the newsstand simply by holding it up, unopened, to the light for 10 seconds. 

Gliding down the Mid-Levels Escalator this morning, Hong Kong’s English-language magazine readers are bursting with questions.  Will the
re-vamped FEER, which will come out once a year, be worth reading?  Will it finally adopt American spelling?  Will it feature politics and economics rather than electronic gizmos and chic but artless young female novelists?  The gutters of Soho are strewn with drunken, laid-off FEER writers, but we find it hard to get much sense out of them.  “I have seen the angel of death,” one of them moans.  It is always this way when Dow Jones’s Karen Elliot House swoops on Hong Kong, but never has she put so many staff to the sword in one go.  The commuters plead for an answer to the most pressing question – will the new FEER still carry Nury’s side-splitting and profound discourses on the labels on Japanese shampoo bottles and the English spelling mistakes on Laotian restaurant menus?  As I continue down the hill, I hear their cries ring through the streets – “We need our steamed crap!”

EARLY AFTERNOON, and the company gwailo ends the week by extending his empire and enforcing decent standards of taste in a corner of the central business district of Asia’s financial hub...
                   S-Meg Holdings Memorandum

To: Properties Manager, General Affairs Dept
From: Company Gwailo, Private Office
Re: High Class Elevator Music

As per the strict instructions of the Big Boss, please find attached the new high-class elevator music playlist (“the playlist”) for the sound system in S-Meg Tower starting 1 November 2004.  You will detect a pattern, viz  one Elizabethan choral piece, followed by one solo string or piano piece, followed by one artistically worthy rock music piece.  Please be advised that this music is integral to the S-Meg Holdings brand, and no deviation from this pattern will be tolerated.  Please be reminded to contact me three weeks before Christmas and Lunar New Year for instructions on seasonal playlists.  Thank you for your attention.

The Playlist (page 1 of 18)

    O salutaris hostia          William Byrd
    Reverie                     Debussy
    Sin City                    Flying Burrito Brothers
Candidi facti sunt          Thomas Tallis
    Cello Suite #4 - Courante   J.S. Bach
    Holiday in Cambodia         Dead Kennedys
    Mater Christi Sanctissima   John Taverner
    Gnossienne 3                Erik Satie
    Box of Rain                 Grateful Dead