Hemlock's Diary
26 February-4 March 2006
Sun, 26 Feb
Another weekend in Macau, where water in the reservoir has run so low that primeval slime has dried up on the lakebed, revealing evidence of meteorite impacts dating back to the very formation of our planet.
Defenders of the plucky little ex-Portuguese enclave have so far maintained that you can’t actually taste any brackishness in the sparkling clear liquid dribbling from the city’s quaint plumbing system.  Even they, however, are now starting to refer to it is as “good for gargling.”  Chinese officials, with their proud record of full, accurate and up-to-date disclosure of public health data, are  reporting that salinity is approaching 700mg per litre, nearly three times the World Health Organization’s ‘We wouldn’t touch it personally’ level.

With the Government opening long-unused wells, and the water company loudly denying that it plans to introduce rationing, my mind, with its brilliant gift for lateral thinking, hits upon an elegant and foolproof way of tackling the disaster looming over the gambling paradise – go back to Hong Kong.

Mon, 27 Feb
One of Hong Kong’s obscurer little financial institutions, Chiyu Bank, gets a bit of
unwelcome publicity as US officials move to seize a remittance agent’s accounts allegedly involved in laundering North Korean counterfeit $100 bills.  Is the Fujianese-oriented institution under suspicion itself?  Presumably not.  What could be more reassuring than its proud assertion
...Our aim and ethos is to develop a modernized bank in which traditional Chinese culture is nevertheless preserved...
And if that weren’t enough, it is nowadays a subsidiary of Bank of China (HK), which has made corporate governance an extra special priority since it made itself unique among Hong Kong’s normally boring major banks by having its boss called home, convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to death.
Tue, 28 Feb
“We ought to look as if we care what’s going on,” reads the punch line in this morning’s
Business Post cartoon strip.  It’s not easy.  Reading the newspapers in the gwailo’s lair on the top floor of S-Meg Tower, I strain to turn the pages, so heavy are they with the tedium of contemporary world affairs. 

In the Ming cartoon, investors take the Hang Seng Index up to 15,999 before stepping back to watch disinterestedly as their very own Central People’s Government lashes out at Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian, who has scrapped the dormant and symbolic National Unification Council and its ‘One China’ guidelines.  Apparently, this will “
stoke tensions and trigger a serious crisis in the Straits … [and]  threaten to destroy peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region” – which must be why the Hong Kong stock market ended the day only 94 points up.  On the Internet, excitable young Mainlanders froth at the mouth about forgetting the Olympics and vaporizing their beloved Taiwanese compatriots. 

Beijing takes things too seriously.  What a relief, therefore, to read of the latest events in Manila, which have unfolded with all the organization, precision and clarity we expect of the Philippines.  The excitement began before the weekend, with reports of unauthorized troop movements around the capital and mutterings about a coup plot, which transpired to be an ‘attempted withdrawal of support’.  A group of Marines protested the dismissal of their commander.  Diminutive President Gloria Arroyo issued Proclamation 1017, a state of emergency that should instantly impose total order and discipline onto the entire nation, but in practice seems to mean a day off school for the kids.  Barbed wire and soldiers appeared on approaches to Government offices.  Now...  Arroyo congratulates the Marines for their professionalism and not doing whatever they were planning.  Mobilized by cell phone text messages, former presidents whose terms of office were blighted with corruption and constitutional shenanigans call on the vote-rigging, husband-favouring Arroyo to stand down.  A hunt starts for alleged plotters – including, of course, Gregorio Honasan, ‘resident adviser on failed coup attempts’, who took part in revolts against Marcos and Aquino before quitting the army and joining the Senate.  The streets throng with the inevitable nuns.  And everyone asks the burning question – are the schools open again yet?

Wed, 1 Mar
Barely had the distraught pet owner muttered
“Gesundheit, Tibbles” than the brave but ailing German cat slumped to the ground and, with a barely audible sigh, went to meet its maker.  The more I hear about bird flu, the more I like the sound of it.  The spread of the disease among Teutonic felines raises the mouth-watering possibility that other household creatures might be susceptible – the malodorous sort that defecate on sidewalks and bark, for example.  A virus that wipes every dog off the planet?  We live in hope.

To add to the excitement, the top floor of S-Meg Tower is abuzz.  With the 2005 financial results being finalized, accountants from open-plan hovels several floors below are camping out in the main conference room.  The old picture of the Big Boss’s late father in his iron lung looks down from the wall as scrofulous wielders of calculators and spreadsheets  compile the profit and loss, assets and liabilities, goodwill, receivables, depreciation, and other bean counting mysteries for nervous presentation to our visionary Chairman.  Even as I peer over their shoulders in search of a sneak preview of the final dividend, I am ignored.  The Company Gwailo is as familiar if unknowable to them as their work is to me.  To an outsider, however, I stick out like Chandler’s tarantula on a slice of angel food cake, or, I like to think, a rose among thorns.  So when the elevator doors at the end open and two middle-aged Western men in suits walk into the reception area, I step back into my lair.  In a few minutes, the pair will be calmly looking around at the Ming vase, the nasty ceramic tree, the framed calligraphy and the statue of the Buddha left in an awkward position for
feng shui purposes, when – to their amazement – a fellow whitey will nonchalantly stroll by, drop an envelope into an ‘out’ tray on the desk, and, without so much as a glance at them, return into the exotic and secretive depths of the oriental office.  Today is National Surprise-an-Auditor Day.

BRITISH Welsh – from Wales of Britain – are coming to IFC Mall, where First Minister Rhodri Morgan will no doubt need a hundred security guards to keep order as thousands of eager, stampede-prone Hongkongers clamour to sample the plucky little country’s world-famous cuisine and forge closer business links with its vibrant economy.  Is Rhodri a ‘he’ or a ‘she’?  Something they don’t warn people about when they adopt archaic Celtic spellings – take pride in your ancient ethnic heritage, and you become a hermaphrodite.  Or like those poor Irish girls who have to explain to everyone that ‘Siobhan’ is rendered in Pinyin.  Despite the confusion, it could have been worse.  It could have been the slimy Botswanan Welsh, the belligerent Eskimo Welsh or the plain obnoxious Uzbekistani Welsh. 

Sesame Street today was brought to you by the word ‘Brythonic’.

Thurs, 2 Mar
Wild American friend Odell beholds me with awe.  “I don’t get it,” he admits.  “How can the word ‘Brythonic’ manage to mean both ‘Welsh’ and ‘British’?”  I sigh.  It would take too long to explain – why do the French call the UK ‘Big Brittany’?.  Our Pacific Coffee leek and seaweed pasties would get cold.  And we might miss the arrival of Rhodri.

Almost on cue, a detachment of IFC Mall’s finest Nepalese security guards assemble in the corridor outside the window.  Dozens of office workers put down their cups of hot, brown, water-flavoured liquid and strain to see the British Welsh emissary’s procession, which seems to be making its way from the Airport Express station, past McDonalds, towards the rows of skin-whitening retailers at the northeast of the shopping centre.  The woman leading the group marches up, stops and turns towards us.  She is wearing some sort of basket as a hat and a coarse, grey woolen cloak fastened with thin rope and heavy metal clasps.  With her left hand, she pulls a shock of dark hair aside to reveal streaks of pale blue make-up on her face.  In her right hand, she is carrying a long stick, which she raises and points in our direction. 

Mae dy fam yn llyfu cociau mul!” she shrieks.  Odell whispers from the side of his mouth – did they bring any leprechauns with them? 

“Leprechauns?”  I give Odell his third or fourth look of resigned scorn of the day.  “Of course!  Do you think they’re stupid?”  The crazed Cambrian stares at me.

Cauc cle wyneb cachau ewythr cachau!” she bellows with a cheerful grin, and strolls away.  The gang of press photographers in tow takes a few shots of me as they push past.  I’m going to be in the papers!  First Minister of Wales of Britain visits Big Lychee, greets friendly coffee shop customers – full details at ten.

Fri, 3 Mar
A faint but audible whooshing sound reverberates through the central business district of Asia’s international financial hub as the inmates of the top floor of S-Meg Tower breath a double sigh of relief.  First, the accountants have packed their laptops, abacuses and acne ointment and retreated to their regular lowly habitat.  Second, the Big Boss is in the nation’s capital, attending the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.  He will return with a photograph of himself being patted on the head by a black hair-dyed, weasel-like Vice Premier no-one’s ever heard of, against a vast drape portraying the Great Wall in swirling mists.  And, I suppose, he will bring back memories of carnal activities with his bulbous and flaccid Mainland mistress.  Just a split second’s mental glimpse of the Beijing blubber, and I sense a fast-approaching urge to reach for the air motion discomfort receptacle.  A quick change of subject is in order…

The capital works reserve fund will do nicely. 
An old subject, but the South China Morning Post has carried not one, not two, but three items on it in the last couple of days.  Increasingly, it seems, while our dashing Chief Executive and his friends sit in the corner dreaming up political reforms that never actually change the power structure, other people are starting to notice the elephant in the room.  The series of outbursts over Government-business collusion in late 2004.  The opposition to the incessant cycle of harbour reclamation, over-development and road-building.  The West Kowloon luxury residential ‘cultural‘ hub.  The appearance of books by Leo Goodstadt and Alice Poon on the relationships between officials, land and cartels.  And now this sudden interest in the scam that routes all the proceeds from sales of public land into the pockets of the construction industry.  We have a static but ageing population and a declining port, yet we are spending more on new highways and bridges than on health.  These are the disgraceful achievements of Raymond Ho Chung-tai, who proudly abuses his position as a Legislative Council member by calling for – and getting – public funds to be handed out to engineering companies and bureaucrats to build yet more unnecessary infrastructure.  Now I think about it, it doesn’t make me feel any better than imagining the Big Boss’s great she-pachyderm in heat.
RELIEF COMES courtesy of Hong Kong’s last gwailo District Commissioner, Walter W Wilde, Esq, who reports a flood of North Korean counterfeit US$100 bills in the hamlets and banana plantations of his remote Lam Tin Valley fiefdom.  Decades of exercising paternalistic colonial administration have left him able to deal with almost any problem decisively and automatically – swig of gin, straighten the khaki shorts, stride fearlessly up to the cause of the trouble and wave a swagger stick at it, leaving it in no doubt that a damn good thrashing awaits it if it doesn’t go away instantly.  And if that fails, implement a public education programme.