|29 Oct-4 Nov 2006|
|Sun, 29 Oct
Tycoon-patriot Henry Fok Ying-tung has died at the age of 83. Hagiographers will say that he was born on a fishing boat, smuggled medicines to the Mainland during the Korean War UN embargo and selflessly made unprecedented and risky investments to develop Guangdong and pave the way for the flood of overseas capital that has since poured in. The less charitable will mock the fishing boat claim, substitute ‘arms and gold’ for ‘medicines’ and take the slightly more cynical view that his commercial activities during China’s opening up were both enabled by and consolidated a uniquely privileged business and political relationship with Beijing.
What is agreed is that in 1986 a small part of the fortune Fok made in casinos and property went into rescuing Tung Chee-hwa’s Orient Overseas shipping company, and he arranged for state-owned Bank of China also to contribute to the bailout. Fok later seems to have suggested to Beijing that the crop-haired one – now forever in the motherland’s debt – would make an absolutely wonderful and successful Chief Executive for post-1997 Hong Kong. After the handover, he made a rare public statement supporting a second term for Tofu-for-Brains. Another of the philanthropist’s less impressive gifts to the Big Lychee was his bumptious and bulky son Timothy, who represents the Sports and Culture functional constituency in the Legislative Council, and who was recently nominated Biggest Waste of Space in the Circus by a Christian civic group that monitors legislators’ attendance records.
There is also, of course, near-unanimity that Fok donated billions to various causes, some of which relieved suffering and spread happiness among countless millions of helpless old folk, penniless widows, starving orphans and small, defenceless furry animals. Tragically, even if we forgive him for building the Mainland’s first golf course, nothing can compensate for giving us Tung.
|Mon, 30 Oct|
|Typically, the Hong Kong Government shows itself incapable of indulging in the simplest bit of mendacity and disingenuousness without messing it up. In the latest example – a response to remarks by Democratic Party Chairman Yeung Sum – officials adopt the wounded tone of a weakling done an injustice by a bully.
Beijing is always good at this, bursting into tears and stomping on the ground because Japan has ‘hurt the feelings of the Chinese people’. But it doesn’t work when the ‘bully’ is the pitifully uncharismatic boss of the Big Lychee’s fastest-fading political group. Until our most forgettable party leader gets a reputation for biting the heads off hamsters and cheating old ladies out of their life savings, it is counterproductive for the mysterious ‘Government spokesman’ to pull on his ‘I was victimised by Dr the Hon Yeung Sum’ T-shirt and whine…
|Hong Kong's elections [have] a fine tradition of being open, fair and clean … the Chief Executive election in March next year [will] be held in accordance with the Basic Law and the relevant electoral legislation, and in an open and fair manner.|
|And the anonymous voice plays right into Yeung’s hands with something like…|
|Anyone interested to take part in the election may do so in accordance with the law.|
|…when everyone knows that the law allows barely one in 10,000 of the people to vote and rigs the structure so that only one person can run.
It is also typical that the Hong Kong Government can’t rig a voting system so there will be only one candidate without messing that up, as well, and leaving a faint possibility that a second person could in fact be nominated. Although arithmetically tiny, the chances that a pro-democrat will be able to get 100 nominations from the 800-member Election Committee are sufficient to have Beijing’s local agents phoning round to pressure voters in December’s Election Committee Election. It is this poll, in which some 200,000 people and non-humans (corporate bodies, some held by the dozen by individuals) vote for the 800, that our buffoonish officials have failed to rig well enough.
It is essential, if the pro-democracy camp are to make their point, that Beijing succeeds in keeping the number of candidates to one. Any of the grey figures the pro-democrats could get nominated would be unqualified for the job and would get a lower public opinion rating than Donald Tsang, leaving the Election Committee looking like it is doing the will of the people. Fortunately for them, Beijing is too stupid to be subtle and give the process any legitimacy by letting an embarrassing dissenter run and fall flat on his face. If Yeung and his allies have given the matter any thought, they will wish the Mainland officials every success with their lobbying. Or will they goof up and get a second candidate on the slate?
The campaign is underway. It doesn’t sound promising – a quasi-election in which the winner will be decided in advance by a roomful of men over a thousand miles away. But with so many incompetents taking part, it has entertainment potential.
|Tue, 31 Oct
Among the mourners, few people will grieve the passing of Henry Fok as much as CY Leung, the half-Romanian convener of the Executive Council, who is apparently pondering who will step into the late kingmaker’s shoes. To Leung, Fok’s departure surely symbolizes the death of his dream to one day be the Chief Executive of Hong Kong.
Fok saw Leung as the heir to the throne. It was at the urging of Fok and Leung that Tung Chee-hwa assumed office in 1997 with a bold policy to bring housing prices down to levels the middle class could afford. The plan to build 85,000 apartments a year coincided with the bursting of the property bubble, triggering a collapse in the market.
Tung could have gone down as a genius had he announced that the whole property pyramid scheme was over, the land supply would be opened up, and housing in post-British Hong Kong would be treated as a basic commodity like any other. The long-term benefits from reduced economic distortions would have far outweighed the pain felt by 100,000 or so families caught in negative equity after buying flats during the price spike of 1996-97. But the interests of the property tycoons, accustomed to 50 percent profit margins and stuck with their inventory of unsold units, came first. Getting property prices back up took precedence over economic diversification, job creation and budget balancing, and we lost an opportunity to get the millstone off our neck.
If things had gone right for CY Leung, he would have taken over the top job in 2007, after the crop-haired one’s second glorious term. But Tung’s cowardice, cronyism and lack of imagination extended beyond land policy to nearly everything he touched. After the Great People’s Uprising in 2003, Tofu-for-Brains spiraled further and further into the abyss. In early 2005, Henry Fok, CY Leung and everyone else in Hong Kong woke up one day to find Beijing had engineered a coup and restored rule by the British-trained colonial running dogs of the civil service. With that public slap in the face to self-proclaimed patriots with special access to the Politburo, the role of kingmaker became redundant and the idea of another tycoon in Government House a bad joke.
|Wed, 1 Nov
In the IFC Mall branch of Pacific Coffee, wild American friend Odell nurses a tangerine, fenugreek and jojoba slurpee and a barely noticeable black eye. People think domestic violence in Hong Kong is confined to dysfunctional marriages between penniless, elderly local labourers and unskilled, middle-aged Mainland women who waited 12 years for an exit permit only to end up in a Mongkok slum. They think it only happens in human landfills like Tin Shui Wai, where former factory workers are dumped and compressed and left to form an oozing demographic sediment. But no – quarrels have been known to happen between indolent ex-Mormons and their jealous Thai wives in the exotic and fashionable neighbourhood of Lower Soho. Who knows what goes on behind the curtains of those apartments a few floors above the trendy organic restaurants and glitzy art galleries?
“Got home last night,” Odell tells me. “Yeah, kinda drunk. So Mee’s pissed off ‘cos I’m late. Anyway, I suddenly realized I’d lost my mobile phone. I said ‘Oh shit’ or something. Mee said ‘I will find it’. She starts calling the number. Then I remembered where I might have left it. So I’m like ‘no, no – no need, I know where it is’. But she’s locked herself in the bedroom by now, talking to the mamasan at Club Boom-Boom on Lockhart Road. So next thing I know it’s ‘monkey ass’ this and ‘monkey ass’ that and whack!” He rubs the slight wound and winces. “Still hurts,” he mutters. “And I’ve been really good for ages.”
Suddenly the self-pity evaporates and he bursts out laughing. He has spotted an article in a newspaper about the former Permanent Secretary for Education’s appointment as the new head of the Independent Commission Against Corruption. “Hey – in the old Wild West, before they had police or courts, they called the justice system ‘gun law’ right?” I nod. “Well, here in Hong Kong, we have Fanny Law!”
He cackles some more. He clearly finds this hilarious. I suppose victims of spousal abuse must take mirth wherever they can find it.
|Thurs, 2 Nov|
|I didn’t win a dozen Purple Hearts swimming through shark-infested Vietnamese rivers, dragging a patrol boat along by a rope between my teeth. But US Senator for Massachusetts John Kerry and I do have something in common – we both make no secret of the fact that we can’t stand the company of the lower orders. How I empathized with him during the 2004 presidential campaign when he asked for Swiss cheese rather than Cheez Whiz on a revolting Philadelphia cheese steak. And now, with the mid-term election just days away, he says …|
|Education – if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq.|
|Very true. For the most part, no-one joins a poorly paid, all-volunteer army up to its ears in lethal Middle Eastern mayhem if they did well enough at school to get a better job. This is reality, not disrespect to those who enlist. Wellington called his men the ‘scum of the earth’ and hoped they frightened the enemy as much they did him – and they beat Napoleon.
Kerry should come to Hong Kong, where no-one has to pretend they are in touch with the working class or likes to be around them. When the Government orders 36 luxury limousines for its officials, a few people complain about emissions but no-one points out that in New York and London the mayor rides the subway. You are especially insulated from plebeian contact if you are white. No member of the great unwashed masses entertains the idea you are even capable of communicating with them, let alone want to. ‘French-looking’ wouldn’t come into it.
If Kerry came to live here, he could put on a pink tie and sip green tea with the Liberal Party’s James Tien. James could tell Kerry about the time when, for a PR stunt during our last election, he forsook his Porsche for a double-decker bus and expressed amazement to accompanying reporters at the vehicle’s low acceleration going up a steep hill – and the reporters admired him all the more for it. He’d love it here.
|Fri, 3 Nov
On the top floor of S-Meg Tower, the Big Boss brightens up the morning meeting with the tale of his journey into the unknown last night. Gripped by his usual irresistible urge to grovel to anyone rich or powerful passing through town, he spent the evening entertaining a discreet but very influential American businessman and his wife in a private room at Gaddi’s, at the Peninsula. After the meal, he naturally insisted on transporting his honoured guests back to their hotel in Central. But the Americans seemed unimpressed with the prospect of a ride beneath the harbour in our Chairman’s gleaming Mercedes chariot.
“They wanted to take…” The Big Boss hesitates to finish the sentence. “…the Star Ferry.” He looks round at his senior management team in search of some understanding of the appalling quandary this put him in. We raise eyebrows in sympathy. He could abandon his guests at this point, possibly offending them and certainly missing valuable face-time and shoe-shining opportunities. Or he could do the unthinkable and be seen taking public transport, possibly becoming a laughing stock among his fellow tycoons and probably the whole population. Inevitably, the ‘toady impulse’ proved overpowering. It’s a hormonal thing.
It seems the experience of a trip with the unwashed hoi polloi gave him a certain frisson. He cheerfully tells us how he had been on the ferry before, as a boy back in the 1950s, and then gives us a lengthy explanation of how the backs of the benches on the boat can be adjusted so passengers can always face forwards on the double-fronted vessels. It occurs to me that John Kerry would probably find those seats fascinating, too.
|All this jollity may be a way to distract his, or our, attention from an even graver loss of face than being seen dropping coins into a turnstile at the Tsimshatsui pier. The Big Boss is not one of the 74 notables appointed to Henry Fok’s funeral committee. If it is any consolation, most business figures of his stature were left out of this symbolic, ritual-laden absurdity. The mind boggles at the idea of 69 serving and retired local and Mainland officials and tycoons sitting down under a chairman and four vice-chairmen (including CH Tung and Sir Bow-Tie) and planning a funeral. It would take months and result in a chaotic farce on the big day, with the coffin lid falling off to reveal that the wrong body had been embalmed, the hearse plunging into the harbour, and floral arrangements bursting into flames. In fact, the only duties expected of the committee will be to maintain the solemn pretence that it is a committee. It is purely about face, reflected glory and reflected face. The Big Boss, now relating his surprise that the ferry gets you to Central faster than the tunnel, basks in the afterglow of 10 minutes in the company of maids, tourists and an American billionaire.|