Hemlock's Diary
30 July-5 August 2006
Sun, 30 Jul
The Mid-Levels Escalator transports Hong Kong’s hard-working, intelligent and physically attractive middle class between their idyllic hillside homes and their clean and spacious offices in the central business district near the island’s northern shore.  About halfway during the journey, it passes through the bohemian neighbourhood of Soho, with its trendy art galleries and chic furniture studios.  It is an intersection of bourgeois elegance with avant-gard raffishness, and must surely rank as one of the great historic crossroads of the world, on a par with Byzantium and the Bosphorus, the Kashgar stretch of the Silk Road, and Broadway and 42nd Street. 

Above all else, this confluence of urbane, discriminating taste and hip, free-thinking adventurousness has given us a gastronomic heaven – a district packed with fine dining and dazzling culinary breakthroughs.  The tender and succulent slabs of llama steak at Casa Peronista Del Buenos Aires.  The mutton and yak cheese dumplings of Cafe Himalaya.  The intriguing char-grilled pork ribs with lychee, coriander and wasabi glaze of Les Cochons d’Inde.  The juicy
Thit Cho spring rolls at the Dien Bien Phu Grill.  And now, between the Tuscan perfection of Fat Angelo’s and the authentic tradition and charm of McSorley’s Ale House, diagonally opposite the gourmet food hall of 7-Eleven, a new epicurean delight is about to hit the scene.  Soho prepares to welcome Krispy Kreme, purveyors of exquisite pastry confections to the gentry since 1937.
What better way can there be for Hong Kong’s professional and executive commuters to start the working day than cramming luminously coloured, 1,200-calorie lumps of sugar, fat, refined flour and vivid, artificial flavouring into their mouths as they glide gracefully down to the office?  I am in need of a new keyboard, so much does my mouth drool in anticipation.

Mon, 31 July
The region’s newest English-language current affairs magazine,
Asia Sentinel, hits the streets.  Or rather, it doesn’t, since it is on-line only.  It is produced by John Berthelsen and Lin Neumann, refugees from the Hong Kong Standard, and one Anthony Spaeth, who apparently wrote a novel called The Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club, which I saw in a second-hand book shop a few weeks ago and – rashly ignoring Bo Didley’s advice – didn’t buy because of its hideous dust jacket design.  For a consultant, they have wheeled in crusty old Philip Bowring, editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review back in the days before Dow Jones took it over, when it was strictly for men with hair on their chests who could grapple single-handed with dense, four-page articles on the Papua-New Guinea election.

This adds up to many, many decades’ experience of Asian journalism.  These men are seasoned veterans.  Indeed, juvenile whippersnappers with no breeding might even have the arrogance to suggest that one or two of them could actually be considered a teeny bit past their prime.  Can they ‘get’ the Internet?  When sound was introduced to the cinema, many old actors from the silent era couldn’t adapt.  Ageing, ink-fingered pressmen have been known to launch Internet publications as if they were still in print media, working to a deadline to compile a complete ‘issue’ at regular intervals and – horror of horrors – making embarrassing attempts to charge people to read it. 

Ominously, ‘sentinel’ is another word for ‘guardian’.  And that old curmudgeon Bowring has to kick off with a
tirade about how Durham University in England has scrapped Chinese studies, therefore the UK is going to vanish off the face of the map so far as Asia is concerned (or vice-versa), as if the Mainland isn’t crawling with young Brits learning the language the proper way.  But so far, an hour or so after its first appearance, and with only one reader (me), The Asian Sentinel seems to be doing well.  It is politically incorrect enough to discuss the delights of shark’s fin, and sufficiently astute to appeal to the vast depths of on-line prurience by revealing all about the ‘mayhem and sexual exploitation’ of Filipino entertainers overseas.  And then there’s more – quite a lot more – about food.  It promises to be worth flicking through from time to time over a Krispy Kreme.

Tue, 1 Aug
Hong Kong’s political parties fall into two categories.  The first sort are groups of bumbling, naive amateurs, clumsily attempting to present adult-sounding policy proposals that reflect a badly thought-out philosophy or are consistent with loyalty to a redundant ideology.  The second are the Liberal Party – slimy nematodes, totally devoid of any pretence of principles and unable for a minute to think or see beyond their own, individual, grasping self-interest.  Among its members in the Legislative Council are Miriam Lau, who will vote for anything provided minibus drivers are allowed to run red lights, Tommy Cheung, who will vote for anything provided smoking is allowed in restaurants, Howard Young, who will vote for anything provided air transport policy matches Cathay Pacific’s interests, and Sophie Leung, who will vote for anything provided the Government gives her friends free land and access to mainland labour to set up textile factories in the New Territories.
Heading up this pile of vile and venal vermiforms is James Tien.  In the absence of a functional constituency openly labeled Morons Born Into Rich Families, he ran for and won one of New Territories East’s seven seats, with 15% of the vote (thanks to the ‘even losers win’ system of proportional representation (Leung ‘Long Hair’ Kwok-hung got in there with 14%). 

Tien owns some half a dozen expensive sports cars and fears giving workers two-day weekends because they might go to Shenzhen to buy things.  He proposed cutting the tax on luxury cars on the grounds that the sight of them on the city’s streets is good for Hong Kong’s image.  He stabbed Tung Chee-hwa in the back over the Article 23 laws in 2003, just when old Tofu-for-Brains was splayed out on the ground, out of pure, spineless opportunism.  He recently said that our dedicated Chief Executive Donald Tsang should convince Mainland provinces not to compete so fiercely with Hong Kong.

To have such mental inadequacy at the head of such a blatantly amoral group would be odious enough, but to cap it all Tien is delusional, declaring (soon after becoming the Liberals’ boss in 1998), “Hong Kong is a business city ... it should be led by elites ... the best brains are what we need,” and insisting that that legislators representing business interests are “more capable, fairer and are able to consider things from the overall interest of the society, but not their self-interest,” compared with democratically elected legislators.

With total selfishness their only dogma, and shallowness, hypocrisy and cowardice their only talents, the Liberals can be said to face challenges in the struggle for popularity.  Predictably, even when presented with an opportunity to masquerade, if not as representatives of the people, as whores with a social conscience, they ignore it and grovel to their functional constituencies.  Of all the grounds on which
to oppose a Goods and Services Tax, they focus on the one that doesn’t stand up.  Sales tax will destroy our reputation as a ‘shopping paradise’ and bring the retail, tourism and ever-enigmatic logistics industries to their knees.  A glance at Tokyo, Sydney, Paris, London or New York shows this to be completely untrue.  More’s the pity – a Hong Kong without Armani, skin-whitening shops, tacky overpriced restaurants, container trucks and endless busloads of Mainland tourists would be paradise indeed.
UPDATING THIS diary in a timely manner at work has suddenly become as difficult as getting James Tien to make sense.  The spotty IT manager at S-Meg Holdings (the Server, as I wittily call him) has installed some sort of firewall that, to use the technical terminology, fucks things up.  So far as I can tell, java applets – whatever they are – aren’t being let through from Yahoo! sites.  I may have to resort to threats of defenestration, which seems to strike special fear into the hearts of geeks, possibly because it involves being out of doors and the centre of attention.
Wed, 2 Aug
An ad in today’s
South China Morning Post makes me wonder if there is any limit to how much people will spoil their kids these days?  When I was a child, our parents allowed us the occasional crust of bread and a five-minute glimpse of The Flintstones on a black-and-white TV, in return for which we extended deep gratitude and respect.  One word of protest, and we would have been sold to a chimney sweep or simply abandoned on the steps of an orphanage run by evil nuns stirring huge vats of maggot-infested gruel.

Nowadays, people lavish their brats with full-time mentors.  And not just any old full-time mentors, but ones who are such energetic, outgoing, pro-active university degree holders that they enhance the precious offspring’s personality and independence.  Don’t today’s parents realize how much they are spoiling their little princelings by giving them enhanced personalities and independence?  It is a recipe for ruin.  When I was little, I had to spend most of my time in the company of my parents, so naturally I never had luxuries like personality or independence – and all the tougher I am for it, today.   It made me what I am.

For those of us who have baulked – or fled screaming – just thinking of the towering challenges of parenthood, this is yet another reason to rejoice at not having children.  The responsibility of having to choose and manage a Filipino woman to feed, wash and clothe the child is daunting enough.  And now, mothers and fathers must also assume the even more awesome duty of employing the right full-time mentor to educate and develop the little ones.  There is no way I could face the burden.
Thurs, 3 Aug
Early morning in Private Office – the top floor of S-Meg Tower.  The spotty IT Manager is hard at work in a little computer room hidden away behind the pantry, finishing some sort of systems upgrade that has prevented me from performing certain essential tasks since Monday.  He is surprised to see me looking in at him.  Before he has time sit up, I enter, kick the door shut with my heel and grab him by the throat, digging my thumbs into painful and deadly pressure points known only to a band of extremely violent Himalayan monks and their confidants.  “Ricky,” I say, wanting to keep things on a friendly, first-name basis, “this firewall of yours is stopping me from doing some very important, secret work that the Big Boss wants me to do to help the Government.  It involves national security.  We must fix it now, understand?” 

I relax my grip and show him the problem.  After some bespectacled, greasy-haired mumbling, he succeeds in telling me it’s because the firewall filters out Yahoo Messenger and Yahoo Games.  “Yahoo Messenger is for schoolgirls,” I remind him.  “Do I look like a schoolgirl?  And Yahoo Games are for children, as are all computer games.  Except Tetris.  And
Curve Ball.  And the one where you burn people with a magnifying glass like ants.”  Within seconds, Ricky is peering at a monitor and tapping at a keyboard.  Then, he sits back and grunts. 

Back in the gwailo’s lair, I find this means ‘OK’.  The great S-Meg firewall has crumbled like Jericho.  Well, bits of it…
Fri, 4 Aug
The IT upgrade on the top floor of S-Meg Tower nears completion.  It seems that we are now the proud owners of a 1-gigabyte-per-second broadband connection – this is for less than two dozen people, several of whom can’t or won’t lay hands on a PC, and none of whom ever send or receive anything bigger than a 10-line email confirming a lunch date for the Big Boss, or a few hundred pixels’ worth of fat, grinning baby.  Even allowing for the occasional, unsolicited, gut-wrenching Powerpoint presentation from some self-promoting Government department, this leaves plenty of space for the Company Gwailo to download electronic blips by the truckload.  Such as a rare version of
Thelonious Monk’s Misterioso, which is this week’s mp3 for the three Stanleys in the mailroom. 

This leap into the 21st Century is the result of Number-One Son being embarrassed when the scion of another of Hong Kong’s great business families visited S-Meg Tower and mocked our Ming-dynasty office systems.  Humiliated, the gangly first-born went out and ordered nothing but the best – the first time he has made a corporate decision independently of his father.  Any remaining 386s, daisy wheel printers and other face-losing, antique hardware have been sent off to a museum.  Everyone now has huge flat-screen monitors and wireless mice. 

Two new items of equipment are especially noteworthy.  The new standard-issue telephone has an array of unnecessary features, like four-way conference calling – one person on the line is too many for me – as well as useful ones, like the display that warns you how boring a caller is.  It also has a bright orange button marked ‘Goodbye’.  This is obviously designed to make a farewell significant and memorable, though I don’t yet know how.

‘Not now’, ‘Go away’ and ‘In your dreams’ would be potentially useful, as well.  Technology still has some way to go.

The other important new gizmo was my idea.  When Number-One Son was discussing his plans in the morning meeting a few weeks ago, he asked for suggestions about what we should have.  Without hesitation, I recommended a Lavazza Blue LB-1000.  Number-One Son seemed unsure.  I said they only cost a thousand or so, and it would be well worth it.  The Big Boss, eager to assert his Chairmanship in the midst of all this bewildering computer literacy, loudly pronounced “I concur with Hemlock,” and brusquely ordered his heir to put it on the list.  Thus Ricky the spotty IT Manager has just installed an extremely space-age espresso machine in the pantry.  Since everyone in the company apart from me knows that coffee is ‘heaty’ and makes you confrontational, opinionated and prone to intemperance (and permanently darkens the skin of unborn children), it might as well be on my desk.