|30 April-6 May 2006|
|Mon, 1 May
Back from a few days in Macau, where an expected massive influx of Mainland tourists didn’t happen. There was almost more life in the Protestant Cemetery. Gwailos were made of sterner stuff in those pre-Hong Kong days. No whining about air pollution, Filipino maids who can’t make toast right, supermarkets that don’t carry the right brand of Baco-Bits or TV stations that don’t broadcast the Belgian tiddlywinks finals.
|No whining about typos, either...|
|Tue, 2 May
“So what did all those people die of?” Wild American friend Odell pokes his wholemeal banana and walnut muffin with a plastic fork. Inches away, on the other side of the plate glass Starbucks window, Hong Kong’s smiling middle classes march eagerly to work along Caine Road, oblivious to the somber nature of his question. Tombstones, for some reason, rarely go into detail about these things. So, to avoid disappointing my friend by admitting ignorance, I present my best educated guess.
“Well, there was the first Opium War,” I start. “So obviously lots of sailors suffered horrible injuries, which would have festered in the heat and humidity. No antibiotics in those days. And the women and children would have succumbed to cholera, typhoid, dysentery, malaria. Homesickness. And over-eating. If you were a God-fearing Protestant who wouldn’t go near a casino, there was nothing else to do except take advantage of the really cheap dimsum. Macau really hasn’t changed at all. That’s why, once the Brits had put proper plumbing and sewerage in, they all came here.”
The mention of plumbing prompts Odell to move on from the settlement of the South China coast by English speakers in the early 19th Century. His old apartment, he reminds me, has an electric water heater – a tank bolted onto the bathroom wall. During summer, he and his Thai wife Mee switch it off because the water coming from the main tank on the building’s roof is so warm, from the sun, you can shower in it. The water in the switched-off heater, however, sitting in the indoor shade, is cool.
“So we get hot water from the cold tap and cold water from the hot tap. Weird, huh?”
I tell him one of those old jokes people in communist-ruled Eastern Europe used to tell. “What’s colder in winter in Rumania than the cold water? The hot water.” Odell chews his muffin and waves his hand in submission. This is more profundity than he can handle for one morning.
Wed, 3 May
The recent deaths of JK Galbraith (b. 1908) and Jean-Francois Revel (b. 1924) have me searching through the bookshelves at Perpetual Opulence Mansions. The former’s Affluent Society is stuffed between Hayek’s Road to Serfdom and Friedman’s Free to Choose. The latter’s Without Marx or Jesus and The Totalitarian Temptation are wedged next to them, alongside – for some reason – Timothy Leary’s Politics of Ecstasy. From an actuarial point of view, this is a bad part of my library to be in, with Milton Friedman the only author left alive.
BEIJING’S UNDER-EMPLOYED, scheming emissaries to Hong Kong are snooping around in search of the newly founded Civic Party’s membership list.
The paranoid apparatchiks are kept awake nightly by a dark vision. Card-carrying, pro-democracy fifth columnists encourage as many like-minded people as possible to register right now as ‘subsector’ members (currently some 200,000-strong) who elect the 800 members of the Election Committee. Next December, the evil dissidents, many masquerading as ordinary, honest, patriotic folk, run for and win over 100 seats in the electoral college, giving them the right to nominate a candidate for Chief Executive. The rigged distribution of votes among sectors amply ensures that the make-believe Election Committee in Hong Kong will rubber-stamp the decision made by the real one – the Politburo in Beijing. But if the pro-democratic trouble-makers managed to run a candidate against the Central Government’s anointed one, it would be embarrassing.
To someone. Beijing will presumably re-appoint devout Catholic, ex-colonial running dog Donald Tsang, who is currently widely appreciated, if not adored, by mainstream Hong Kong simply for not being Tung Chee-hwa. If the subversives nominate someone with zero charisma, qualification or credibility – say, Democratic Party Chairman Lee Wing-tat – everyone will fall about the place laughing. The Election Committee’s vote in March 2007 will be 700-100 for Sir Bow-Tie, which will reflect the will of the people as recorded in opinion polls, thus showing how democratic the system is.
|And then there is the Communists’ nightmare scenario. Over the coming 10 months, Donald gradually becomes more irritating, more aloof, more pig-headed. Despite every effort to avoid controversial and unpopular measures, something happens – an economic downturn or an ill-advised policy initiative – that hits his poll ratings. The pro-universal suffrage forces, with their 100 Election Committee votes, nominate the person who Hongkongers believe should have been Chief Executive all along. The Chief Executive ‘election’ next March produces 700 obedient votes for Sir Bow-Tie versus 100 for Anson Chan. But the latter enjoys a 75% public opinion poll rating. Riots break out as Donald is sworn in on 1 July, Western countries announce a boycott of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Taiwan declares independence, the US launches a pre-emptive nuclear strike against China, and giant blood-sucking centipedes from Venus invade the planet. There’s a lot at stake.
|Fortunately, the Mainland officials’ task is fairly straightforward. All they need to do is print out the membership lists of the Law Society and the Bar Association, scratch out all the people who don’t sport a Gwailo first-name, and that’s pretty much it, give or take a few.
|Thurs, 4 May
The most famous Scandinavian aristocrat of all time was renowned for his indecisiveness, wringing his hands about what was nobler in the mind. Princes of Denmark have clearly come a long way since then, with the husband of Queen Margrethe II, Henrik, resolutely proclaiming to his realm his fondness for dogs – preferably sliced and sautéed or grilled. He acquired the taste in Vietnam, which isn’t surprising. Who can resist a skewer of the steaming, glistening meat, dipped in a mixture of chili, fish sauce, shrimp paste and lime juice? In the Philippines, it is served with beer as an appetizer or snack, or cooked adobo-style, and is well-known for helping people to keep cool on a hot afternoon. In the Pearl River Delta, it is valued for its warming properties during winter and is often braised in the same black bean and garlic sauce they use for nearly everything else.
In order to humour Western anthropomorphic racists screeching “Murder most foul!” some Asian governments have passed laws against the consumption of canines. It is, as Hamlet said, a custom more honoured in the breach than the observance. In Hong Kong, it was where squeamish colonial rulers overcame their reluctance to meddle in native affairs and drew the line, just as they had in India with the burning of widows. To this day, unloved expat housewives in the Big Lychee, distraught over their husbands’ philandering with Indonesian maids, relieve their frustration by setting up vigilante squads that cross the border to raid farms and supermarkets whose only crime is to meet consumer demand for the ‘fragrant meat’. St Bernards are apparently increasingly popular among Mainland producers, owing to the meat yield and the large litters of puppies. Perhaps they should try Great Danes.
|“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Act 2, Scene 2
|Fri, 5 May
The week ends, as it began, on a note of death. Buddha’s birthday raises deep questions. Does a cockroach have a sense of self? Is it aware of its existence? Can it contemplate its own condition and being? For the one in the bathroom at Perpetual Opulence Mansions this morning, the answer is an unambiguous ‘no’ – it lies smeared across a floor tile, exoskeleton crushed, innards suddenly disgorged, limbs and antennae scattered around. Summer has come. We are told these creatures can survive a nuclear war. But they are no match for a rolled up copy of last week’s Economist.