Hemlock's Diary
5-11 March 2006
Mon, 6 Mar
We all jump up and down in excitement as Premier Wen Jiabao, addressing the National People’s Congress, includes Hong Kong in China’s 11th Five-Year Plan.   Between now and 2011 the Big Lychee will increase rice yields by 20%, boost tractor production by 30% and host 2,500% more Mainland tourists.  Net Material Product will increase threefold, and we will resolutely wipe out sparrows. 

How does Radio Television Hong Kong’s English station react?  A Government review of public broadcasting hangs over RTHK’s head, threatening either to turn the organization into an official mouthpiece blaring out “A revolution is not a dinner party” from loudspeakers at bus stops, or – the horror! – deprive it of its mollycoddled, taxpayer-funded monopoly and letting a hundred community media outlets blossom.   You would think they would display a bit of respect for our glorious motherland’s deputy leader.  But no.  One of the presenters this morning gratuitously insults the nation’s number-two by making a point of pronouncing his name ‘when’.  A spell of self-criticism, kneeling on broken glass and wearing a dunce’s cap awaits these stinking remnants of the decadent bourgeois class.
Tue, 7 Mar
Fumbling with my bedside clock radio at dawn, I find myself listening to a channel almost off the FM band, near the frequency taxi drivers use to organize gas-guzzling drive-ins against fuel prices, or to warn each other late at night when a vomit-imminent wild American friend Odell is drunkenly trying to hail a cab in Wanchai, flailing his arms at every red vehicle he sees.  Over these lonely airwaves, a familiar voice repeats the same line endlessly… 

“One nun’s fun son, Wen, won one one-ton gun, hon.  One nun’s fun son, Wen, won one one-ton gun, hon.  One nun’s fun son, Wen, won one one-ton gun, hon.”  

It is, of course, the RTHK sin bin, the secret station to which announcers and presenters who mispronounce important names are banished until they mend their ways.  The culprit seems to be progressing well.  No doubt our cheerful and easy-going local patriots will be suitably impressed and therefore take it in their usual good humour if and when the public broadcaster
hires unemployable anti-communist shock jock Wong Yuk-man to start ranting about Premier ‘Wan Ka-bo’.
Wed, 8 Mar
Why is our dedicated Chief Executive Donald Tsang so determined to ram through the plan to build a luxury
Palace and Monument to Big Government on the prime waterfront Tamar site?  Some say that officials simply want to lavish themselves – the envisioned HQ would have 400 square feet of space per occupant – in the traditional way of the world’s most arrogant, overpaid, self-serving civil service.  Others see typical political bribery, Sir Bow-Tie hurling fat contracts at the leech-like engineering and surveying sectors (represented in the Legislative Council by the shameless Raymond Ho and Patrick Lau, who – surprise, surprise – have just resigned from the committee pressuring the administration on this very subject).  Others simply assume it’s just another transfer of public assets to the construction industry and building materials supplies cartels – in accordance with the unwritten rule that companies like Li Ka-shing’s Green Island Cement have a God-given, automatic right to those portions of Hong Kong’s wealth the civil servants can't stuff into their pockets.  Meanwhile, students of bureaucratic behaviour believe empire-building has a lot to do with it.  The Transport Department is obsessed with covering the northern shore of Central with freeways and multilayered, spaghetti-like road networks, and there has to be a monster tower in the middle for them all to lead to.  Cynics say. “all of the above.”

My mind drifts back to a morning in mid-January 1998 when we switched on the radio and heard that Tung Chee-hwa had suddenly and mysteriously decided to take the Tamar site, worth billions, off the market.  It was the first sign that our new leader was winging it.  Li Ka-shing’s Cheung Kong Center was due to open the following year.  The ultimately Beijing-owned CITIC Tower had opened the year before.  It was as if Tofu-for-Brains had picked up the phone and heard a plea from distressed landlords to help them prop up rents in nearby office blocks after property started to crash.  Instead, the Crop-Haired One decided, we will have a Government HQ there, complete with an ugly, soulless, Mainland-style public concrete square for patriotic goose-stepping and student-shooting ceremonies.  Then, in 2003, he pulled the plug on that idea on the grounds that everyone hated him too much already because of SARS, Article 23, pro-democracy marches and a HK$68 billion deficit, without squandering HK$4.3 billion on a pointless status symbol. 

Before long, we will look back and see how it was inevitable all along.  Part of the plan is to re-house the Legislative Council in the basement of the new tower, or on the 14th floor, or somewhere – so the institution will symbolically become a part of the executive structure, rather than standing alone, as if we believe in all that stupid gwailo separation-of-powers nonsense.  And if not a Government HQ, what?  The site was originally a British naval facility.  The Japanese would have committed unspeakable atrocities there during the war, so the land is no doubt haunted.  Next door is the old Prince of Wales Building, the inverted gin bottle that passed from the British Ministry of Defence to the People’s Liberation Army in 1997.  Can the noble Chinese military have a mere commercial office block overlooking them?  Wouldn’t British, American and Taiwanese plotters and schemers burrow tunnels into the building and find that all the lights are left on at night just for show?  Is any other site big enough to accommodate the pharaonic Donald Tsang’s ego and vanity simultaneously?
Thurs, 9 Mar
Although under orders to make Hong Kong a happier and better place by not being Tung Chee-hwa, dashing Sir Donald is also implicitly obliged to avoid embarrassing his predecessor.  Rather than blatantly tossing the Crop-Haired One’s more dimwitted policies into the trash, he has to reverse the blunders discreetly.  A classic example went duly un-noticed when the Government recently unveiled its new Quality Migrant Admission Scheme to attract some badly needed clean, healthy and intelligent breeding stock into the Big Lychee.  The original announcement seemed to suggest that the spouses of newly arrived top-grade DNA would have the right to work here.  It now transpires that the July 2003 ban on automatic work permits for all new expat wives is being scrapped.
Instead of being thrown in the bin, that policy deserves to be stuffed, mounted and put on display in a glass case, a picture of which could appear in Tung’s forthcoming memoirs, How I Trashed Asia’s Greatest City.  By 2003, bludgeoned into near-total senselessness by critics on all sides, the hapless Chief Executive was desperate for friends and agreeing to almost any request for a favour.  Thus, when representatives of our legions of unwashed, illiterate unemployed demanded help, he scrabbled around for an instant gesture of appeasement.  Banning new-arriving expat housewives from job-hunting was facile.  Hong Kong’s destitute natives were barely fit to be hired as dishwashers, while the gwaipos wanted to work in kindergartens, art galleries and shelters for distressed Mainland bears.  But that was too complex for grassroots activists to comprehend, and Tung rejoiced at spreading a little cheer among them by making life harder for spoilt foreigners. 

For one minute.  Then came a broadside from the international business community, who warned with a straight face that if their better halves couldn’t work here they would all go back to London and New York and pay 40% tax.  Panic-stricken Hong Kong officials then promised to deal sympathetically when barbarian bankers’ and accountants’ partners applied for work permits – proceeding to prove their groveling effusiveness by refusing
a grand total of one out of 770.  And the world wonders why seven million people came to call the poor wretch ‘Tofu-For-Brains’
FEW PEOPLE would pay much attention to the Hong Kong chapter of the US State Department’s 2005 Country Report on Human Rights Practices, released a few hours ago, because even the most riveting part of it – Section 3 Respect for Political Rights – is so tedious that I fall asleep reading it at my desk in S-Meg Tower this morning, leaving a half-eaten apple to go brown and a cup of jasmine tea to go cold.  So much hard work, doomed to disappear unremarked.

Unless…  Unless some kindly folk elsewhere in the world take pity and decide to highlight the document’s few interesting points by standing up, pointing to them and screeching,
“We’re desperate to introduce universal suffrage, and we also think it’s really cool that we have no way of knowing what the wording of our constitution means!” Unlike the Americans, our Government knows that the louder the protest, the more convincing it is.
Fri, 10 Mar
What are human beings’ Recommended Daily Allowances for silicon, aluminium, calcium, manganese and iron?  Demand for mineral supplements slumps today as Hong Kong is hit by a worse-than-usual air pollution index, with districts reporting levels as Bad, Bad, Bad, Dangerous, Bad, Don’t Ask, Bad and Dangerous respectively.  Our Environmental Protection Department’s policy is to eradicate pollution by measuring it.  It is a well-known fact that nitrous oxides and other noxious airborne substances intensely dislike being quantified, and will go away if you set up enough roadside monitoring stations.  In the meantime, teams of enthusiastic Nepalese street cleaners clad in bandanas, surgical face masks, day-glo safety jackets and rubber boots, march through Central, sweeping the Respirable Suspended Particulates into large piles on the sidewalks.  

According to the
EPD, many of these pesky little irritants are produced by traffic.  Unfortunately, while that noble Government agency is valiantly driving pollution away by analyzing it, their colleagues over at the Transport Department remain dedicated to implementing their 10-year-plan to ensure that every citizen of the Big Lychee spends all day driving round and round in a hulking SUV with a fat, ice-cream-smeared child in the back.  For every particulate that vanishes for fear of being sucked into a roadside air gauge, another two pop out of the exhaust pipe of a diesel-powered truck stuck behind 20 parents taking their four-year-olds to Putonghua violin class. 

On balance, everything will – as ever – be wonderful.  On the one hand, let’s say the Transport Department realizes its splendid vision of Hong Kong-as-Los Angeles, shaded from the brutal sun by soothing, grey 16-lane overhead freeways filled with happy, relaxed commuters enjoying their restful and unhurried three-hour drives to the office.  We will fall sick and die, but in peace, free of crowds – pollution is our last defence against the great tourism menace.  On the other hand, if we clean the air, we will continue to be invaded by hordes of
nouveau-riche Mainland peasants wandering around in large groups while all our neighbourhood stores shut down to make way for more skin-whitening retailers.  We will become unwanted strangers in our own city – but allowed to breath!  I look out of my office window at the thick, Venusian atmosphere blanketing the harbour.  If this isn’t a ‘win-win’, what is?