Hemlock's Diary
6-12 August 2006
Sun, 6 Aug
To Macau, to inspect the newly opened branch of Mongolian lamb hotpot chain, Little Sheep, which has been attracting huge crowds – the Cantonese traditional dislike of this particular meat being overcome by HK$100 rebates as a promotional gimmick.  It is on Avenida do Ouvidor Arriga, with the same nonplussed staff who were working in the previous restaurant in the location.  The exact ingredients in the broth are a secret, but leeks, dried dates, wizened roots that bestow long life and possibly cumin seem to be included.  It works.
Meanwhile, down at Hac Sa, uninformed tourists still queue outside Fernando’s, the once-trendy eatery that Macau’s Portuguese population won’t set foot in.  Locals offer various reasons for this.  One is that the proprietor was kicked out of the Azores many years ago for a heinous crime.  Another is that he once responded to a complaint from an illustrious diner by taking the allegedly below-par steak, giving it to one of the dogs that hang around the place and – after the latter wolfed it down – announced “if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for you.”  The third explanation is that it’s a dump.

When the book
Awful Asian Architecture comes to be published, The City of the Name of God will be well represented.  Steve Wynn’s Las Vegas-style brown monstrosity, carefully designed to wreck the feng shui at Stanley Ho’s Hotel Lisboa, is nearing completion.  Yards away, Dr Ho’s latest monstrosity, carefully designed to wreck the feng shui of Wynn’s, is taking shape.  A mile south, on the vast reclamation on either side of what used to be a harmless causeway between Taipa and Coloane islands, Wynn’s Las Vegas-style Venetian is half-way done, though the nearby Galaxy look likely to open first.  Between the hotel-casino complexes are sprawling acres of construction.  One thing’s for sure – it won’t be nice when it’s finished.
Clockwise, from top left, Ho’s new place, Wynn’s, Ho’s new place again, something that looks like you could push the top off with a nudge, Galaxy, view from Lisboa, and Wynn’s Venetian.
Mon, 7 Aug
Office workers have to wade through several feet of thick foam in Central this morning, so great was the mouth-frothing that took place in my absence over the weekend.  Much of the ranting was over the Government’s
covert surveillance legislation, which legalizes – at the command of the courts – what law-enforcement agencies have been doing all along.  Unlike the Article 23 National Security laws that aroused the Great People’s Uprising of 1 July 2003, the wiretapping law is too mind-numbing and tedious to provoke the wrath of the Hong Kong public.  However, as with the Article 23 bill, officials made it a point of honour to write the legislation badly enough to worry the human rights brigade and then frantically dismiss any and every improvement suggested by lawyers in the Legislative Council’s pro-democracy camp.  With bleary-eyed support from the obedient pro-Beijing lawmakers, the administration rammed the thing through, defeating 200 amendments over several late-night sessions.  More opportunities to display its mightiness and masculinity await our executive-led Government as the new law is subjected to the inevitable legal challenges in the months ahead.  Our leaders’ number-one priority is to clamp their hands over their ears, stamp their feet and shout “Can’t hear you, so there, nyah nyah!” every time Margaret Ng or Audrey Eu open their mouths.  Nothing else is as important as this.
The other Most Horrible Shock And Outrage In History that I missed was the gail-force fury over the Hong Kong Observatory’s decision not to issue the Number 8 Signal as Typhoon Prapiroon swept past us late last week.  The meteorologists follow a clear set of procedures when severe tropical storms bear down on the Big Lychee.  When their man on the roof with his licked finger bravely raised in the air judges the wind speed to reach the ‘Jolly Fast’ threshold, they hoist a big black ball up a flagpole to warn all fishing boats in Victoria Harbour to return to port.  To make extra sure, they send messages by semaphore, rickshaw and sampan to half a dozen outposts from Kennedy Town to Quarry Bay   But it proved unnecessary to put this time-tested system into practice last Thursday for the simple and obvious reason that the wind on the Observatory roof didn’t get to the ‘Jolly Fast’ point.  Out at the airport, Airbuses and Boeings were being tossed around in 200-kilometre-an-hour gusts, and stranded passengers were eating each another in the terminal.  Evil airline staff, all of whom had complete details of the scheduling arrangements for the following 72 hours, refused to tell their anxious customers anything – just for fun.  The Airport Authority miraculously found clowns, which were dispatched to entertain distraught travelers, leading to more cannibalism.  The chaos also affected Macau, where, as I was able to record personally, the typhoon ruthlessly exposed the tragic shortcomings of the Parks Department’s tree-planting practices.
Tue, 8 Aug
Wild American friend Odell collides with three office workers, one staff member and a potted plant, and spills half of his pomegranate and jojoba latte on the magazine rack, en route from the counter to our seats in the corner of the IFC Mall branch of Pacific Coffee.  He does well, considering he is blindfolded and is having to negotiate the crowded premises by touch.  “I’ve been practicing for a couple of days now,” he tells me.  “I think I’ll do OK tonight.”
Like many other people, he is planning to take part in Lights Out Hong Kong, a protest against air pollution that involves everyone – or at least some people – switching off their lights for three minutes at 8pm on this, the eighth day of the eighth month.  In apartments from Happy Valley to Discovery Bay, families will dine in total darkness, painstakingly trying to convey their food from their plates into their mouths without dropping any into their laps, smearing it against their cheeks or stabbing their lips with their forks.  In the bars of Lan Kwai Fong, Filipino waitresses carrying trays of drinks will emit high-pitched squeaks in order to find their way through the crowded blackness by sonar.  In hospital operating theatres, surgeons will grope for scalpels and swabs while using sense of smell to locate and remove malignant organs.  Pilots on their final approach to Chek Lap Kok, seeing the landing lights vanish, will depend on memory to find the runway – the moonlight, of course, being masked by the smog. 

I am in two minds about the whole ‘clean the air’ business.  From a purely aesthetic point of view, a blue sky is undeniably more liberating and cheering than the yellowish-brown one we know today.  There is something melancholy about neutral colours on a large scale overhead.  But the pollution brings a surprising number of benefits.  It does an excellent job of filtering out sunlight, much to the relief of the delicate and pale-complexioned among us, whose eyes can’t handle the brightness and whose skin reddens after the slightest burst of ultra-violet.  It apparently deters tourists.  It’s hard to believe, but there would be even more of these wandering pests clogging up the streets if we had cleaner air.  And, although the evidence is largely apocryphal so far, our unbreathable atmosphere might be driving people with children away from the Big Lychee.  The prospect of a city abandoned by families, with their vast SUVs and equally disproportionately sized baby strollers and dogs, is tantalizing.  We should be careful what we wish for, lest we receive it.   A blue sky will not come without cost.
Wed, 9 Aug
In the morning meeting, the Big Boss announces that the Special Administrative Region’s dashing Chief Executive, Donald Tsang, is consulting the inevitable ‘various sectors’ about the content of his Policy Address, to be delivered in October.  As a various sector himself, our Chairman has been invited to offer suggestions.  What, he wonders aloud, should he advise Sir Bow-Tie to include in his speech?

Normally, a member of Hong Kong’s upstanding and dynamic business community would respond to a request for policy ideas by scratching his head and then saying, “I know – give me some free land so I can create jobs and turn Hong Kong into a hub.”  It worked with Tung Chee-hwa.  But Donald is made of sterner stuff.  Dozens of various sectors will sit down with him in the coming weeks, begging for rent cuts for parasites in public housing, Government jobs for ‘Chinese medicine’ voodoo practitioners, tax breaks for sleazy film makers and fund managers, a minimum wage for unskilled and unemployable members of the supposedly labouring class, free infrastructure for the leech-like tourism industry, and other handouts too predictable and depressing to mention.  All will receive a polite reception and be shown the door.  Except where a suggestion coincides with the predilections of the civil service – like the construction of some ugly, overpriced and pointless white elephant for tourists – the various sectors’ ideas will be ignored.

The best approach is to urge our visionary leader to announce a policy that he has already planned anyway.  But this is harder than it sounds.  With a Chief Executive ‘election’ next April, Tsang isn’t going to launch any serious new initiatives.  The problem is dumped into the capable hands of the Company Gwailo, whose hopes of an early and leisurely wind-down to the week are thus dashed.

That said, idling in the office is that little bit less enjoyable and satisfying than it once was, owing to the surprisingly fussy nature of the new firewall on the top floor of S-Meg Tower.  It blocks numerous sites.  Sometimes this is a nuisance, while on around one occasion in five it is a relief – this is a firewall capable of displaying good taste.  Stupidly, however, it fails to ban one particular part of the web that caters to delinquent students attending censorship-prone seats of learning.  This site renders the firewalls’ efforts futile.  A quiet victory for liberty over the forces of evil.
Thurs, 10 Aug
The Big Boss is in a scurrilous mood in the morning meeting.  Sir Bow-Tie, he tells us, pressured the Hong Kong Observatory not to hoist the Number Eight Signal during last week’s typhoon, in order to keep the Legislative Council in session and pass the covert surveillance law before the court-imposed six-month deadline of 8 August.  I am disgusted to hear our widely respected Chairman spreading such wicked and vicious rumours about a dedicated senior public official.
CHRISTINE LOH in today’s South China Morning Post complains that the Government’s proposed tax reform is flawed because officials have totally neglected a critical part of our fiscal system – revenues from land sales and land premiums, which are reserved for capital expenditure. 

Her good manners lead her to understate her argument.  If she were less well brought up, she would point out that the Capital Works Reserve Fund is a slush fund for the civil service.  They use it to pay for big-budget projects like reclamations, harbour front freeways, luxury Government offices and white elephants.  As a developed, mature economy where the population is hardly growing, Hong Kong doesn’t need to spend much on new infrastructure.  It is wasteful, and it degrades the living environment.  But it gives our overpaid and underworked bureaucrats power and influence.  The money is funneled to a construction industry that buys its materials from cartels operated by our leading tycoons (who also give jobs to retired civil servants).  To replenish the slush fund is laughably simple – dismiss public calls for green space and sell prime sites to developers for billions.  With no effective planning controls to restrain them, the developers make further billions by erecting monstrous tower blocks that make the city even nastier to live in, so ‘all parties’ are happy (unless you are among the 99.9 percent of the population not in on this scam).

In theory, the Government and the civil service are neutral arbiters among society’s different interest groups.  But in Hong Kong, officials have not only become an interest group in their own right, but one allied with developers and builders in opposition to the rest of the community.  Christine’s notion that they might allow ‘their’ slush fund to be shared with the public is unthinkable.  Not only is she too polite and idealistic – she is squeamish.  Among our many unnecessary public works projects in recent years are long stretches of highway with superfluous amounts of lampposts alongside them.  One day, the bureaucrats will be swinging from them, and many of the Big Lychee’s problems will be solved.  Tax reform won’t cut it.

SOME BEDTIME reading on a related topic – Alice Poon, author of
Land and the Ruling Class in Hong Kong, examines how property development addiction hinders the MTR, KCR and Urban Development Authority in their mission to serve the public interest.
Fri, 11 Aug
Security services in the UK thwart a plot to blow up as many as a dozen aircraft in mid-air en route to the US.  Much to everyone’s amazement, the would-be bombers are not Quakers, not Amish, not Buddhist – and the list goes on.  According to a writer in the
Financial Times this morning, one major problem is that British-born Muslims of Pakistani origin are ‘disenfranchised’.  A more common term among the hand-wringers is ‘alienated’.  All the non-Muslim population needs to do is accept and respect Muslims, and all will be OK.  Understand why Muslims need to slit their sisters’ throats if they get boyfriends, why pictures of Piglet are deeply offensive and must be hidden away, and why the democratically elected government’s foreign policy must never involve the use of force in any Islamic state, and they’ll stop feeling alienated and won’t be forced to blow up hundreds of innocent strangers on trains and aircraft.  Which reminds me – I have to book tickets for my more-or-less annual filial piety tour of the Great Satan and the Little Satan in six weeks’ time.  Heathrow and Dulles will be especially enjoyable this year. 
More details about the planned bombings suggest that the plotters aimed to blow up the aircraft in waves of simultaneous attacks over US cities, probably killing more than the number who died in 2001.  Before unwholesome and sordid visions of a great share-buying opportunity can grip my mind, the three Stanleys from the mailroom visit the gwailo’s lair for their weekend listening – a demo tape of How Come You’re Such A Hit With The Boys, Jane? by the Dolly Mixture.