Hemlock's Diary
7-13 Jan 2007
Sun, 7 Jan
RIP Momofuku Ando, 1910-2007, inventor of instant noodles, who succumbed – perhaps fittingly – to a heart attack, though reaching 96 would suggest he was in good shape.  Although disgusting and unhealthy as a permanent feature of anyone’s diet, Ando’s invention forms an essential part of every household’s emergency crisis centre, along with candles, bottles of water, suicide pills and a firearm.  In case of such natural disasters as typhoons or late nights out without eating first, this exceptionally convenient last culinary resort will keep someone alive for long enough to allow them to work out a better alternative.  The main ingredients of the actual, pre-cooked noodle are refined flour and water, and the palm oil into which it is dipped while still fresh to leave it in suspended animation until boiling water is added. 

Those of discerning tastes pay attention to the flavouring.  To anyone with any breeding, Pot Noodles are unacceptable.  So are the ‘Doll’ brand and other cheap products that come in colourful cellophane packs with little sachets of soup powder and dehydrated vegetable.  The sort to keep in stock are the hefty polystyrene bowls that contain, as well as noodles, a retort pouch of meat and gravy, a plastic pack of mustard greens (usually) mixed with some sort of mucus, and the little sachet of soup base.  This last substance is evil, being mainly salt, and only half of it needs to be used.  The retort bag does not need to be boiled separately – just pour all the ingredients in before adding hot water.  All right-minded people will have a jar of kimchee lying around at all times, and some of this should be added to spice the meal up and contribute some genuine nutrition to it.

Taiwan’s Wei Wei and President brands are good.  Wellcome supermarket’s own label is OK.  The Japanese ones, like many of that country’s packaged foodstuffs, are fancily packaged and pricey but disappointing, with the exception of a brand whose name I forget that often includes a plastic-wrapped preserved egg and little packs of picked ginger.

Ando’s Nissin company’s
biography neglects to mention that, as a yet-to-be inventor, the great man served two years in prison for tax evasion, or that he founded an Instant Ramen Museum named after himself in Osaka, or that he authored the book How I Invented Magic Noodles.  No fewer than 86 billion packs of his life-saving creation are sold in the world every year.
Mon, 8 Jan
The first breakfast of the new year at Yuet Yuen Restaurant with the ever-delectable Administrative Officer Winky Ip, who is in great excitement about today’s announcement of the Government’s radical new conservation strategy.  Just weeks after hordes of semi-employable students rampaged over the old Star Ferry pier in an effort to save it from the wreckers, Donald Tsang – the colonial running dog entrusted out of desperation by Beijing to maintain heavenly peace and harmony in the fragrant harbour – is going to take heritage seriously.  “We absolutely cannot afford another incident like that,” says the charming Winky, stirring peanuts into her congee.  “Protestors lying down in front of police vans on TV!  Just a couple of months before the election!” 

A key part of the new approach to the preservation of our city’s historic features is the re-vamping of the Antiquities Advisory Board.  Previously, it was a toothless group of unthreatening yes-men in their 50s and 60s.  Now, it will be a toothless group of unthreatening yes-men in their 30s and 40s.  “The older refugee generation never saw Hong Kong as a place to put down roots,” Winky explains, “but the younger ones...”  She gives me the standard blurb from every recent editorial and op-ed column about the rising generation that cherishes civic identity.  It’s an interesting point.  Taiwan went through something like this after it became clear in the 1980s that the old leaders would never recover the Mainland from the communist bandits, and young people started to see the island as their home.  Seen this way, the movement Donald Tsang is facing is actually a form of nationalism – a word that would go down like a cup of cold vomit in the context of the Big Lychee, so I simply murmur my agreement with Ms Ip’s profound thoughts.

One of the less endearing traits of this community is the tendency to seize on the most superficial symptom of an ailment and treat it as if it were the Main Problem.  Heritage sites are endangered in Hong Kong because the Government has two pathological obsessions.  One is building roads in a city with no population growth and serious air pollution.  The other is keeping space not for roads in artificially short supply, and selling it to raise unnecessary revenue and deliver unnatural profits to a property cartel that hires psychopathic architects who compete to see who can cram the biggest amount of ugliness onto the skyline.  Dig deeper, and you find symbiotic relationships among bureaucrats and real estate and construction interests, complete with foul-smelling contractual errors and the provision of cozy, private-sector jobs for former public officials.  Peel off another layer, and we find a political structure that might as well have been designed to enable this interlinked collection of interests and some hangers-on to feed like parasites on the rest of the economy.  Meanwhile, all eyes are fixed on the Most Pressing Issue Of Our Times – whether to knock down or relocate the crumbling
Queen’s Pier.  And a couple of bowls of juk away, a voice says, “We must balance conservation with development.”
Tue, 9 Jan
A quick search on the Internet reveals that the printed circuit board industry produces airborne particulates, acid fumes, leftover acids, alkalis and extremely noxious-sounding halogenated solvents, and much else.  It adds up to a brew of satanic stannic oxide, appalling palladium, vile vinyl polymers, cloying chlorinated hydrocarbons, sinister cyanide, unamusing ammonia and lots more.  So the question on everyone’s lips this morning is, “If it churns out that much pollution it obviously makes a lot of money – should I buy shares in the PCB maker owned by Financial Secretary Henry Tang’s family when it’s
floated on the stock market in a few weeks time?”

It will be interesting to see whether the high profile of the company’s ownership will bring out the unknowing hordes of taxi drivers, grandmothers and stinky tofu vendors who kick and eye-gouge their way to the front of the line to subscribe to initial public offerings of companies being launched by the venerable Li Ka-shing.  A Li start-up needs only his name.  Its only assets could be a truck full of week-old copies of the
South China Morning Post that civic-minded Filipino maids have used to wrap dog droppings in when walking their masters’ mutts on a Mid-Levels morning.  Its only business plan could be a few paragraphs of such monumental vagueness that you would learn more from Lands Secretary Michael Suen’s accounts of how outline zoning plans force him to knock down old buildings to make way for roads and malls.  It helps to be the first tycoon in Hong Kong to spot a fad that caught on a while ago everywhere else in the world and will soon fade out or burst.  Thus Li brought us the dot com, the bio-tech and the real estate investment trust, leaving his smaller-brained fellow property oligarchs to emulate him in embarrassing IPOs that usually flopped.  Unlike them, Li Ka-shing has a measurable IQ.

I think that answers the question.
Wed, 10 Jan
We have think tanks coming out of our ears.  With the possible exception of Christine Loh’s Civic Exchange, they’re not real think tanks, like RAND, engaging in thorough and hard-headed analysis of policy issues.  Rather, they serve as platforms for would-be or actual politicians and hangers-on who want to strut around looking important and influential.  In most cases, they seek to bolster lazy official thinking and vested interests’ agendas rather than challenge anything.  Thus outfits like the pro-Beijing and apparently defunct One Country Two Systems Research Institute, sponsored by Executive Council member CY Leung and property tycoon Ronnie Chan blathered on endlessly about how the Government could promote ‘integration’ with the Mainland.  Regina Ip’s Savantas urges policymakers to pour public money into tired and cliched ‘high-tech’ dreams.  And now the Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre, also known as the Donald Tsang Fan Club, comes up with an analysis-free collection of data entitled We have more mobile phones than anyone else and creative industries and Mainland talent are really cool, but our population is ageing and some people are poor and we don’t spend much on R&D or have babies, but then again isn’t it great that our financial reserves are so obscenely gynormous?

I am reliably informed that at least two more of these quasi-political parties are on the way this year.  However, it will be left to the Hemlock Foundation to investigate the things that matter.  Its report
The True and Horrifying Economic Costs of Tourism will measure the damage done by that industry’s pollution and crowding, distortion of retail rents and the allocation of resources to benefit visitors rather than locals.  Calm Down – the Ageing Population is a Non-Issue will examine the great demographic threat hanging over us and conclude that raising public- and private-sector retirement ages by a few years makes the whole problem vanish.  Export the Rabble will similarly solve a non-problem by recommending that all unemployed and welfare claimants be paid (from the proceeds of privatizing public housing) to move across the border where they can afford to live, thus leaving our GINI coefficient looking even more moral and trendy than Sweden’s.  This is a foundation that will truly live up to its motto – ‘We think out of the box so you don’t have to’.
Thurs, 11 Jan
The Year of the Gold Pig approaches.  Babies born in this year will, by the age of four, play the piano, speak three languages and sail through the most demanding admissions interview at the most exclusive kindergarten.  In later years, they will do extremely well in exams, display leadership skills and take part in many extra-mural activities, and get into the best and most famous universities, whence they will graduate with full honours and become highly successful accountants, lawyers or doctors with a very, very large Mercedes and a foreign passport.  Which is why the Hospital Authority is worried, because not only will larger numbers of Mainland women pour across the border to give birth here starting mid-February, but Hong Kong’s own females, who reproduce so rarely that they make panda bears look like rabbits, will also exhibit a sudden burst of fecundity.  Our maternity wards will be knee-deep in amniotic fluid, screaming babies, afterbirth and unpaid bills.  Fast forward a few years, and our Government finances will collapse as all these ID card-holding Mainland kids swarm back into the city to sponge off our education, health and welfare services and it will all be the fault of the evil Court of Final Appeal for thinking that the Basic Law phrase…
The permanent residents of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be
  (1) Chinese citizens born in Hong Kong before or after the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region…
...means that Chinese citizens born in Hong Kong could in any possible way qualify as permanent residents.  Or, maybe, they will swarm back just in time to join the workforce before our Government finances collapse under the weight of the ageing population, and they will get jobs here as extremely productive, tax-paying accountants, lawyers or doctors and both rescue our economy and make major contributions to the integration of the Big Lychee and the glorious motherland.  Or, just perhaps, nothing much will happen at all and we will start frothing at the mouth about a completely different Threat to Civilization, like red imported fire ants carrying a mysterious virus that only be contracted by epidemiologists.  Whatever it is, it all starts in just 37 days’ time – non-stop, breathtaking excitement.
Fri, 12 Jan
The first week-long week of 2007 scrambles to a busy end.  The Renminbi has recently risen from 101 to 99 per HK$100 at moneychangers.  There was a time when you could cause a pile-up of bicycles in downtown Guangzhou by waving a fistful of Hong Kong Dollars at the drooling hordes pedaling by.  Now, they won’t wipe the rearview mirrors of their Lexuses with the stuff.  Which brings me neatly to former Financial Secretary Antony Leung, who is joining private equity outfit Blackstone.  The great Lexusgate scandal that led to his downfall was an embarrassingly lame political outrage that brought hoots of derision from hardened, ballot-stuffing, mistress-keeping, bribe-taking, expense-fiddling, secretary-impregnating, back-stabbing statesman the world over.  Did I say ‘back-stabbing’?  Which member of the Executive Council was it in early 2003 who (being keenly ambitious to be Chief Executive and spotting an opportunity to eject a serious potential rival from the cabinet) originally leaked the news that Leung had bought the luxury car ahead of raising taxes on such items and not declared it before the annual Budget announcement?  I have no idea.

Chief Executive Donald Tsang, meanwhile, repeats his claim that Hong Kong’s economy is doing better than it has done for 20 years.  My mind drifts back to that time, an era when – I distinctly recall – Polly the lipstick lesbian, Lincoln, Winky, various people whose names I forget, and I were all poorer but happier.  Of course, we were just starting out and on entry-level salaries.  In those days, a can of San Miguel cost 90 cents, grubby old men clustered around a hole-in-the-wall methadone dispensary just across the street, CMB busses had cockroaches but no air-conditioning, there were ‘AM’ and ‘PM’ schools sharing the same building, public hospitals had beds in the corridors, the sole disco dungeon in Wanchai was the Makati Inn (in a now-demolished building), women holding drugged babies begged in Nathan Road, there were no mobile phones or PCs, every post office had a portrait of the Queen on the wall, and the courts routinely sentenced youths to be flogged.  Now, our portfolios burst with apartments, shares and Renminbi, and the rest of Hong Kong has come a long way, too, but everyone is miserable and whining.  Maybe this is what Donald is trying to say.

He has effectively announced that he will run for Chief Executive in the forthcoming ‘election’.  Looking at presumed opponent
Alan Leong’s policy platform, I am initially shocked at how insipid it is.  I would be tempted to spice it up – create jobs by scrapping the high land price policy, cut air pollution through road pricing and pedestrianisation, use some of the reserves to buy prime sites and turn them into parks, expand the voucher scheme to all schools.  Bold, radical, daring.  But instead, the Civic Party has chosen the weakest, least imaginative excuses for policy it can find.  And a very cunning move it is.  Their manifesto is just slightly to the populist side of what Sir Bow-Tie would want to come up with.  Now Donald faces the challenge of differentiating himself.  Deviate from the Leong platform one way, and he is conservative and pro-tycoon.  Deviate from it in the other direction and the plutocrats on the Election Committee would prefer Alan Leong.  Or Donald can just endorse the Civic Party’s ideas.

His angle will be that he is a seasoned administrator who knows Government inside out, while Alan Leong can’t even sing a Bob Dylan song without wrecking it.  Donald will pointedly ask what Leong knows about implementing policy.  Leong will say he learnt how not to do it from the West Kowloon Cultural Hub, the Goods and Services Tax, etc, etc.  It could all get quite amusing and put everyone in the happy mood we so fondly remember from a couple of decades back.