|11-17 June 2006|
|Mon, 12 June
How far would the Government take its obsession with building a lavish palace for itself on the Tamar site? Surely, it wouldn’t issue a ghost-written, ‘personal’ essay by an obscure, middle-ranking civil servant as a press release would it? I can’t help wondering how much the public had to shell out for the absurd A Date With Tamar, purportedly by Architectural Services Department Chief Project Manager Peter Yuen. Compared with the expenditure of HK$5 billion on Donald Tsang’s monument to his own ego, it wasn’t much – but in terms of value for money, it is every bit as poor. Its only possible usefulness is as an illustration of our officials’ assumption that the Hong Kong people are mentally retarded infants who will swallow the flimsiest and most fanciful attempt at propaganda without question.
Rule number-one when trying to influence opinion this way is to establish some sort of credibility by conceding that the opposition’s case has some merit. Thus, the supposed essay should contain such phrases as, “It would obviously be ideal if the site could be turned into a green park rather than covered with concrete, however…” Instead, it blithely delivers intelligence-insulting non-sequiturs – nobody was allowed to go there when it was a British Naval dockyard full of boats with nasty guns, and it was earmarked for a new Government HQ back in the 1990s, therefore it’s a brilliant and essential project.
If our dashing Chief Executive seriously wants public support for this monstrosity, it would be easy to obtain. Bureaucratic, empire-building, contract-dispensing momentum seems to be partly responsible for this – as with other – white elephants. But that doesn’t explain Sir Bow-Tie’s fixation with erecting this particular eyesore in this specific location. Which is why thoughtful observers are coming to the conclusion that this whole mess boils down to a loyalty test – if Donald pushes this through, he gets his second term.
The idea that Beijing would demand such a quid pro quo sounds ridiculous when you first think about it. Then, after about 0.003 seconds, you start to realize that it is totally in character with China’s Communist leaders, who don’t trust the Catholic, former colonial civil servant an inch. Donald is like the mythical KGB recruit ordered to shoot his own wife to prove his utter commitment. His fondness for grandiose and pointless infrastructure work notwithstanding, he would rather save his local goodwill and political capital and put Tamar on the back-burner, like West Kowloon. But he will – must – ram this through as a symbol of fealty. If it were put this way, given that the alternatives are too horrifying to contemplate, public opinion would swiftly conclude that an unnecessary, environmentally damaging, HK$5 billion tower block is a snip. Do a couple more, everyone would say.
Tue, 13 June
Shareholder rights activist David Webb alerts me to a factual error in Peter Yuen’s supposed essay, A Date With Tamar. Apparently describing the view of Tamar from his office in Queensway, Yuen writes…
|I watched the then Governor, a grim-faced Chris Patten, holding the Union Jack, being captured on film by every photographer at the spot. This historic moment was the front page picture of almost every newspaper in town the following day|
|Except that Patten, blubbing away like a girl, received the flag at his official residence half a mile away, in an emotional ceremony we all watched on TV, clutching our Kleenexes and choking back fears of the fate that was to befall us. There had been a flag-lowering ritual at Tamar the previous April, when the Royal Navy officially closed its facility there. And later that evening on 30 June, 1997, the site hosted an embarrassingly British farewell ceremony, with stiff upper lips drenched by large amounts of rain. But the photo Yuen mentions was up at Government House.|
|Perhaps Yuen had watched it on television. But then, is he telling us he was in the office in the early evening on a public holiday? Eye-witness accounts of the Big Lychee’s last day under the British imperialist hegemonists and their running dogs with names like Tsang and Yuen make it clear that most people had the day off. Yuen says he had been responsible for the spectator stands at the Tamar event – so why wasn’t he down there, with an umbrella, tightening the structure’s bolts and making sure Prince Charles, Fei Pang, et al didn’t plunge to their deaths? Or was he directing underlings from his office, feet on his desk, peering down at the ceremony through the window, barking orders into a walky talky in one hand and thumbing the TV remote control with the other?
Yuen has been used by his employer, the Government, and had his integrity ruined by an anonymous ghost writer who didn’t check facts. Is it any wonder that he is not replying to emails? I am tempted to explore A Date With Tamar more closely...
|…small fighting vessels of the British naval fleet, commonly known as P. T. Boats, were moored there. Sometimes the gun muzzle would point at our offices. One of the more "fung shui" conscious colleagues of mine did not feel at ease, and he bought a terracotta horse to put on the window ledge. In Chinese chess, the "horse" is the nemesis of the "cannon", he said.|
|Ignorant ghost writer strikes again. They were plodding patrol boats – PTs were fast torpedo craft, often captained by heroic future presidents of the US. Are the references to colonial military might and traditional Chinese geomancy intended as a subliminal message of some sort, maybe an appeal to national pride? Or is the hired pen trying to contrast the old-fashioned and uncertain past with the exciting and blissful future?|
|I very much look forward to the completion of the project, a leisurely stroll along the paths winding though the idyllic open space and a breathtaking view of the harbour just minutes' walk from city offices. During lunch-time, office workers in the vicinity can grab a sandwich and come here by making use of the connecting footbridges|
|That was what was missing from the Garden of Eden – connecting footbridges. They are essential because so much of the area around the development will be taken up with roads. Roads that wouldn’t be necessary if the Palace of Big Government weren’t there. The final paragraph underlines the poverty of the writer’s arguments…|
|I often look back on the trials and tribulations we encountered in building the new airport at Chek Lap Kok. I was involved in the construction of the government facilities that supported the airport. It too had its critics, but we now have one of the best airports in the world. Surely no one today would doubt that the right decision was made then.|
|No-one doubted the need for a new airport, nor the need to move the facility away from the harbour. With comparisons like that in favour of a vast, luxury Government HQ towering over the waterfront, who needs arguments against?
Wed, 14 June
In just two weeks and two days, we will be exactly a year away from the 10th anniversary of the transfer of ‘the exercise of’ sovereignty over Hong Kong from the UK to the PRC and the establishment of the Big Lychee Special Administrative Region. That leaves 54 weeks to arrange to be somewhere else.
A senior member of the black hair-dye gang will emerge from Zhongnanhai and touch down here for a few hours. He will pat a grinning Sir Bow-Tie on the head, watch a flag-raising ceremony, admire a patriotic school’s six-year old girls in lipstick and ballet skirts as they mime the blossoming of a bauhinia, and finally mutter a few words about ‘one country two systems’, the motherland and stability, before flying back to the communist cocoon.
At a pro-democracy rally in Victoria Park, the turnout will be 214 misfits and moaners, according to the police, or 2 million, according to organizers. In Happy Valley, meanwhile, the self-consciously contented and unquestioning will clutch red flags and 10th anniversary balloons and watch a Canadian-raised Cantopop star sing of his love for the motherland, to burnish his triad-linked management company owner’s credentials among officials in Beijing.
An even more persuasive reason to make good use of the 54-week window of trip-planning opportunity is the likely arrival of the world’s media. Although fewer in number than in 1997, the scribblers will turn up in sufficient quantities to make all right-thinking people wish they were elsewhere. To stay in town will be to have a microphone thrust in your face repeatedly. “What has changed since the handover?”
Unfortunates unable to get a flight out for the week will be spoilt for choice when thinking up answers. The promise that we could have political reform was a lie. Thus, the grip of the civil service-property-construction cabal is tighter than ever. Thus, the air pollution is worse, the traffic worse, the quality of life worse. Even salaries tax is a bit higher than it was under the British. The salaries tax return has doubled in size.
Perceptive journalists will pick up on this last little detail. They were mocked for declaring The Death of Hong Kong 10 years before, but maybe this time they will get it right. China isn’t killing the place by flooding it with corrupt officials or running us over with tanks. By denying Hong Kong a more open political and economic system, Beijing is suppressing free and natural development, and encouraging the Government to play a bigger role in managing progress and allocating resources. The tax form is bigger because officials have decided to give fiscal incentives to people buying property or attending training courses. No-one has explained why people not paying a mortgage should subsidize those who are.
|Tung Chee-hwa’s attempts to make Hong Kong into a tech hub, Chinese medicine hub, science hub, cruise hub, etc were bumbling lunges toward central planning. Tung’s main achievement in pushing Hong Kong towards statism was to shatter its people’s confidence and leave them looking to Government for the answer. Under Tofu-for-Brains, several officials discreetly bad-mouthed laissez-faire as a British vice. With Donald Tsang, it’s becoming more open.
The advice from Beijing to ‘focus on the economy’ is an instruction to him. “The Government,” says the cabinet’s token democrat Anthony Cheung, “has avoided being ‘proactive’ in economic developments in the past… but now has to figure out a clear role.” The debate on whether Hong Kong is becoming marginalized is a search for opportunities for official micro-management. China’s 11th Five Year Plan incorporates the city for the first time into the Stalinist target-setting apparatus. So far, it is purely symbolic, allowing commentators to say, “…the central government has assigned a certain place for the Special Administrative Region in the national economy, and a certain division of labour.” But across the border, provincial and city chiefs eye the Big Lychee’s privileges and financial reserves, and, licking their lips, press upon our eager-to-please, out-of-their-depth bureaucrats the need for ever more partnership, cooperation and integration.
Now, under the aegis of the Government’s think tank (motto – ‘What would you like the survey to show, sir?’) representatives of the ubiquitous and grasping ‘sectors’ that we now have in place of a community of individuals propose overt state assistance for less-developed economic activities. ‘Less developed’ in this context means unsuccessful, money-losing and unviable. ‘Assistance’ means my money.
That will be the story for the pressmen in 12 and a half months’ time. The Smothering of Hong Kong. I think I’ll be in Bali.
|Thurs, 15 Jun
A quiet morning at home. The Big Boss is away in a remote region of Southeast Asia – no doubt idly passing the time squatting by the side of a dirt track with friendly, simple villagers in the shade of the coconut trees swaying in the gentle, laksa-scented breeze and echoing with the happy chatter of wild gibbons. From Kuala Lumpur, he will go to Singapore, the plucky little city-state whose visionary ruling Lee family, having successfully bred a species of human that will say, think and believe anything it is told, are now ordering these mutants to face the challenge of globalization by thinking independently and creatively. The result, predictably, is not pretty. Accounts assistant, 21, draws picture of Jesus as a zombie biting a boy's head. What are the Singaporeans who aren’t accounts assistants doing?
I hear the sound of a key in a lock. As the door to my apartment swings open, I ponder the value of travelling to these distant tropical paradises when you can have them come to you. The two Filipino elves kick off shoes and don canvas slippers in the hallway and enter the living room bearing plastic bags of toilet paper, bleach and other household replenishments, plus a large statue of the Virgin Mary, which frequently accompanies them in order to ward off evil – which it does with great effect, judging by the decency and virtue that rule over Perpetual Opulence Mansions and its surrounding neighbourhood.
As the younger elf busies herself in the kitchen, the older one walks around with a duster. I’ve never seen the point – all it seems to do is excite these microscopic fragments of discarded skin and waft them from one place to another, but I’m sure she knows what she’s doing. At the far end of the room, in a little-used corner, she waves the thing across a cabinet. I look for a minute. There used to be something on that cabinet. Now it’s not there. I walk over.
I point. “Didn’t there used to be something there?” The elf puts on an expression of slightly pained contrition I’ve seen before. She’s broken something and frantically stuffed the fragments behind various pieces of furniture. A Ming vase! Except I don’t have vases. Then it dawns on me. “The television! Where is it?”
“You never used it.”
It was a small Philips, probably 10-years old, with a built-in video player. With no seating in front of it, the viewer had to stand, or pull a chair over. The last time I switched it on and watched something was the night (Hong Kong time) of 11 September, 2001. Books and the Internet are all I need. Guessing from the accumulation of dust that I never touched the thing, the cunning domestic helper unplugged it and bundled up the cable in an irreproducible manner. After two months had passed, the cable arrangement intact, she assumed I wouldn’t notice if she borrowed it. It might have taken three weeks – but she was wrong. A Malaysian employer would give her a serious thrashing with a length of bamboo cane and brand her forehead with an iron, while a Singaporean boss would throw her out of the 27th floor window, after which she would be hanged for the death of the person she landed on. Fortunately for her, she works in the Mid-Levels, named after the moderation and calmness of its inhabitants.
I give her the finger-wagging treatment. “If there’s another terrorist atrocity, you bring it right back here, the moment it happens, OK?”
|Fri, 16 June
Is the Independent Commission Against Corruption at long last about to get its revenge on bulky barrister Kevin Egan? For years, he kept clients of questionable probity out of prison against all odds, much to the extreme frustration of the graft busters and other law enforcement agencies. Few of his many admirers in the Foreign Correspondents Club or legal fraternity took it at all seriously when he was first accused of disclosing the name of an ICAC witness to a reporter. “Kev’ll get off – no problem,” they laughed. But on Monday he was found guilty, along with longstanding sidekick solicitor Andrew Lam.
Yesterday, his counsel claimed that there would be a ‘public outcry’ if the antipodean were to be given a custodial sentence – an interesting admission that a spell in the Hubris Suite at Stanley Hotel was far from unthinkable. Judge Barnabas Fung revoked bail and sent Egan away clapped in irons in a Correctional Services van for a body cavity inspection and early night in the detention centre ahead of sentencing today.
On the Mid-Levels Escalator this morning, the Hong Kong public seems to be handling its anger and rage at Kevin’s treatment surprisingly well. A callous smirk crosses the face of one impertinent-looking, youngish gwailo as he picks up the newspaper and sees the picture of Egan in transit to jail. Mrs Chan the marketing manager reads the news briefly and shrugs. “I hope he’s brought a toothbrush,” she mutters, and turns the page to catch up on the latest body counts from South Thailand, Palestine, Iraq, Sri Lanka and other lands apparently teeming with savages butchering one another for reasons that have long since become too tiresome to contemplate. It takes a lot to provoke public outrage these days.
IN MY office on the top floor of S-Meg Tower, the three Stanleys from the mailroom collect their weekly mp3 – my contribution to the noble cause of the de-programming of Cantopop victims. “When I was a kid,” I tell them, “I was sent to a foreign country to go to school for a while. The day before I left, the family joke was that the aircraft would be some ancient, propeller-driven thing, not a modern jet. As it happened, it was an ancient, propeller-driven thing. Anyway, this song – Gram Parsons’s Gunga Din, by the Byrds, always reminds me of that.” They nod, no doubt picturing the Company Gwailo as child, being dragged screaming and kicking onto a dilapidated Vickers Viscount, sent into exile to improve his mind. “I should point out,” I add as they leave, “that the song had already been around for a few years at the time. I’m not that old.”
The phone goes. In the background, I can make out the bustle of the hallway outside a law court. A male voice starts to jabber. Such are the caller’s feelings of excitement, glee and utter schadenfraude that traces of a northeastern English accent burst through the polished Oxonian tones.
“He’s got two and a half years!” A cackle. “Egan. In the slammer!” Another diabolical guffaw. “Lam’s got four.” More guttural expressions of delight follow. It’s good to think that someone, somewhere, somehow has found a little happiness in the world.