Hemlock's Diary
12-18 February 2006
Mon, 13 Feb
From the mighty ostrich, bounding proudly across the dusty African savannah, to the plucky little penguin standing patiently in line to plunge into the icy Antarctic sea, it seems every avian in the world is testing positive for the dreaded bird flu virus.  Could the chickens that occasionally inhabit the stairwell in wild American friend Odell’s apartment block be among them?  He is taking no chances.  “We called the Agriculture and Fisheries people yesterday,” he tells me over a hazelnut, jojoba and marshmallow cappuccino at the IFC Mall branch of Pacific Coffee.  “They’re coming round later today with
battering rams, percussion grenades, and protective suits.  That obnoxious old woman who lives on the floor above us will be pissed as hell.”  He grins.

Despite the glamour and trendiness of Hong Kong’s Soho, many of the district’s older, more dilapidated buildings have residents who share their crumbling, weather-beaten qualities and jealously cling to time-honoured traditions in the midst of a fast-changing world.  Among these are glowering suspiciously at the gwailo who moved in downstairs a few years ago, burning a variety of incense sticks and effigies outside their front door at odd hours, and exercising their historic, constitutional right to keep and bear live chickens, in order to ensure maximum freshness of the succulent white flesh at mealtimes.
The process, in which Odell’s Thai wife Mee sometime assists, is simple.  Mrs Lo, the wrinkled gourmand, squats down in the concrete common area and grabs the hen, which has been scratching around unfed for a day or so, by the neck.  She slits its jugular and lets it bleed into a plastic bowl.  After plunging the beast into hot water, she plucks and rubs the feathers off, and then cuts around its rear end.  She then plunges her hand into the animal and pulls out the entrails, heart, lungs, liver and other bits.  The surprised-looking creature is then taken into the kitchen and goes into the cooking pot.  Ideally, it should still be vaguely aware of what is going on as the first tender morsels are teased from its carcass and passed between human lips.  Anything less fresh is a culinary travesty, and any right-minded person would sooner starve to death than eat the insipid and textureless product of pre-slaughtered, let alone chilled, poultry.  The idea that frozen meat could even be fit for Cantonese consumption would never even enter the mind.
This leaves me in a quandary.  One the one hand, we can’t have disease-spreading livestock clucking around the corridors in high-rise residential towers a few hundred yards from the central business district of Asia’s international financial hub.  On the other hand, it really does taste better barely dead – everyone knows officials are lying when they insist otherwise.  And how, with Odell’s neighbour’s birds no longer available to practice on, am I to keep my chicken-hypnosis skills up to par?  Yet again, the Government’s policy is a turkey.

Tue, 14 Feb

The annual outbreak of VD leaves Hong Kong reeling from a wave of nausea.
Watch out for the emotional person. He is a lurching lunatic.  Emotions are caused by biochemical secretions in the body to serve during the state of acute emergency. An emotional person is a blind, crazed maniac. Emotions are addictive and narcotic and stupefacient.  Do not trust anyone who comes on emotional.

Timothy Leary 
The Politics of Ecstasy
On the top floor of S-Meg Tower, Ms Fang the hunter-killer secretary rearranges office furniture near the reception area to accommodate the delivery she is confidently expecting – a HK$5,000 hundredweight of red roses with tasteful teddy bear, heart-shaped helium balloon and Melty Kiss chocolates.  She is confident it will arrive and will be in line with her lavish requirements because if it doesn’t her boyfriend-doormat will be on the receiving end of a painful public ritual starting with a pout, moving swiftly on to a foot-stamping tantrum and ending with a vicious slap on his spotty cheek.  As well as sparing her wretched paramour the unpleasantness of his belle’s wrath, the floral extravaganza will guarantee Ms Fang plenty of face, as envious junior secretaries, spinster managers and accountants whose husbands spend suspicious amounts of time on the Mainland stream in and out of Private Office, past the display of uxoriousness. 

BAD news today is that the HK$30-50 billion, environmentally damaging bridge to Zhuhai and Macaui that will bring thousands of extra trucks onto our roads might not be built.  The prospect of the Big Lychee foregoing this wonderful opportunity to have yet more air pollution and traffic congestion is almost as depressing as the thought of Disneyland closing down because Shanghai, the city that’s going to overtake Hong Kong, will open its own.  Why, if the bridge isn’t built, we probably won’t construct a vast park for containers on reclaimed land off Lantau, meaning less demand for manual labour, and therefore fewer incentives for the unskilled to stay on this side of the border where they can’t afford to live without handouts.  Mercifully, this nightmarish scenario of clean air, uncrowded streets and a lighter fiscal burden on the middle class – like the dread prospect of a decline in the number of tourists suffocating the city – will surely never come to pass.  This white elephant was dreamt up by demented infrastructure visionary Sir Gordon Wu back in the 1980s and embraced by Tung Chee-hwa as yet another attempt to keep outdated, rent-seeking sunset industries alive because we have no possible other future.  Like the millions of red roses being couriered around town today, it is a symbol – chuck away money to prove you like someone.  The fact that Shenzhen and Guangzhou are right and it makes more economic sense to have a link further up the Pearl River estuary is the whole point.  The stupid location of the bridge is a manifestation of the benevolence of the Central People’s Government and the wondrous benefits of forgetting about politics and Focusing On The Economy.
Wed, 15 Feb
‘IMF asks Nepal to restore peace’.  In a similarly utopian vein, the experts on the global economy urge Hong Kong to implement a goods and services tax.  Since we have a Government that can’t even push through a long-overdue few dollars’ hike in cross-harbour tunnel tolls or hospital outpatients’ fees, this is asking rather a lot.  Our visionary leaders can’t do anything that’s in the interests of the community, because we’re not a community.  We are ‘various sectors’.  Can we ban smoking in restaurants?  No, because the Catering Functional Constituency (3,900 votes cast at last election) doesn’t want it.  Can we increase punishments for minibus drivers who run red lights and kill people?  No, because the Transport Functional Constituency (seat uncontested at last election) doesn’t like it.  The bigger the potential public good, the more self-serving interest groups emerge to wield their vetoes.  Citizens and consumers might want better schools, cleaner air and decent homes, but providers of goods and services, and their official protectors, come first.

A sales levy that replaced other sources of revenue would benefit the thrifty, the productive and the wealth creators, such as the 17 of us who pay salaries tax.  It would hit some of the lower orders – the sort of people on modest pay who will stand in a line for hours on their day off for a free baseball cap.  But with their subsidized education, housing and health care, it wouldn’t hurt them to contribute a bit.  The pain could be considered a form of civic education.  A sales tax would also be opposed by the usual tourism and retail industry vermin, who would argue that the sort of idiots who pay $5,000 for a handbag will flee our shores if we slap a few percent onto the price tag.  If only life were so good.

The real potential losers, however, would be the big boys.  In theory, a broad consumption levy could replace much of the revenue currently raised from sales of land and property development rights.  This is the Government’s slice of the wealth that is sucked relentlessly from the rest of the economy by the property cartel in the form of inflated house prices and rents, which of course cause the severe, job-destroying economic distortions and poor quality of life many Hongkongers call normal.  Add to this the huge power that ownership and tight rationing of land gives to unelected officials – and then consider that a universal sales tax would be the ultimate argument for universal suffrage – and spreading tranquility the length and breadth of the Himalayas starts to look like a cinch.

Thurs, 16 Feb
“Good grief!”  Shapely Administrative Officer Winky Ip greets me with a look of near-disgust as we meet on the Mid-Levels Escalator near Caine Road.  “What’s all this ‘property cartel’ nonsense?  You sound like you’ve been reading those two dreadful books bad-mouthing Hong Kong – you know, the ones absolutely everyone is reading at the moment.”
Could she, by any chance, be referring to Uneasy Partners – The Conflict Between Public Interest and Private Profit in Hong Kong by Leo Goodstadt and Land and the Ruling Class in Hong Kong by Alice Poon?  Apart from bureaucrats who refuse to expose themselves to ideas not originating in Lower Albert Road and tycoons who pay factotums like the Company Gwailo at S-Meg Holdings to peruse books for them, every thinking, English-speaking adult in the Fragrant Harbour has read the two volumes.  I am simply catching up.  I was even moved to write a review – What’s Wrong with Hong Kong Today, and Why It Will Change Only Over the Dead Bodies of the Civil Service and the Property Tycoons.

To take her mind off the fact that people are coming to realize the terrible truth about our economic and political system, I suggest a detour to the wet market near Aberdeen Street.  Past displays of vegetables and baskets of meat, I squat on the pavement before a cage of chickens and hold a finger up a few inches away, trying to get the birds’ attention.  After a few seconds, I have a taker.  As the creature watches, I slowly lower my digit towards the ground and gradually move it back towards myself.  The hen is transfixed on a spot halfway between it and me.  For 15 long seconds it stares, motionless.  Then it snaps out of it and returns to its usual head-jerking state. 
“Just keeping in practice,” I tell Winky, who is speechless.  “Concentrating on something moving like that overloads their tiny brain with information, so it seizes up.”  Despite her best efforts to disguise it, she is clearly full of admiration.  I make to leave, but she stands still, in awe.  Moving to one side, I find she is rooted to the spot, staring into space.  I wave my hand before her eyes, to no avail.  Oops.

Fri, 17 Feb
The week draws to a close with a surprise…
“On behalf of Invest Hong Kong, I would like to express our sincere gratitude to the Chinese companies for their continued support and long-term commitment to Hong Kong by their continued investment in the city.”

Director-General of Investment Promotion Mike Rowse at the Government’s annual spring toadying session for bosses of Mainland companies in the Big Lychee, February 16.
And there I was, naively imagining that Mainland companies invest in Hong Kong purely out of self-interest, because it’s where they make the best returns.  But no.  Instead, it seems, these paragons of altruism have been setting up their businesses here as an act of kindness, as a way to bring a smile to the cherubic face of their fellow PRC citizen, the boss of Invest Hong Kong. 

Now I think about it, I would do the same.  How can anyone fail to admire a civil servant who, faced with possible public outrage for chucking HK$25 billion of our money at Disney, diverts everyone’s attention away by chucking HK$100 million at the Rolling Stones, Neil Young et al at Harbourfest?  It was inspired.  In
opportunity costs (the land giveaway to The Mouse) his Disney deal lost each man, woman and child in Hong Kong HK$42,000 – yet the dwindling number of those who have the knives out for Mike Rowse fling mud at him for spending HK$14 per citizen on some of the best rock concerts many of us had ever seen.  It puts hypnotizing chickens in its place.  I am humbled.