Hemlock's Diary
12-18 March 2006
Sun, 12 Mar
A quiet afternoon at wild American friend Odell’s apartment.  His Thai wife Mee has grounded him, so no venturing out to darkest Wanchai.  But she has been on a pirated-DVD run to Shenzhen, so we have the latest Oscar-winning movies to watch.  I stay to watch two.

The first is a run-of-the-mill love story – a soppy, girly thing.  A young couple meet one summer, have a torrid, frantic affair, part ways, get married, settle down, have kids, etc.  Then, years later, their paths re-cross.  The old flames are re-ignited, and so on.  It would all be a big yawn, except the lovers are cowboys – or at least sheepherders – from Wyoming.  The movie is
Brokeback Mountain, courtesy of Taiwanese director Ang Lee. 

Christian fundamentalists and macho wannabee cowboys out West are outraged, and the arty gay-rights crowd are in a frenzy.  But to any innocent bystander, it’s the same old story with a twist.  A big yawn, albeit with great scenery, majestic herds of sheep and some decent choices of music.  According to the credits, it was shot in Alberta, and taken from a story by Annie Proulx, whose
Shipping News – also about finding love in the wilds – I liked. 

The second was
The Pianist, directed by Roman Polanski.  On examining the cover, I see it was actually from a few years ago.  The ghettoisation in Warsaw is delivered thick and fast, with street beatings, shootings and starved corpses (too much stone-blue make-up) crammed into a few minutes of film.  Polanski omits the normalcy that the genuine, unfolding horror would have been accompanied by over weeks and months – but how else can Hollywood get it across? 

Just RMB15 a disk, and we kept Odell out of the pub.

Mon, 13 Mar
Like other shareholders of Henderson Land, I start the morning with a little dance.  An HK$783-million dollar dance, to celebrate the extra revenue the company is making at its Grand Promenade luxury rabbit hutch development in chic Sai Wan Ho.  The bonus comes courtesy of a laughable Government policy under which property developers pay less, if any, land premium for the extra space used up by supposedly eco-friendly features (in practice, balconies and bigger common areas).  And this is genuinely extra space – developers are free to make the entire building bigger.

tacky, five-tower, 56-storey, waterfront monstrosity is already proving exceptionally fruitful.  In exchange for building a bus station below the building, planning bureaucrats effectively inserted loopholes allowing the company to nearly double the number of apartments, earning it an additional HK$3.23 billion.  (Even if they had done their job properly, the Government would have netted only HK$125 million more from this, so what’s the fuss?  This shareholder, at least, isn’t too worried about the little numbers to the right of the decimal point.)

The obvious way to avoid bestowing upon a small clutch of family-run property groups a licence to mint ridiculous sums would be to release far more land and tax the developers’ profits, but this is for some reason unthinkable to our officials.  Are they mentally diseased or just on the take?  Either way, I’d like to buy them a drink.

Tue, 14 Mar
As dawn breaks over a chilly Exchange Square, I sip my myrtleberry and jojoba cappuccino outside the IFC Mall branch of Pacific Coffee.  Wild American friend Odell interrupts his ramblings on some real or imaginary sexual escapade with a pair of twin, Japanese, epileptic ballet dancers to leer at a trio of Muslim schoolgirls passing by, and I flick through the newspaper to find the answer to the burning question – what are we supposed to be frothing at the mouth about today?

I struggle to take an interest in the
resignation of the Chairman of the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation.  Unlike his brother James – the slimy, invertebrate boss of the Liberal Party – Michael Tien displays evidence of possession of a brain.  Scheming, empire-building managers in the Government-owned organization detested him for imposing a policy of publicizing technical operational faults, no doubt hurting their precious self-esteem, wrecking their hyper-sensitive morale and causing endless loss of hitherto smug face.  By pushing him out, they have presumably made it all the more inevitable that they will end up reporting to their more professional and better-behaved deadly rivals at the MTR after the two rail companies are merged.  Maybe they’ll jump under a train.
LUNCH AT the Foreign Correspondents Club in the delightful and well-formed company of Administrative Officer Winky Ip, who finds the goings-on at the KCR riveting.  “We’re trying to get Michael and Samuel Lai to kiss and make up,” she tells me.

“Kiss and make up?!”   I nearly choke on a prawn dumpling.  “Lai, the CEO, gets the signatures of all his backstabbing buddies in the management, plus half the entire rank-and-file staff, calling for Michael Tien’s resignation – and you think now they can just kiss and make up?  They’ll never talk to each other again!  In Kentucky, their grandchildren would still be shooting each other about it a hundred years from now.”

Winky puts down her fork and ponders this for a while.  “Well, otherwise,” she finally says, “they’ll both have to go.”

Of course.  The Government can’t force its choice of Chairman onto the organization when half the workforce has risen up in arms about him, or they will end up with more whining about poor morale from distressed, mollycoddled workers – maybe even a strike.  Not good for Sir Bow-Tie’s reputation up in Beijing.  But they can’t support the leaders and followers of the coup d’etat, otherwise the boss of every public-sector body in the Big Lychee will be hanging from a lamppost.  So Lai and Tien either survive or perish together.  If one kills the other, he kills himself.  Like doppelgangers.  Or something.  Only Winky can make the mundane so intriguing.

Wed, 15 Mar
The Committee on Review of Public Service Broadcasting unveils its
website, which cunningly disguises the body’s real purpose of turning Radio Television Hong Kong into a Government propaganda machine, or clearly illustrates the members’ sincere intention to uphold the broadcaster’s editorial independence – according to taste.
Most of the pressure to banish critical, pro-democracy, unpatriotic thought-crimes from the airwaves has come from a small group of senile and incontinent old men who can’t feed or wash themselves and who loathe the people of Hong Kong for apparently having enjoyed living under barbarian gwailo rule.  There’s Tsang Hin-chi, who has a criminal conviction for trading counterfeit clothing.  There’s Raymond Wu, another embittered shiner of Beijing’s shoes, who denounced his fellow citizens as having been given too many ‘dog biscuits’ in the past (and whose picture appears in the World Mental Health Day Report).  And there’s the dribbling, eye-rolling, Xu Simin, whose good-natured and witty asides (“…your pretence cannot cover up your evil tricks,” to Anson Chan) make him so popular with the man on the street.

Petrified that this gang of geriatrics would run up to Beijing and tell tales about him, Tung Chee-hwa fired (as in ‘posted to Tokyo’) the sweetly coquettish RTHK boss Cheung Man-yee after the station broadcast Taiwan’s local representative discussing the obtuse ‘state-to-state’ theory in 1999.  She can be forgiven for being
skeptical of the Committee, but I am inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.  The Committee Chairman, ex-TVB news chief Raymond Roy Wong, is too colourful to reliably implement a dastardly Government plot.  Another member is the creative director of Zuni Icosahedron, the ‘independent cultural collective’ of modern dance weirdos, who wouldn’t be top of my list to wield a pro-Beijing hatchet on the media.  (But that’s what they want you to think.)
If anyone in RTHK has any sense, they will appear before the Committee and point out that the non-public radio market is split between just two companies (one of which is ultimately owned by Li Ka-shing, who is not known for his fondness for ruthlessly competitive business sectors).   So the question is how should RTHK differentiate itself from what is basically a cartel, with the limited consumer choice that implies?

For my part, I will urge the Committee to pull all coverage of sport from RTHK.  For every 10 seconds’ of reporting on the death of Slobodan Milosevic, we get a half-minute about the manager of a rugby team that lost a game.  For every 15 seconds on the KCR’s woes, we get a full minute’s description of a soccer game in Italy, Spain or someplace.  For every mention of the Hang Seng Index, we get a British commentator shrieking at the top of his voice because a man on a field kicked a ball.  As a particularly brainless form of popular entertainment, sport attracts large audiences of people who are dimwitted and therefore highly receptive to advertisements for all things moronic and overpriced.  In short – dispatch it to a commercial outlet.
Thurs, 16 Mar
Only the Israelis could come up with such an impressively
no-nonsense approach to extradition – sending tanks to break into Jericho prison and grab murdering terrorists / valiant freedom fighters / guys in their underpants that the Palestinian Authority was allowing to operate from behind bars.  As with everything else that has gone wrong in the entire Solar System in the last 1,000 years it is, of course, all the fault of the Americans and the British, who – after a warning – pulled their monitors out of the jail. 

The joint letter from the US and UK consuls-general interests me.  Being bilingual, I can read a whole book without noticing whether it is in British or American, but for many English speakers a usage from the other side of the Atlantic stands out like a piece of jewelry / jewellery on a gray / grey colored / coloured curbstone / kerbstone.  So I am fascinated to see how the two diplomats handled the issue of spelling in their missive to His Excellency Mahmoud Abbas.  Did the Brits win, pointing out that their style is the official one in most multilateral agencies?  Or did the Yanks get their way, citing MS Word’s squiggly red underlining as the ultimate arbiter?  After reading
the document once, twice, and again, I find they managed to avoid using a single word they would spell differently.  No doubt this subliminal lesson on conflict avoidance will not be lost on squabbling Middle Easterners.
Fri, 17 Mar
Hong Kong is a city in shock this morning, as its people try to come to terms with the Government
not letting a group of spoilt public-sector workers run their organization as if it were their own property.  We keep near-empty schools open for fear of sensitive teachers getting depressed and committing suicide.  We maintain typists and other redundant functionaries on the civil service payroll so as not to damage their almighty ‘morale’ – the last refuge of a public-sector scoundrel.  So surely KCR senior managers, having stabbed their Chairman in the back a few days earlier, should be allowed to hold a self-important press conference on Tuesday – in company time – to demand his departure?

As that was happening, the Government arranged an unconvincing reconciliation between Chairman Michael Tien and CEO Samuel Lai, with the former losing management responsibilities, plus face, to the latter. Then, the Government-appointed board fired Lai’s deputy ringleader Michael Lai and sent stern disciplinary letters to the other dissidents, who obediently scuttled back to their offices to keep their heads down.  Within 24 hours, Samuel Lai went from smirking ‘look-at-me-I’m-in-charge-of-PR-now’ to rebel-without-a-powerbase.  So yesterday he resigned – leaving the saga with only 50% of the Michaels and 0% of the Lai’s it had started with.  Rummaging around in a box marked ‘Used gwailos – probably not needed’, the Transport Department produces James Blake as the new CEO.  Michael Tien blamed his KCR underlings’ difficulties with his hands-on (as in ‘insufferable’) management style on their lack of Western-style education – so obviously that problem is now totally and utterly resolved and all will be sweetness and light.

Why this uncharacteristic toughness on the part of Sir Bow-Tie towards uppity public-sector parasites, and can we look forward to more in future?  Sadly, I suspect not.  The KCR managers’ act of mutiny was not aimed at hurting taxpayers and did not harm ordinary citizens.  This was not just another effort to leech off the rest of the population – that would be forgivable, understandable and positively accommodated by officials.  It was an attempt to usurp our leaders’ authority.  So for once the boot comes down.  We must enjoy this novel spectacle while it lasts.

THE US-UK ‘united by a common language’ letter attracts scholarly linguistic debate to my email in-box…
The word démarches is spelled without the acute accent, which a British diplomat would have used, having been schooled in French.
A British diplomat addressing a Frenchman in longhand in 1906, definitely.  But writing to a Palestinian on a PC in 2006?
…the British usage "alternatively" is preferred over the
American "alternately".
Would a literate, educated American like a diplomat confuse the two?  The stateside Hemlocks – and they’re delving in the Appalachian soil with their bare hands in search of edible root vegetables most of the time – don’t.
I take it you're happy with US 'that' instead of English 'which'
towards the end of para 1.
Some apparently educated Brits insist on using ‘which’ when they mean ‘that’, owing to the mental scars from their boarding school days (the same people also like ‘whilst’).  Compare “the first door on the left, which is red,” with “the first door on the left that is red”.
And the date – March 8
Americans are virtually alone in perversely (by their own admission) using the MM/DD/YY order for dates in all-numerical format.  But lots of people elsewhere, like the Times of London, use that order when writing out the month, just as Americans have been known to use DD/Month...