Hemlock's Diary
13-19 August 2006
Mon, 14 Aug
Jack Edwards died last night, aged 88.  Tomorrow’s
South China Morning Post will no doubt have a lengthy obituary by Kevin Sinclair featuring the words ‘feisty’ and ‘redoubtable’, but not ‘complete and utter pain-in-the-backside single-issue fanatic’.  For years Edwards fought a campaign to win full British citizenship for a small group of wives and widows of men who fought in the defence of Hong Kong against the Japanese.  It was an almost arcane cause, arising from the sort of bizarre and symbolic injustice that only the UK’s nationality policy could create.  Throughout the 1980s and 90s, members of English-speaking households throughout the city would dive to switch off their radios the second the newsreader announced, “and now we have Jack Edwards on the line.”
The only time I met him was at a colonial society wedding in the late 80s.  He was sitting with a group of fellow veterans and was largely avoided by the younger guests, out of deference or just fear of being subjected to a lecture about his favourite subject.  But of course he had something worth ranting about – imprisonment by the Japanese.  After the fall of Singapore he and his comrades were ordered to retrieve rotting corpses entangled in barbed wire.  They were then sent to the hellish Kinkaseki copper mines in Taiwan, where many died (some eventually being buried at Sai Wan Cemetary).  He couldn’t bring himself to write about it for decades, and titling the book Banzai, You Bastards! was an act of considerable restraint.
When the British Government finally gave up in the face of his incessant lobbying and gave the widows their passports it was no surprise, but a great relief for everyone, not least radio listeners.  Or so it seemed.  However, with RTHK Radio 3’s morning news programme nowadays mainly devoted to overseas sport – today we were told about some player’s wife having cancer – the ravings of the indestructible old warrior will be sadly missed.

Tue, 15 Aug
The tragic and frightening combination of sliminess and mental dwarfism that has long infected the Liberal Party extends its grip into the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment Etc of Hong Kong.  
Wong Ting-kwong, a legislator who represents the Import and Export Functional Constituency, calls on the taxpayer – or ‘Government’ as he puts it – to establish a fund to help his friends and other losers invest in the Pearl River Delta.  I presume he means ‘friends and other losers’.  The word he reportedly uses is ‘entrepreneurs’, but since even a modestly educated man like Wong must know that entrepreneurs, by definition, are people who don’t need official assistance, this must be a slip of the tongue.
Wong raises a question that I have been asking ever since, many years ago at school, I noticed that most bullies were ugly.  And that is – do people act the way they look, or look the way they act?  Wong’s appearance suggests extreme untrustworthiness and limited mental ability, which are undeniably reflected in his absurd pleas for free lunches.  But was he born with this face, and became slippery and shallow because that was what everyone expected him to be after taking one look at him?  Or did he somehow acquire these physical features as a result of being born with a complete lack of integrity?  Biologically, only the former makes sense – but this has awful implications for the debate about free will and predestination.  There is a third possibility, and that is that the genes that influence our personalities (insofar as they do) correlate with particular visible characteristics.

“We are not saying the government should subsidize local trade and industry sectors, but it should offer them appropriate assistance,” he says.  I look forward to hearing what sort of response this example of shiftiness and small-mindedness you can spot a mile away gets from dashing and intelligent-looking Chief Executive Donald Tsang.  “Tell your loser friends to become taxi drivers if they can’t hack it in the business world, you money-grubbing dimwit!” would be good.
Wed, 16 Aug
Longer and more convoluted than anything by Franz Kafka, the Ching Cheong saga looks like it might be approaching an end, with the journalist
awaiting sentencing on espionage charges in Beijing after 16 months in detention.  (It is customary to add “without a lawyer,” as if one would be of any help in a system devoid of due process.)  It is alleged that he sold state secrets to an overseas power, but any evidence is itself a state secret – a device straight out of Joseph Heller.
Assuming he is the loyal supporter of Communist Party rule that he has always seemed to be, he is innocent.  We can only guess that he is being framed either to save or lose someone’s face, possibly as part of a power struggle dating back to such scowling malevolences as Jiang Zemin or even Li Peng.  In a Tom Clancy-style twist to make the plot unnecessarily complex, Ching was arrested after going to the Mainland supposedly in search of transcripts of old interviews with Zhao Ziyang in which the late disgraced ex-premier might have named supporters of the 1989 pro-democracy movement among lower ranking officials who might be of the generation currently in power.  Or might not.
Moderate members of Hong Kong’s ‘patriotic’ camp initially voiced shock and disbelief when Ching was arrested.  He was a former staffer at Party-owned Wen Wei Po and a popular go-between for Mainland officials and the local establishment.  Among those who signed an open letter calling for his release were DAB lawmaker Choy So-yuk and tedious Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference delegate Lau Nai-keung, as well as Government department heads Mak Chai-kwong (Highways) and Chu Pui-hing (Broadcasting), High Court Registrar Christopher Chan, former senior official Rosanna Wong, and Lingnan University’s Edward Chan, many of them old classmates at Hong Kong U. 

Around a year ago, local Mainland officials wagged fingers of disapproval, while the Chinese media carried disappointingly unimaginative smears about a mistress.  With the predictably undependable – if that’s possible – exception of Allen Lee, our leftists fell into silent line, leaving the pro-democracy folk to denounce the charade, wave banners and hold vigils.  Now, for the sake of the nation, the loyalists will have to hold their tongues or actually perform the pro-Beijing zombie shoe-shiner act and mouth the official reality – as if from Orwell’s Ministry of Truth – thet Ching Cheong is guilty of spying.  If they are lucky, Ching’s devotion to the glorious motherland will extend to making a full confession to crimes he didn’t commit.  Otherwise, the pro-Beijing crowd will just have to look sorrier, sadder and stupider in Hong Kong’s eyes than ever.

Thurs, 17 Aug
It was back in March that I cracked under the pressure.  For several years, they had been sending me letters – every few months at first, then more frequently.  Then they started phoning me.  By the end of last year they were following me in the street, hanging around outside Perpetual Opulence Mansions at strange hours and approaching my friends. 

I finally broke when they sent me an application form, with every tedious detail except my signature already filled in for me, plus a pre-paid envelope, plus an offer too tantalizing to refuse – the promise of HK$1,000 in Park N Shop coupons.  If it had been coupons for CitySuper or an up–market delicatessen, I would have tossed it aside as belittling.  It would be like using food stamps.  But there is something earthy and exciting, maybe even a little dangerous, about the prospect of walking into a Park N Shop and picking up a grand’s worth of inventory for free.  Isn’t this the sort of primal
frisson Lady Chatterley experienced on beholding her gardener?  Anyway, it was an extremely clever ploy and impossible to resist.
Thus I finally upgraded my HSBC account to Premier® status.  Within a week or so they had issued me with a new card, characterized by a graceful, upper case, italic ‘P’.  The sight of a man briskly thrusting one into an ATM stirs feelings of barely controllable lust among young Hong Kong women, who all know that Premier® cardholders must have at least a seven-digit sum in their accounts.  I was also invited to visit the nearest personal banking centre – an elegant, no-riffraff, first-class lounge sort of place where you sit back in a large leather armchair and lithesome, silk-clad ladies massage your neck and ply you with exotic, cooling fruit juice and fragrant face towels while urging you to buy life insurance policies or annuity funds.

“Your savings products are a rip-off,” I remember gently telling my pert seductress-financial advisor.  “You charge all sorts of fees, thus diverting half the returns into HSBC’s profit, which it then distributes as dividends to grasping shareholders.  Of which I am one.  Keep up the good work.”  There are two types of people planning for their retirement in the world.  Suckers who buy savings products, and smart people who buy shares in the companies that sell savings products.  Realizing that I wasn’t going to help her meet her monthly sales target, the girl gave me a rather hurried manicure, smoothed her uniform and let me go.  And, I suspect, spitefully held up my Park N Shop coupons.  They never appeared. 

I had forgotten all about them until this morning, when I make a rare visit to the post office to collect a registered letter.  And there they are.  I forgive the bank the five-month wait when I consider just how privileged I am as a Premier® customer.  Lots of financial institutions offer envy-producing, plastic status symbols to carry around.  Lots offer exclusive, gold-plated priority-treatment service centres full of fawning, buxom staff.  But a free, five-year supply of toilet paper?  Only at HSBC.

To remind myself that not everyone is so fortunate in life, I will give the three Stanleys in the mailroom a special mp3 this week –
Kill The Poor by the Dead Kennedys.
Fri, 18 Aug
Although I am normally blissfully oblivious to the sexual, marital, alcoholic, violent and other exploits of celebrities, fashion models, royalty and sports stars, one tabloid story successfully caught my attention years ago – the killing of JonBenet Ramsey.  I have always assumed one or more members of the little girl’s creepy family, who groomed and dressed her and displayed her at shows like a pedigree puppy, did it.  Now, in Bangkok, a sinister and repellent deus ex machina is dragged out of a budget hotel that charges by the hour.  He is apparently confessing everything.  According to some reports, he admits drugging and raping her – which is interesting because her murderer didn’t.  I would like to see the Thomson publishing company, announcing technological achievements in today’s Financial Times, automate this one.

IN THE gwailo’s lair on the top floor of S-Meg Tower, Ms Doris Pang the Nazi Human Resources Manager watches over me as I allocate English names – which the Big Boss insists upon – to four new management trainees who will be joining the company in a few weeks.  If they were from Harvard or Stanford, or if they had simply attended one of Hong Kong’s better Catholic junior schools, they would already be May, Grace, Eileen, and Ricky.  But we get the dross – the ones Hutchison, Swire and HSBC reject.  Occasionally we get a graduate of Chinese U.  A few of the more cosmopolitan ones have been to unheard-of universities in Moose Jaw or Adelaide.  But the majority are the products of our less renowned local institutions – one of which, I am reliably informed, accepts students turned away by Sara Beattie Secretarial College. 

I examine the photos on the resumes for inspiration.  Not too much hair grease or acne.  They will no doubt be assets to the company.  Welcome to S-Meg, Miss Salami Chan, Miss Eureka Wong, Miss Anarchy Li and Mr Zapruder Leung.

THE WEEKEND kicks off with
the best Wondermark comic yet.