|16-22 July 2006|
|Mon, 17 July
Somewhere out there is a spotty, clipboard-wielding student carrying a list of impertinent questions with my name on it – or at least the number of my apartment in Perpetual Opulence Mansions. My ‘household’ has been selected to participate in a by-census. These come every 10 years, halfway between the full surveys, and cover just 10 percent of households. Statistically, therefore, this should be at most a once-in-a-lifetime irritation – but this will be my second time in 20 years, having gone through the same intercensal rigmarole in 1986. (Chances of being caught two times out of three would be increased slightly by the fact that that year’s mini-headcount covered one in seven households.)
I remember it well. It was back in the days when we were all poor but happy. It was March. The census-taker, a university student making some money during the Easter break, showed me her ID and sat at the living room table with me as I submitted to her interrogation.
“I am the only person who lives here,” was one answer. Another was, “One, of course. How many toilets do you expect in a 400 square foot rabbit hutch in Shau Kei Wan?” Then there was, “Um, no actually, I don’t share a kitchen with other households.” And finally, “I take the tram to work, but sometimes if I meet my colleague Polly we share a taxi.”
After the census-taker had left, I walked into a small adjoining room, leant down and shouted under the bed, “I am the only person who lives here, OK?” And out crawled a podgy Filipino man and a petite Filipino lady, both roughly my age. Hector and Sara. Like Sun Yat-sen, Ho Chi Minh and their compatriot Jose Rizal before them, they had fled political persecution at home and sought refuge under the British imperialist yoke in Hong Kong. Hector had been editor of a student newspaper and active in the movement to oust kleptocrat Ferdinand Marcos. In late 1985, the dictator had announced a snap election, which he would rig. It was a time of torture and ‘salvaging’ and Hector panicked, grabbed his fiancee, some fast-declining Pesos and one-way tickets to Kai Tak. My grasping landlady, suffering the agonizing pain of having just one tenant in a two-bedroom flat, dumped them on me.
They were breathing the air of freedom, and before long making a bit of money on the side. But by this time they had become fugitives. The EDSA revolution had taken place a month before. Cory Aquino was in power. Marcos was in a mansion in Hawaii, where local Filipinos were hurling old shoes over the wall for his wife. And Hector and Sara had overstayed in Hong Kong. They refused to believe my assurances that a census officer would not report them to the Immigration Department. Not long after, in the company of a priest, they turned themselves in, signed some sort of confession and were given 24 hours to pack and leave.
Thus I corrupted the data in the 1986 by-census. This time, I resolve to tell the census officer the truth. That way, I will not be liable for a HK$5,000 fine and/or six months in prison. And I will receive an exciting refrigerator magnet.
Sesame Street was brought to you today by the word ‘intercensal’.
Tue, 18 July
|The zoologists snooping around Plover Cove have obviously never met my wild American friend, Odell. In the relaxing surroundings of the IFC Mall branch of Pacific Coffee, we try to piece together his weekend escapades. His whereabouts from 6 to 9pm on Saturday are known – I was with him in the pub in Lan Kwai Fong. We both left. I went home. He got in a taxi. Kevin the Australian barman reports that the ex-Mormon staggered back in around midnight, grinning inanely at people before pouring a (largely empty) glass of beer down a Filipino waitress’s shapely front upper torso on the assumption that this would be considered highly amusing and make him extremely popular. He is mortified to learn this. “Are they sure it was me?” He looks most distressed. “God…. I’d better buy her some flowers.” In Singapore, he would be strapped to a post and flogged senseless by a huge, swarthy prison guard with oiled, rippling muscles and four feet of rattan, polished and shining to minimize air resistance and ensure the cane met the buttocks at maximum, skin-splitting speed.
What else does the Big Lychee have to learn from the Lion City? The only thing I can think of is food courts. Not the dismal arcades of hamburger and lunchbox outlets found in our shopping centres, but the real thing – squares of mom-and-pop stalls serving up congee, noodles and roti, Hainan chicken, fish sambal and spring rolls, Nonya, Malay, and Indian curries, plus fresh fruit juice and those weird coconut drinks with multi-coloured beans in them. But for our visionary Chief Executive Donald Tsang, Singapore also has much to teach us about attracting and grooming talent for the Government.
|Should Hong Kong emulate Singapore’s politician-rearing techniques?
First of all, you must take all the young men in the city-state with good, rugged Hakka blood, who were born on the 15th day of the first moon in a Dragon year. You must then pick one who has the family name Lee and perfect DNA. Preferably, he should be the reincarnation of Sung Dynasty war hero Yue Fei. He must go to Cambridge University and gain a first class degree, despite living in a freezing medieval cloister with a bucket under the bed for a toilet. Then he must come home and join the army, and be promoted all the way up to Brigadier General in just six weeks by superiors who fear that his father will sue them for defamation if they appear to doubt the young man’s immense inherited intelligence. At this stage, he should marry a woman with all the beauty of a potato past its sell-by date, who can be put in charge of managing citizens’ savings (if, as is sadly the case in Singapore, the people are too dim-witted to look after their own money). His brother, meanwhile, must be made boss of the country’s dynamic, thrusting telecoms company. He must then enter the cabinet and prove his natural leadership ability by becoming finance minister within a month and physically assaulting a senior official (preferably a Foreign Affairs Minister called S Dhanabalan). He is then ready to be Prime Minister.
Obviously, there is no way a Cantonese, 4ft 11in son of a police sergeant named Tsang would get anywhere near the top under this wondrous system. Perhaps it’s worth a closer look.
|Wed, 19 Jul
Early morning in the gwailo’s lair, and the Big Boss leans in, on his way to breakfast to tell a group of fund managers blatant lies about S-Meg Holdings’ likely third-quarter earnings. He tosses a bundle of expensively produced Government public consultation documents on my desk. “Tell me what this rubbish is all about later,” he mutters. Over tax-free noodles, I flick through the glossy leaflets and attempt to draw some conclusions about our leaders’ impoverished thinking about tax reform and life in general.
What were we supposed to be wetting ourselves about again? Apparently, the panic is no longer about volatile revenue flows. The alarm now is that the rest of the world is treading on the Big Lychee’s territory by cutting salaries and profits tax. This threatens our ‘competitive advantage’ – also known as ‘the reason people live in a malevolently planned, over-priced, over-crowded city with unbreathable air’. Therefore, since making the place fit for human habitation is obviously too much like hard work, we must get those tax rates even further down. Money, and money alone, will attract talent.
|Since cutting the lavish size and cost of the Civil Service is unthinkable, this leaves a hole to be filled. The vast majority of the population who currently pay no visible taxes will be invited to join the 17 people who do, via the introduction of a Value-Added Tax (GST), also known as a Goods and Services Tax (VAT). It uses the credit-invoice destination approach, involving taxable supply, zero-rated supply and other cumbersome fiscal mechanisms apparently devised by Belgians in the 1970s. Then, to compensate for taking from the poor, the Government will introduce an elaborate range of credits, handouts and possibly extra welfare spending to give people back the money they just paid.
Such European-scale bureaucratic hideousness is alien to our traditions, culture and way of life. There was a time when Hong Kong would have led the world and introduced something radical and daring – a flat poll tax, legalization and taxation of drugs/brothels/gambling, HK$50,000-a-year dog licences, a Bad Taste Charge on yellow sports cars and huge flat-screen TVs. Or just smaller government. But since our post-colonial collapse in self-confidence, our officials’ imaginations have shriveled into sub-atomic particles only nanometers across. Touchingly, our mighty executive-led administration pleads for sympathy and understanding from its unimpressed and truculent citizens…
|How can we discuss tax reform in Hong Kong without addressing the role of land sales and premiums – taxes that distort the economy and society to hell but are so well hidden that no-one knows who actually pays them? Why are we thinking about a new tax when the Government could spend so much less, especially on itself and on unnecessary infrastructure projects? Where is the debate about our reserves – HK$400 billion (17 months’ Government expenditure) that could be used to relocate the poor across the border and leave us with a young and educated, New York- or London-style demographic profile, and no more constant blathering about the low-income, unskilled, unemployed etc?
The Big Boss needn’t concern himself with this. There is no way this proposal will get through the Legislative Council in a million years. The Government knows it, but is otherwise clueless and desperate. This is not a Consultation paper. It is a cry for help. “We’re not waving to draw your attention to a policy problem, we’re drowning.”
|Thurs, 20 July
Former Chief Secretary Anson Chan announces that she will launch a think tank that isn’t a think tank. With the honourable exception of Christine Loh’s Civic Exchange, Hong Kong think tanks specialize in shoe-shining, posturing or networking rather than hard inquiry into policy issues. Even those that conduct ‘research’ do so in order to display loyalty to a particular cause or, at best, prove a pre-conceived point (unlike, say, the Heritage Foundation, who would obviously never dream of doing such a thing).
The One Country Two Systems Research Institute has churned out harmless papers on border crossing facilities while apparently failing to achieve whatever its tycoon backers, Hang Lung boss Ronnie Chan and buddies, might have hoped. The Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre, run by Norman Chan of Standard Chartered Bank, is essentially a re-election campaign front for Donald Tsang. Anson liked Civic Exchange’s Everything You Wanted To Know About Functional Constituencies But Were Too Overwhelmed By The Stupidity Of It All To Ask – a work that surprised even officials by detailing how some FCs essentially select their own electorates independently of Government oversight.
She hopes to form a group of 10 or so people to propose ideas for political reform. Such individuals must be willing to incur the wrath of sour-faced, venom-dribbling Beijing dinosaurs declaring the fragrant former colonial running dog to be a puppet of British, American and Taiwanese interests plotting to bring down the entire People’s Republic of China. And they will have to suffer the slight humiliation and embarrassment of being cold-shouldered in public by friends of our poor Donald, who doesn’t need all this extra trouble from the upstart ‘Conscience of the Universe’.
However, the fragrant Mrs Chan is beaten to it by Savantas, Regina Ip’s real, live policy institute, based a stone’s throw from Wanchai’s Lockhart Road, for the convenience of drunken gwailo sexual predators who feel a need to spice up their evenings leering at Thai hookers with a bit of discussion about how Hong Kong should become a centre for R&D like Finland.
Yes, Finland – the remote, snow-bound land of herring-scented, whale-hunting, cuckoo clock-making, reindeer castrators who, under the midnight spell of turnip vodka, invented the Nokia, the Walkman of the early 21st Century. The Iron Butterfly has launched her group’s research output with 24 pages of lame, buzzword-laden twaddle that can be summarized thus – Hong Kong should scrap laissez faire and become a knowledge-based economy with a technology strategy (and by the way, Beijing’s generosity in flooding us with millions of leprous tourists has done wonders for us).
Why? First, it goes down well in Beijing to ‘focus on the economy’, to dismiss the British colonial policy of positive non-interventionism as irresponsible and to take a firm, hands-on, ‘executive-led’ approach to (Mainland-linked) economic development. Second, local business interests drool at the whiff of free lunches from ‘pro-active, market-enabling’ officials. Rumour has it that hyena-tycoon Peter Woo is already nuzzling up against Regina’s chic, gypsy-style skirts in the hope of being first in line at the trough if and when she comes to power. Third, it will attract criticism from the usual free-market obsessed gwailo malcontents in the press. Beijing judges its friends by their enemies. Thus, Regina needs to make sure her political ideas provoke some open hostility from the unpatriotic pro-democrats, whose approval would be the kiss of death for her. Similarly, to be pissed on by foreign intellectuals clinging to outdated Western notions of links between state and business is no bad thing. The fourth possibility is that this remarkably intelligent woman actually believes it, but that is too horrendous a thought to take seriously.
Fri, 21 July
As an act of charity to the underprivileged, I agreed last night to sit on wild American friend Odell’s pub quiz team. Unlike the Foreign Correspondents Club quizzes, it was a proletarian affair, with most of the questions being about which sports team won a particular trophy in 1973, or the name of some world famous bimbo I’ve never heard of’s husband. The rest of our team were members of the Hong Kong Association of Gwailos Married to Southeast Asian Women of Humble Origins, with their limited enthusiasm for questions of a more academic nature. Which part of the human body has the greatest concentration of sweat glands? Odell, a strong believer in the beer-as-brain-lubricant theory of pub quiz success, put down his fourth pint, beckoned us all to huddle up close so other teams wouldn’t hear, and hissed, “The ass crack!”
He is probably not alone in thinking this as Hong Kong ends what seems to be its fifth or sixth week in a row of temperatures in the 90s. Will the heat wave end by the year 2036? Catching up with the week’s news, I am delighted to see that the Japanese will be able to tell us. They are going to do 30-year weather forecasts. I dash off a quick email to the National Meteorological Agency in Tokyo and idly ask what conditions we can expect on my 60th birthday – a date many, many years into the future. To my amazement, they let me know within minutes. On that precise day, they tell me, it will be clear in the morning, followed by some cloud and light winds in the afternoon, with occasional light showers, and around early evening it will gradually become dark. Assuming I am in Kobe.
Tempers flare up easily when it’s hot, so it’s of little surprise to see the handbags flying in a spat between Anson Chan and Regina Ip, with the latter defending the Government against the former’s charge of foot-dragging on democracy. It’s almost as if they are following a script – Anson being the ‘bad cop’ aggressively demanding universal suffrage soon, and Regina being the ‘good cop’ sympathizing with the Government and praising it for moving towards political reform when it’s barely doing any such thing. Meanwhile, the oppose-democracy-at-all-costs crowd in the pro-Beijing camp look on in silence, wondering what happened to the patriotic-us-versus-democratic-them battle they had been fighting up to just a few weeks ago.
To remind us how civilized Hong Kong’s squabbles are, we always have the Middle East. Israel is trying to obliterate Hezbollah, which is so firmly enmeshed in Lebanon that they have to obliterate bits of that in order to do it. It is a battle with North Korean missile customer Iran by proxy, so even most Arab leaders are happy to see Israel get on with it, much to the disgust of their oppressed and impoverished subjects, who must find the idea of a Persian-led Greater Middle East Co-Prosperity Sphere looking more attractive by the day. It is tempting to say that nothing good ever comes out of the region, but then I recall something in my music collection dating from Cousin John Quincy Hemlock’s time at the American University in Beirut, and I call the three Stanleys from the mailroom into my office for their weekly dose of Cantopop antidotes – Bahebak ya Loubnan by Fairouz.