Hemlock's Diary
21-27 May 2006
Mon, 22 May
The week begins unsteadily, as wild American friend Odell lurches into innocent passers-by and items of furniture on his way from the counter at the IFC Mall branch of Pacific Coffee.  With great effort, he manages to set his marshmallow and basil latte down on the table and collapses into an easy chair.  He then gazes into space with bloodshot eyes and makes the weary sigh of a man in great physical discomfort. 

“Every five seconds,” he blurts out, “there’s a child dying of hunger in the world.”  He looks up at me, his mouth slightly hanging open.  “It wasn’t easy, and I feel like shit this morning.  But I feel good we did something to help those poor kids in Africa.”  Yesterday was Fight Hunger Day.  Around the planet, in a
magnificent display of caring for the less fortunate, people from all walks of life came together to raise money to put food into starving children’s bellies.  In South Korea, hiking enthusiasts walked through the sunny mountains, raising a million Won per kilometre.  In California, parachutists earned $20,000 by making a mass-jump over the desert.  In a town in France, well-wishers donated 3,000 euros to members of the local cycling club to ride through the beautiful countryside for an afternoon.  In Wales, supporters paid a group of youngsters 5,000 pounds to give up their free time and watch TV and eat curry-flavoured pretzels for 10 hours without a break.  Even cyberspace joined in, with lonely shy people in every time zone raising thousands of dollars by staring at porn sites and engaging in frenzied onanism for a whole hour starting 12.00 GMT.

Odell is proud to have taken part.  Together with a group of friends, he walked from one bar in Wanchai to another, downing a drink in each, from 3pm to 9pm.  As it happened, nearly all of them continued their devotion to eradicating starvation well past midnight.  “The strange thing,” he mumbles, “was that every time I asked someone to sponsor me…  I told them what I would be doing.  And they said, ‘wow, great idea – actually, I won’t just sponsor you, I’ll actually join in and come with you’.  So I didn’t actually make that much money.”  I nod sympathetically.  “But, you know…” he slurs, “I think that’s great, you know… they all wanted to get involved to feed those poor kids.”

Tue, 23 May
expatriate wimps who think their children’s health is more important than money flee the Big Lychee for Singapore, where the air is free of artificial additives.  Even when parts of Borneo catch fire, the suspended particulates in the Lion City’s haze are 100% natural and bio-degradable.  Strolling along the walkway over Hollywood Road this morning, I look down on the train of SUVs, Mercedes, minibuses, double-deckers, taxis and trucks slowly crawling along the street originally designed for rickshaws.  The nitrous-scented breeze inspires an intriguing question – is our master of ‘strong government for the people’ Donald Tsang secretly working for the Singapore Government? 
It makes perfect sense.  The senile and evil Lee Kuan-yew has ordered him to continue cramming more and more monster towers and roads into the most densely populated and over-developed central business district on the planet, to make it so unpleasant that all the regional HQs move south.  Similarly, the Confucio-Fascist tyrant has told Sir Bow-Tie to wreck language standards in the Big Lychee.  ‘Majority of English Teachers Don’t Know Alphabet’ scream today’s headlines, while China’s Ministry of Education, despite having no jurisdiction in Hong Kong, feels bound to criticize us for not speaking the country’s slimy and creepy sounding official language well enough.
The Singapore regime’s kiasu-crazed assault on its successful rival city-state is understandable.  They are desperate down there – 3 million overfed zombies ruled by a deranged dynasty, surrounded by 300 million starving, loincloth-clad Muslims waiting patiently for the day when they pour out of the jungle and descend on the arrogant Chinese settlement to finish it off with their poison darts and machetes, leaving nothing but electronic road pricing equipment standing.  But how much can they be paying Donald?

Wed, 24 May
The three Stanleys from the mailroom shuffle into the Company Gwailo’s office in eager anticipation of this week’s mp3.  They are accompanied by Fat Karen the admin assistant, whose main duties seem to involve administering mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks of French toast, sweet buns with a hot dog in the middle and similar culinary delights.  I download The Smiths’
Handsome Devil onto their music players.  “This is an extremely important song in the development of Western culture,” I explain to them, “because the lyrics include the words ‘mammary glands’.”  They nod appreciatively.
They are already in a good mood because the Bank of China IPO gave everyone a slice of the action, leaving the four Epsilons proud owners of 1,000 shares each, worth a grand total of HK$2,700.  It would have taken them at least an hour to collect the application forms, fill them in and submit them.  If the price goes up 10%, it will yield them HK$270, minus brokers’ fees and stamp duty – say a grand profit of HK$200.  But it’s the principle that’s important.  It’s free money, miraculously appearing as if from nowhere, and gives them a warm and joyous feeling deep inside like no other.

Fat Karen wants to know if I will be coming on ‘the trip’ next week.  Trying not to betray my extreme depression about the prospect, I tell her that I will be there.  I don’t know what I did in my previous life, but it couldn’t have been pretty, coming back to me at the S-Meg Holdings spring dinner in the form of a lucky draw prize – a three-day tour of some backwater in the darkest corner of Guangdong Province, accompanied by a gaggle of S-Meg Holdings staff.  Attempts to chuck the coupon away were thwarted by The Big Boss, who, with sadistic glee, ordered me to go on company time.  I’ve heard about these package deals.  You get taken around by karaoke-equipped bus, stopping at stores where the guide makes a commission, then stopping to take endless photos, then stopping so Fat Karen can stuff her face full of noodles, then, halfway to a cheap restaurant, the bus flies off a cliff and we end up under a row of blankets at the roadside on the front page of Apple Daily.  I checked.  The retail price of the three-day, two-night expedition is HK$600 a person.  Fat Karen is looking forward to it – though not because it will be in any way enjoyable.  “It’s free!” she grins.
Thurs, 25 May
Over two steaming bowls of Yuet Yuen Restaurant’s finest fish congee, buxom Administrative Officer Winky Ip and I flick through the newspapers.  Two stories catch my attention.  The Government’s planned luxury mega-palace at Tamar will cost
twice as much per square metre as the concrete and glass phallus that is IFC2.  “I think you civil servants should be congratulated for that,” I tell the shapely bureaucrat.  “Normally, the public sector would manage to spend three times as much as a profit-making organization for that sort of project.”  Winky thanks me for the compliment. 

Over the page, Secretary for the Environment and Transport Sarah ‘what-does-she-do-all-day?’ Liao announces that air pollution costs Hong Kong
HK$1.7 billion a year.  Tamar, with all its roads and high-rise blocks, will increase air pollution.  And then they will redevelop the old Government offices into more towers, thus more traffic, thus more fumes.  “I can’t help wondering,” I tell Winky, “what is Sarah Liao’s target?  Two billion a year?  Three billion?”

I inevitably return to the big question no-one seems to be able to answer.  Just why is Sir Bow-Tie so obsessively desperate to push the Tamar project through?  Winky’s adamant response – the economy, jobs – is insulting to the intelligence.  First quarter GDP growth was over 8%.  Is it a massive sop to the construction industry and the engineering, surveying and other parasites, with all their functional constituencies in the Legislative Council?  Could be.  Is it pure empire-building, vanity and self-indulgence?  Could be.  Is it to prove to Beijing how big and tough Donald Tsang is, not yielding to public opinion as a matter of patriotic principle?  Is it to diminish the legislative branch’s symbolic role by shoving the Council into a basement 50 floors below the Chief Executive?  Is it to exorcise the memories, the ghosts and the wiretaps left by the British in the old buildings on Government Hill?  Is there something sensitive or even sinister that we’re not being told, perhaps relating to the fact that the PLA HQ is next door to Tamar?   Could be any of these.

Winky sighs.  “I’m sick of you going on about this.  Complete change of subject.  I need some advice.”  She leans forward towards me and lowers her voice.  “About, um, men.”  Oh dear.  Could the world’s most half-hearted husband hunt be entering a new phase, under pressure from Winky’s mother, unable to accept that her career-minded daughter has been destined for spinsterhood ever since she first set lustful eyes on a filing cabinet at the age of six?  She gives me an uncharacteristically coy smile.  “Um, what words can a woman say to a man that make him feel, you know –
wonderful about her?”

I think about it carefully.  “The words I most like to hear from a woman,” I eventually reply, “are ‘don’t worry about those dishes, I’ll do them later’ – I think that goes for most men.”  Enlightened, Winky nods, sips the last drops of her
juk, then, without thinking about it, slides the bowl to the side of the table where it can be disregarded.
Fri, 26 May
The Mid-Levels is preparing for a major celebration tonight, to honour the first week in business of McSorley’s Pub, a few yards east of the Escalator in Elgin Street, opposite the Swatow church, whose Christian-minded members park their Lexuses right on the pedestrian crossing on Sundays. 

The new bar is the most important addition to the crowded Soho food and drink scene in living memory, mostly because of what it isn’t.  It is not a trendy/hip/cool place looking like a badly lit operating theatre full of uncomfortable, brushed aluminium stools and weird hiphop/techno/house or whatever tuneless, mechanical music they play in places like Elements, the previous outlet in this location.  It has wooden furniture and the Allman Brothers.  It is not pretentious.  The staff are not self-important wannabe models, but plain everyday smiling Filipinos.  The menu offers no organic gravlax with sun-dried tomato and mango vinaigrette, just the usual burgers and fish and chips screaming out, “If you think this is a restaurant, you’ll eat this junk.” 

It is not, by the robotic and unimaginative standards of people who invest in Hong Kong hostelries, a ‘theme’ place.  Once past the ‘Irish’ frontage, customers are in plain and functional surroundings, with few or no Oscar Wilde quotes, photos of Sean O’Casey, paintings of ragged peasants, plastic shamrocks, Republican memorabilia and other tiresome faux-Fenianism.  There are relatively few concessions to victims of the professional sports cult, except one or two modest-sized flat-screen TVs featuring the usual men in shorts kicking a ball up and down a field.  (I haven’t explored upstairs yet.)  It won’t appeal much to the Lan Kwai Fong riffraff, nor to the clubber types.  Aside from some Western tourists exploring Escalator-land, it will attract ordinary folk from the neighbourhood.  Hong Kong’s hard-working, tax-paying middle class have finally been given a ‘local’.

Tucked away to the left inside the front door is a little alcove, painted blue on the exterior.  This is Pervs’ Corner, specially installed by the management as a semi-secret cranny in which wild American friend Odell can sit and leer at passing schoolgirls.  Odell is already a big fan of McSorley’s.  Not only does it offer people-watching opportunities, it is one minute’s stroll uphill from his apartment.  In other words, he will get straight home after he leaves if he goes downhill – and Odell when drunk, like a river, knows no other direction.