Hemlock's Diary
29 March-4 April, 2009
Mon, 30 Mar
Only a few months to go before the third anniversary of the awarding by the Queen of the CBE medal to Paul Kan, Chairman of
Champion Technology Group.  It is a fascinating case study for students of the caste-consciousness and behaviour of Hong Kong’s self-appointed establishment elite and those who yearn to be accepted as a member of it.  These are people who attach great importance to the receiving or giving of face up and down the hierarchy through displays of haughtiness, noblesse oblige, fawning or outright kowtowing.  It is a milieu that nurtures intense longings for symbols of recognition, which of course leads to vanity and even hints of fantasist delusion, which in turn leads to hours of mirthful entertainment for the rest of us.

A classic example is the massed rush to publicly congratulate a member of the great and good who has received some sort of honour.  Let us say an extremely prominent businessman deigns to accept a high-ranking bauble from a very reputable body.  The second and third-tier tycoons will clamour to take out a double-page ad in the newspapers to express their sincere good wishes towards the magnificent man on this richly deserved occasion.  Their names will appear in a lengthy list, with a none-too discreet label specifying that they are in alphabetical order, lest anyone imagine that Dr the Hon Aardvark Au is socially superior to Zuzi Zhang GBM.  In the event of someone with impressive political or business credentials being granted some exceptionally important ceremonial status, the sycophants will crawl over one another, like toads seeking a choice bit of swamp, to join the relevant celebratory committee, hopefully as one of the first, rather than second or third, deputy chairmen.  (The real test is canvassing for an invitation to be a pallbearer at a grandee’s funeral.)
Lower down the ladder, such high-profile groveling is something to aspire to.  The mid-range captain of industry – especially if he is so déclassé to have made rather than inherited his wealth, and through adding value rather than rent-seeking – can only dream about the day he is the object of a double-page tribute signed by a hundred eager flatterers.  In the meantime, he will try to be invited to put his name to such displays of obsequiousness to the high and mighty, and if he is lucky, friends and business partners will engage in such modest acts of veneration as a small ad in the paper to mark his company’s anniversary or public listing. 

But what if the lust for eminence is too great?  What if a great boost to your esteem is coming your way, and you cannot bear the thought that it will go unsung among the upper tiers of the social order because to them you are nothing?  In July 2006, Paul Kan proudly accepted his honour from the Queen and came up with the answer – self-shoe-shining.

He got a PR company to write (and presumably issue) a
press release, and he organized a website called congratulations-to-paulkancbejp.  With no multitudes of gentry rushing forward to actually do any congratulating, he got the all-important lists of famous names together by expressing heartfelt thanks to what appears to be the Big Lychee’s entire ruling class, past and present (with one or two mysteriously absent), plus some of  the generation-in-waiting, plus various un-moneyed worthies, plus most of the more acceptable of the non-Chinese business community, plus an array of companies, diplomatic missions, educational institutions, charities, and so on.  In, of course, alphabetical order.  There are the best part of 250 under ‘L’ alone.

The irony is, Kan is an innovator who has earned his money by devising useful products and has devoted time and resources to policy debate and good causes.  Unlike many local aristocrats on the receiving end of ritualized adulation, he actually deserves a pat on the back – even if he has to give it to himself.
Tue, 31 Mar
It is clear that something is up as the two Filipino elves report for duty at Perpetual Opulence Mansions this morning, not just earlier but distinctly grumpier than usual.  The pair of domestic helpers have two basic moods – sweet-natured and homicidal – and today is one of the rare occasions they are in the latter.  A few groceries purchased on the way here are left on the living room table in little pink plastic bags to unwrap and store themselves, the kitchen floor gets a cursory wipe, and a few items are thrown into the washing machine, which doesn’t get switched on. 

The only chore that they attend to at all seriously is knife-sharpening, using a black wet stone.  But it is not my cutlery they are grinding into razor sharp condition.  These are strange, curved daggers slightly reminiscent of the Nepalese
kukri and no doubt just as lethal.  After a while, a sheet of paper is tossed in the air and glides smoothly onto the gleaming metal and down to the floor, sliced silently in two.  Someone is in big trouble.

That someone is Chip Tsao, who used his
column in last week’s HK to test Filipino attitudes to satire by saying he would fire his maid if the Philippines enforced its recent claim on the Spratly Islands.  Like every inch of the South China Sea from Haiphong Harbour to the end of the runway at Changi Airport to Brunei’s oil platforms to the mouth of Manila Bay, these rocky outcrops are, and have been for many thousands of years, the greatly cherished territory of the Glorious Motherland, and anyone who suggests otherwise is an evil Dalai Lama-loving splittist who hurts the feelings of all the Chinese people. 

Rather than risk whatever would happen if he openly mocked Beijing’s eyebrow-raising maritime claim, Tsao pays tribute to the plucky Philippine nation for standing up for its rights in this David-and-Goliath match.  I try explaining this to the elves.  “It’s satire,” I tell them.  “When he calls the Philippines a nation of servants who clean everyone else’s toilets, and when he says Hong Kong employers will use their maids as hostages if there’s a war, he is actually saying your country is a victim and Chinese are bullies.”

Millions of their
compatriots are seething over Tsao’s racist slurs, and even the Senate has weighed in.  Despite my best efforts to sound convincing, the elves look at me incredulously before turning back to their weaponry.  I add that HK is just a free magazine, but to no avail.  They slide the knives into their ornately carved wooden scabbards.  After some rummaging around in their bags and some increasingly angry muttering, out come the blowpipes.
Wed, 1 Apr
The Philippine Immigration Bureau threatens to
bar Chip Tsao from their country until he kneels on broken glass in Statue Square and makes a groveling apology for insulting their people-exporting but proud nation.  Meanwhile, French President Nicholas Sarkozy threatens to walk out of the forthcoming G20 Save-the-Planet Summit in London unless the dreaded Anglo-Saxons denounce free-market principles and let elite bureaucrats in Paris expertly micro-manage their economies.  Entering into this spirit, I have decided to issue an ultimatum of my own – I will stop writing this diary unless the Hong Kong Government gives me an apartment on the Peak, car with driver, index-linked pension for life and a Grand Bauhinia Medal in recognition of my contribution to the community.

Before we take loud noises booming from empty vessels too seriously, it is worth checking the date on the calendar and considering the possibility that someone is simply trying to raise a smile on this special day.  For example, just as Obama and Brown are about to hand him the keys to their respective financial regulators and central banks, Sarkozy will shriek out “
poisson d’avril!” at the top of his voice and the whole London conference will collapse in howls of laughter.
An alert contact recently wondered whether the Hong Kong Government, having appointed an Electric Car Steering Committee, might in fact have a sense of humour.  My reaction was that the panicky, out-of-their-depth bureaucrats who frantically assure us that attempts to speed up infrastructure projects will yield ‘concrete results’ wouldn’t know how to be funny if they wanted to.  But now, to celebrate April the First, these very same grey men announce that Chief Secretary Henry Tang, our mighty number-two, has been named Town Tree Catcher, with the grave responsibility to defend the Big Lychee from the evil and malicious pines, banyans, eucalyptuses and bauhinias that rampage down our streets and strike such fear into the population.

It must be an April Fool’s joke because the only other explanation is that our Beijing-appointed leadership is prostrating itself before public opinion after a Coroner’s Court jury recommended a lengthy list of typically whiny, impractical, hard-to-please, Hongkonger-style measures after a psychopathic arboriform in Stanley leapt upon a passing girl and crushed her to death.  In the world of checks and balances, division of powers and government by the people for the people, a Coroner’s Court jury is a minnow, and it is surely unthinkable that the mighty tiger that is our Executive should bow to it. 

And both the
Standard and the South China Morning Post fell for it!  And just as we thought it couldn’t get any more hilarious – Manila’s emissary to the Big Lychee declares that Chip Tsao is hereby denied the inestimable privilege of giving any Filipino woman trying to get her kids through school a job.  I really will be too busy laughing to write anything tomorrow.  Thank heavens the world’s officials are so side-splitting only once a year.
Thurs, 2 Apr
This morning’s hastily arranged meeting of the South China Association of Millionaire Playboy Satirists at the Foreign Correspondents Club passes one resolution unanimously – that we will all henceforth abstain in our work from any and all sardonic references to Filipino domestic helpers.  This of course follows the sad fate of columnist Chip Tsao, whose latest groveling apology to the warm and cheerful people of the Philippines is in Spanish, to make sure any octogenarian remnants of the colonial elite tucked away in their jungle haciendas get the message.

So from now on, any attacks on racism using the device of ironic slurs against foreign maids will have to refer to Indonesians.  They are actually ideal.  They are more likely to agree, rather than go into a nationalistic frenzy, on hearing that their country is a corrupt and backward dump.  They can’t, or at least don’t, read English.  And they have funny and interesting habits, like collecting their bosses’ fingernail clippings and putting menstrual blood in the cooking to gain mystical influence over the household.  Filipinos just morosely comb magazines looking for writers to report to the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Press Council.

The anger in the Land of Inane Grins will pass – give it 12 to 18 months or so.  Meanwhile, diplomats from the country’s consulate here are sending a
rescue squad after hearing that the Tsao family, like a certain exacting employer I know in the Mid-Levels, nail their helper’s ear to a tree if she doesn’t have the dog walked, car washed and congee bubbling away by 5.30 every morning.
The only other item on the SCAMPS agenda is to tell Chip about the boxing match he will be enjoying with a member of the Philippines House of Representatives.  He has sent us his apologies – he can’t leave the house.  At least Nury Vittachi is no longer alone in incurring the wrath of thin-skinned readers who fail to understand the true intention behind his fearless and provocative wit.

An FCC maintenance man with a hammer passes by our gathering, and a sudden thought comes to me.  I only do it to Jehovah’s Witnesses, but the Kwans in 18B must be asking the same question – what will we use when Henry Tang has come round and chopped down the hibiscus at the entrance to Perpetual Opulence Mansions?
Fri, 3 Apr
The Mid-Levels Escalator groans this morning under the weight of the Hong Kong middle class’s increased wealth following yesterday’s leap in the stock market, which saw HSBC gain 15%.  Over in London, meanwhile, the G-20 summit ends amid unsightly and distasteful hugging, groping and pawing among the world’s leaders, who have miraculously solved all the planet’s problems.  Rational people will look at the immense destruction of wealth that has taken place in the last year and consider the long-term impact of all the money-printing going on and be skeptical.  But doubters and cynics can stand back and believe!  Everyone’s favourite little bundle of administrative excellence, Chief Executive Donald Tsang, declares that
the hardest times are yet to come, and he is – let’s put it politely – often less-than-prescient on these, as indeed on many other, matters.

Sir Bow-Tie needs an economic crisis.  It provides the missing word required to finish the sentence “No, we must focus on the…” whenever anyone mentions universal suffrage.  And it provides an overriding reason to extend the role of all-seeing, visionary Giant Government in planning the Big Lychee’s economy in ever-greater detail.  So it is with great aplomb that Donald unveils the fourth riveting meeting of our Task Force on Economic Challenges.
A glance at the list of members of this elite body tells us two things.  First, some civil servant needs to be told that Margaret Leung is no longer commercial banking boss at HSBC but CEO of Hang Seng Bank.  And second, that – apart from one guy who makes things and a theatre group director who got on the list by accident – virtually everyone involved is heavily exposed to the financial, trade and property sectors.  And their mission is… to think up ways to reduce the prominence of the financial, trade and property sectors, by choosing lucky new industries to be given the privilege of starting up in Hong Kong and flourishing.

The Three-Point Hemlock Plan, which freely admits to being totally unoriginal, calls for the Government to encourage new enterprises by freeing up land supply, breaking up cartels and allowing in better-qualified immigrants than the current ceaseless procession of suicidal Mainland welfare mothers.  This humble proposal, however, is dismissed by our policy-makers on the grounds that it is doing everything backwards.  What we need to do, they explain, is find new economic activities that can be developed here
despite the artificially inflated costs, grip of family-run monopolies and semi-cretinous workforce.  Removing the fundamental obstacles to broad-based, sustainable growth would take all the fun out of it, or be cheating or something.

To help economically literate members like Morgan Stanley’s highly respected Stephen Roach get their heads around all this dirigism, central planning and picking of winners, our officials have helpfully provided them with the correct answers – Chinese medicine, creative industries, environmental-whatever, education-something and ever-vaguer concepts, preferably in neatly packaged, exciting hubs. 

Our bureaucrats’ generous guidance of these extremely busy international business figures presumably accounts for the dazzling out-of-the-box thinking behind the Task Force’s
previous ideas – Renminbi business, boosting the property market, suddenly being nice to Taiwan, bilateral ‘free trade’ agreements with once-hot emerging markets, Mega Events like the East Asian Games and the PRC’s 60th birthday, a loathsome-sounding ‘premium outlet centre’, expediting infrastructure projects yet again, begging banks to lend to SMEs, Mainland integration blah-blah stuff, and (perhaps the theatre guy felt he should say something) turning Hong Kong into a food-testing centre. 

When our officials put his name to the next List of Proposals, will Stephen Roach finally have the good sense to sue?
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