1-7 March, 2009
|Mon, 2 Mar
It is barely March, and the plan to abolish capitalism in Hong Kong by the end of 2009 is progressing more successfully than many dared imagine. Last week, Financial Secretary John Tsang announced at least a partial ban on independent private-sector investment and innovation with his bold declaration in the Budget speech that “The past practice of enterprises moving ahead of the Government may not always suit the development trend.” Just days later, textiles tycoon and member of numerous official advisory bodies Michael Tien humbly called for the Government to pay companies’ payroll costs, with the South China Morning Post quoting him as saying that “When it [comes] to job creation and retention … a subsidised private sector would be more effective.” The bureaucracy, to no-one’s surprise, is making a major contribution through its project to make the Big Lychee into ‘Creativity City’.
To quote Runko and Pritzer’s Encyclopedia of Creativity…
|Extraordinary creativity commonly requires extraordinary courage to pursue a vision in the face of criticism, oppression and the recoil of the emotional investment society has to continue what is, even though what is may no longer work, or is not justifiable for ethical or moral reasons.|
|It is a form of rebellion, in less tortured words, and what better way to encourage it than to set up an elaborate office stuffed full of Secretary for Commerce & Economic Development Rita Lau’s civil servants and committees with a HK$300 million budget of taxpayers’ money?
Finally – for this week, anyway – a group of extremely non-creative minds comes together with the express aim of eradicating one of our city’s last remaining evil free markets. There was a time when even the lowliest Hongkonger could make a living by, say, cooking and selling noodles on the street, but that was regulated out of existence years ago. Today, the high land price policy, the anti-competitive activities of cartels and elaborate licensing regimes reserve much of our domestic wealth-accumulation opportunities to a handful of favoured families. Add in an immigration system that brings in unskilled Mainlanders rather than the entrepreneurial and non-Chinese, schools that churn out obedient dimwits and the parallel tax burden imposed on small businesses by the Triads, and it is hardly surprising that Creativity City is in fact Economic Inequality City.
Since fixing the underlying problems would require ‘extraordinary courage to pursue a vision’ on the part of policymakers, we clearly have to find a Band-Aid solution. Behold the Provisional Minimum Wage Commission. The body is split among labour activists, academics and big business (all being poked with sharp sticks as necessary behind the scenes by dedicated Administrative Officers). By bizarre coincidence, the bulk of these people are individuals not known for their propensity to disagree with the Government about what may or may not be ‘justifiable for ethical or moral reasons’. The inevitable property tycoon is Sung Hung Kai’s Thomas, the really weird looking one of the three Kwok brothers. The man with a big interest, however, is Cafe de Coral’s Michael Chan. His industry – fast food – relies on people working for HK$18 an hour. Meanwhile, angry defenders of workers’ rights are erecting barricades and throwing nooses over lampposts. However this works out, someone will be sorely vexed.
Next week – Chief Executive Donald Tsang declares that property is theft and announces full collectivization of the means of production and distribution.
|Tue, 3 Mar|
|The mood on the Mid-Levels Escalator this morning is one of total hysteria. And it’s not because of the amazing effectiveness of the Government’s latest publicity campaign, since the beginning of which not a single alcohol-related car crash has taken place on the entire pedestrian walkway.
If we were in the UK, the universal, heart-stopping excitement would be because Northumberland United had played Chelsea Wanderers and the score was 0-0. Were we in the US, the mass frenzy would have resulted from Britney Spears and Johnny Depp crying in public about someone’s nipple showing on TV. But here in Hong Kong, it’s all about HSBC’s rights issue, offering the banking giant’s shareholders – every man, woman and child in the Big Lychee – shares at half-price.
As they glide down towards the central business district of Asia’s international financial hub, Hong Kong’s industrious, hygienic and disenfranchised middle class discuss what to do. Marketing Manager Mrs Chan will sell some of her existing shares in Wooi Foong and use the cash to buy into the offering, while I lean towards selling some rights and using the others with the proceeds, and stock broker Mr Wong plans to buy more HSBC today in order to gorge himself on the opportunity. What we all have in common is two things. First, we are not the tragically confused investor surnamed Lau quoted in the South China Morning Post as saying that he won’t take up his rights but will sit on his cash in case HSBC falls below HK$30…
|…when the fund-raising exercise is already handing them to him on a plate for HK$28. Second, we are fundamentally confident that the Fragrant Harbour and Shanghai-on-Sea Abundant Returns Silver Shop is going to use the newly raised capital to leap ahead of all its worse-run, semi-nationalised, bankrupt counterparts during the forthcoming mayhem, leaving it top dog of the finance world when we emerge from the Great 2008-2012 Global Economic Depression Carnage. We have faith, in other words, that Hong Kong’s most successful ever enterprise is not hiding lots of nasty, festering, contaminated-to-the-power-of-nine bad news under the carpet. But why? Mrs Chan, fingering the little silver crucifix hanging from her neck, spells it out.
“You can trust them because the Chairman is a Christian,” she says. “He won’t lie.” That’s it. How many other banks in the world are headed by someone called the Reverend Stephen Green? As a man of the cloth, HSBC’s big boss surely knows that beyond the quarterly results, beyond the end of the whole financial year, beyond the rolling five-year strategic review, lies the big audit in the sky – when people who have amassed wealth improperly will be judged and told that they have a camel in the eye of a needle’s chance of entering the Kingdom of Heaven. Meanwhile, there is also the undeniable fact that the Almighty protects and guides the righteous here on Earth. God, while turning Bear Stearns and Northern Rock into pillars of salt and smiting Lehmans, smiting Royal Bank of Scotland and smiting Citibank like Egypt’s first-born sons, is letting His favourite financial institution off with a 70% drop in net profit.
|When thou hast gotten a fruitful possession through all the field, sow it with thine own seed, trusting in the goodness of thy stock. Ecclesiasticus 26: 20|
|Wed, 4 Mar
Another day dawns over Exchange Square, and wild American friend Odell and I sip our lavender and jojoba cappuccinos in our favourite easy chairs in the IFC Mall branch of Pacific Coffee. The Big Boss is away in Beijing, shining shoes with the black hair dye brigade and snoozing along with grinning, gaily dressed representatives of ethnic minorities at the National People’s Supremely Important Political Speech Fest, so in theory I can relax here all morning. But there is tension in the Java-tinted air. This particular outlet in the home-grown caffeine chain has become a hotbed of unrest in recent days.
|First there is Ronald Arculli, lawyer to the gentry and member of a hundred Government advisory bodies, who has taken to coming in some mornings to sit down alone at a small table and read the news over a medium regular with milk and one of the shop’s HK$6 bananas. “Expensive banana,” notes my ex-Mormon companion, “but then he can offset it against reading the SCMP for free.” Although outwardly the other clientele politely ignore the aging establishment stalwart, the regulars indulge in muted chatter behind his back, with many asking how someone who sits on so many dozens of public councils, committees, tribunals, boards and commissions can have the time to lounge around here in the thinking man’s Starbucks. My hunch is that these gossips find the presence of Ron rather humiliating – he is, after all, a walking advertisement for the shortcomings of the 6,999,978 million of us Hongkongers who are too simple-minded and child-like to participate in civic affairs.
Then there is the angry backlash by certain customers of limited financial means who, after paying for their drink and sitting down to sip it, have their pleasure – indeed, entire week – ruined by spotting a coupon in the newspaper entitling them to a bigger portion, two-for-one, or some other offer, valid for that day only. Yesterday, one elderly, bald, Western male victim of this cheapskate’s agony tore the coupon out and loudly demanded that the staff honour it retroactively and give him a freebie. Quite rightly, as alert young people born and bred in the only territory in Asia that enjoys the rule of law, they told him to get lost. A bad case of irritable tightwad gwailo syndrome was averted only after intervention by myself (a Hard Stare), the creepy girl who reads the Bible (a slightly un-Christian tut), and Odell, who deftly produced the Taser he carries as Chief Guest Behavior Management Artist at Disneyland.
Odell’s public order instincts have also led him to appoint himself Head Snitch – making a point of informing the Pacific Coffee employees when smartly attired groups of three or four come into the shop, help themselves to chairs and a table and proceed to hold a half-hour business meeting, complete with PowerPoint and handouts, without buying anything. This phenomenon seems to have grown with the onset of recession. He thinks that such people used to rent premises somewhere nearby but are now using basic shared office space so have to meet clients here. My theory is that they are the same real estate agents and other failures who have always held meetings here, but are now so impoverished they can’t afford even a small latte. Until Utah’s finest strolls up with his electric cattle prod and Ricky the Assistant Manager.
|“Hey, you’re gonna be live-blogging your dental thing tomorrow, right?”
Damn. I was trying not to think about it. The clock is ticking, and in 24 hours or so I will be under the knife. Which is worse – undergoing excruciating oral surgery at the hands of Dr Amy KK Au-Yeung BDS DPDS, or having to update this diary in real time with blow-by-blow commentary about every wrench of the pliers, spurting of gore and stitching up of the hole? That’s assuming I live through it and don’t become yet another of those millions of unmourned wisdom-tooth-removal mortality statistics no-one ever cares about.
|Thurs, 5 Mar
At the dentist.
8.54 Receptionist tells me to take a seat. A nasty fat child, probably here for a filling after eating too much ice-cream in the back of the family Mercedes, is occupying the one and only PC. Try flicking through Asian Golfing Life and Christian Parenting.
8.57 I never did get around to writing a will.
9.02 Dr Amy KK Au-Yeung BDS DPDS introduces me to her burly colleague Dr Ken Butcher BDS, MBChB, FRACDS, FCDSHK – a specialist. In playing rugby? “This is a very simple, straightforward procedure,” she says, “but I wouldn’t personally dare touch it with a 10-foot pole.”
9.04 We are in Dr Ken’s office, looking at my x-ray. I am lying on the couch. Vivaldi on the sound system.
9.06 Now he has his back turned to me. Just signed a consent form saying I am happy with all the things that can go wrong – eg, lower left lip numbed for life. Peering over his shoulder, I see he is laying out a hacksaw, a hammer, a range of evil-looking clamps, a thumbscrew and a knuckleduster.
9.09 “Will you be wanting a sedative?” he asks. “Four thousand bucks extra, and you’ll need to stay here an hour more or have someone come and pick you up, and no driving or operating machinery for a day.” I ask if I need one. “They’re for girlies really,” he replies. “Expat housewives, local wimps, fairies, softies, kids... you know.” I tell him just the regular local anaesthetic will do fine.
9.12 His assistant, a plump, muscular woman comes in and looks me up and down, as if sizing me up for a fight, then disappears behind me.
Green sheet, as seen in TV medical dramas, draped over me. Are they going to whip my appendix out as well while they're at it?
9.13 Dr Ken spins round. “Let’s roll!” The hefty hygienist is grabbing my head and holding it back. I guess a dash of surface anaesthetic is out of the question? Dr Amy KK Au-Yeung BDS DPDS would have lovingly dabbed it on before reaching for the needle. But this guy is a surgeon - I am just a lump of meat to him. An object in need of engineering work. He is leaning over me, skewering me with a foot-long hypodermic. “Gotcha!” he shouts.
9.17 He finishes. “I eat mandibular gums like that bastard for breakfast!”
9.23 Dr Ken has turned away to check emails and has just clicked on a link to a Viking-themed body-building website. Everything on the left of my body from the brain to the hip is numb.
9.25 He has just announced,“OK! Now for the fun bit.” The assistant has put some sort of frame into my mouth to hold it open. Now she is gripping my head firmly. Dr Ken has grabbed a crowbar and pushed it somewhere at the far back of the jaw. He is roxjinf oy nslqward and forwards very hard.
9.28 A lot of drilling and chipping away. Interesting crunching and cracking sounds. “Just cutting through some bone, and then... Wow. ” His knee is in my chest, and three implements are stuffed into my oral cavity. He shouts “suction!”
9.29 Make that four implements. Someone is getting delirious, and it’s not me. Dr Ken has just shouted “Drink, ye harpooneers! drink and swear, ye men that man the deathful whaleboat’s bow!”
9.30 He has just dropped something on the floor. Made a loud clang, but don’t know what it was. He seems undeterrrrrrrrrrreddd.
|9.31 That was an almighty judder. A whoop of joy from the assistant, whose grip is, if anything, tightening. “Yup!” (That’s Dr Ken.) “Got the fucker!”
9.32 He seems very excited. “Holy shit Maxine! Didn’t put up much of a fight did it?”
9.33 I’ve just noticed blood spattered on the spotlight and on Dr Ken’s visor. Must have happened at 9.30.
9.34 He is wiping it off the visor, as if he’s just noticed it himself. The appearance of blood seems to be calming him down a bit, as if it has fed some sort of inner hunger.
9.35 Lots of wadding going in now. The assistant has let go.
9.37 He sends the girl out for some suture thread. “Nothing fancy, OK? Just some Chinese stuff.” The excitement is all over. Dr Ken seems slightly disappointed. “Just three or four stitches, that’s all it’ll take.”
9.39 He brightens up a bit. “Did I tell you it’ll hurt like fuck tomorrow?”
|Fri, 6 Mar
The pain from my swollen, bleeding, stitched-up gum has, as Dr Ken promised, been agonizing. And then, just as it starts to verge on unbearable, I remember that they gave me not one but two types of pain killer – Parofen, which contains the strong anti-inflammatory analgesic Ibuprofen and the mild anti-inflammatory analgesic Paracetamol (with Free Antipyretic Qualities!!), plus Panadol, which is yet more Paracetamol. Never having used pain killers before, apart possibly from childhood aspirin, I am amazed at how well they work. Next time I see a TV commercial showing someone using an over-the-counter product with a silly name to gain relief from the headaches everyone except me seems to get all the time, I will understand what all the fuss is about.
When I lightly pass my tongue over the affected area, it is warm, spongy, moist, and the stitches feel like very fine, short hairs. And I think that’s all that needs to be said about that.
Staying put in Perpetual Opulence Mansions with a three-day diet of soup and congee ahead, I will be spending even longer than usual perusing the news. And that means I might be reduced to reading more than I normally would about Southern Asia, with its somewhat lowly ranking in the Hemlock List of Riveting Current Affairs Topics.
Thus I see that India is following China and jumping on the Give-Our-Treasures-Back bandwagon, complaining about the auction in New York of the possessions of Mahatma Gandhi. I have long had a nagging suspicion that Gandhi, with his adoring, nubile young female followers, was a bit of a fraud – though not on the monumental scale of Mother Theresa. And so it seems, with the great ascetic turning out to have been the owner of a Zenith pocket watch, no less. What makes the story interesting is that, just as the French collecter is offering to give China the ugly bronze animal heads it is demanding in return for a free Tibet, an American is saying he will hand Gandhi’s steel-rimmed spectacles and hand-crafted sandals to India if that country spends more on health care for the poor.
This is insufferable, obnoxious, culturally bigoted Western arrogance, and I love it. What better way to draw the attention of jumped-up wannabe superpowers’ leaders to their miserable failings? Beijing doesn’t deserve its antiques back because it still hasn’t learnt how to decolonize conquered lands and liberate liberated serfs from its own brand of feudalism. In fact, it will be lucky not to be sent to bed early with a smacked bottom and no supper. Meanwhile, what sort of priorities do Indian policymakers have? Here’s a country where half the children are malnourished, and the Government is spending money on… a manned space mission. And New Delhi officials are wetting themselves because a foreigner is dangling the Mahatma’s belongings in front of them? A damn good thrashing and no sweeties for a month would be too good for them. So there.
I keep forgetting. It is time for another Parofen.
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