Hemlock's Diary
15-21 March, 2009
Mon, 16 Mar
Hong Kong is a-chatter this morning with news about yesterday’s
clash between plucky little Macau and the horde of Hong Kong bad elements that attempted to invade the gambling hub.  Showing acute public relations skills and political deftness, the authorities across the Pearl River Delta plucked five especially poisonous weeds for rejection while admitting the rest to plod around the city looking slightly self-conscious.

Macau is a community that makes virtually all its wealth from ‘gaming’, as the industry of loan-sharking, money-laundering and exploitation of pathological addicts refers to itself.  The affairs of its top businessmen, who also form the political elite, overlap generously with the world of gangsters and Triads.  One of the city’s top officials was recently found guilty of corruption on such a vast scale for such a small, close-knit place that not a single person believes that other senior bureaucrats and leaders were not deeply involved.  The net result is a town built almost entirely around the interests of tycoons, with little regard for law, fairness or the rest of the population – in line, it appears, with contemporary Chinese Communist Party philosophy.  How do the people who run such a place choose which five of 33 pro-democrats are so unacceptable that they must be barred from entry?  And with a straight face?
The choice wasn’t too hard.  Trotskyite Long Hair Leung Kwok-heung and his fellow members of the League of Social Democrats are on a longstanding blacklist owing to their modest suggestion that China’s ruling party stand down.  The refusal of labour union activist Lee Cheuk-yan is less doctrinal but actually understandable – Macau’s underclass is treated like dirt but is too disorganized to do much about it, and the local Government badly wants it to stay that way. 

In all fairness, the City of the Name of God is in many ways better run than it was, say, 40 years ago, when protestors faced huge, rampaging Mozambican troops firing rifles.  But seen from the Big relative-paragon-of-governance Lychee, there is something unfathomable about this ‘little brother’.  Even our own Government seems to be slightly bewildered by it – with its
press releases on the subject seeming to ask between the lines why such a manageable-sized place can’t get its act together.  It is rather like the Singaporeans or Malaysians with regard to the Philippines, or Canadians and Americans looking at their Latin neighbours to the South.  Why on earth did you people get yourselves colonized by the Portuguese or Spanish?  What were you thinking?

Tue, 17 Mar
Hong Kong’s leadership operates in three modes.  The first is sheer bloody-minded, ram-it-through, get-the-job-done, Executive-led Government, as envisaged in the Basic Law – a piece of legislation emanating from a country where top officials routinely denounce checks and balances and separation of powers as alien and dangerous principles.  An obvious example is the filling-in of the harbour off Central to build a waterfront freeway, a hugely unpopular project that required much legislative and administrative subterfuge on the part of ingenious bureaucrats determined to smother concrete everywhere come what may.  Another is the attempt to force the Article 23 security law on the city, which so amusingly blew up in their faces.

The second is the highly regrettable but apparently unavoidable inability to move forward, owing to some insurmountable and highly convenient obstacle.  Progress on universal suffrage is sadly impossible because the community can’t reach a consensus.  We tragically can’t have more green space because it takes money and where would it come from?  There is nothing a rigged public consultation exercise and some hand-wringing can’t delay, especially when so many of the Government’s elected opponents are incompetents who don’t know what questions to ask.

The third is genuine, bed-wetting, frozen-in-the-headlights, petrified cluelessness, in which officials pray for the Earth to open and swallow them up rather than have to make a decision.  Typically there are two options.  More often than not, option A would benefit the community as a whole but hurt the interests of a narrow, selfish little mob of parasites with friends in high places.  Option B would do the reverse.  In other words, right versus wrong – with the choice to be made by someone with no mandate to govern, dozens of vested interests snapping at his heels and a distant sovereign power that will decapitate underlings who fail to maintain harmony.
Which brings us to Fairview Park, the weird, snake-infested New Territories community of concentric ring roads, where people live in homes two-thirds the normal size and ride around on giant tricycles.  The residents want to ban trucks from using a private road going through their neighbourhood as a short cut.  The vehicles damage the road and have, in the past, killed a small child.  Local landowners and truckers using nearby fields to store containers – let’s not go into whether legally or not – demand the right to drive anything through anywhere to make a quicker buck. 

Over to the blinking, stuttering official, trembling and in a cold sweat, mouth agape with fear at having to get off the fence and upset somebody.  After weighing up the two sides’ arguments, he comes up with a Solomonic appeal
“to all parties concerned to resolve the differences by means of communication and negotiation to work out a mutually acceptable solution,” before scuttling back to Central to change his underwear and check on his monthly air-conditioning allowance balance.  One thing both sides can probably agree on – chopping him up and feeding him to the pigs would be too kind.
Wed, 18 Mar
The mood on the Mid-Levels Escalator this morning is one of unbridled exhilaration as a rumour spreads that the Big Lychee’s taxpayer-funded, state-owned Disneyland is to close down, be packed into crates and shipped off to Shanghai with a citywide, relieved grunt of ‘good riddance’.  But maybe we are getting ahead of ourselves.  The Mouse that Ate Western Civilization is putting on a
big, dazzling show of abandoning expansion plans and is taking extra special care to mention, and indeed carry out, job cuts.   As Hong Kong’s unemployment rate hits 5%, the thinking in Burbank probably goes, our Government will panic and hurl yet more billions of taxpayers’ money at the tawdry, undersized tourist attraction.  How else could it react to headlines that announce Millions of Suicidal Hong Kong Jobless Starve Because Stingy Administration Refuses to be Responsible Partner to Public-Spirited Californian Entertainment Empire?
Are our officials dumb enough to fall for it?  They certainly were 10 years ago at the height of the Asian financial crisis when then-Financial Secretary Donald Tsang announced excitedly in his budget speech that billions in public wealth were to be given not only to the Mouse to build a Magic Kingdom on Lantau but to 33-year-old tycoon-scion Richard Li to construct a luxury apartment complex masquerading as a high-tech ‘Cyberport’.  The fault here lay with the kindly, avuncular but sleepless and intellectually unchallenging Chief Executive of the time, Tung Chee-hwa, who was easily mesmerized by scoundrels bearing offers of job-creation, especially when – as in Disney’s case – they dropped hints of choosing Shanghai instead.
We came close to flinging yet further billions in the direction of private equity leeches offering a similar deal – pay much of the investment costs and let us take the profit, and in return we’ll create, oh, 20 million jobs and let you call your town a hub, or we’ll choose Shanghai.  That was Silicon Harbour.  In this case, someone managed to grapple the crop-haired one to the ground and talk him out of it.  And that someone would appear to be Sir Bow-Tie himself.

So it is just possible that we are not in as defenceless and incapable hands as we might think as the grasping rodent tries to blackmail our panicky bureaucrats into plundering citizens’ pockets.  That said, it is too much to hope that Donald will take this disaster to its logical conclusion and tell the Americans they can take this theme park and shove it.  Such inspirational and visionary assertiveness has no place in our leadership these days – post-1997 Hong Kong is about cooperation, consensus, harmony and fear of the future, not self-confidence and individualism.  And too much face has been invested in the desperate effort to pull in millions of penniless Mainlanders to let their children pee on the flower beds, not least that of old tofu-for-brains himself.  The Revenge of Tung continues.
Thurs, 19 Mar
Not content with giving nine-year-olds a forecast for the weather on their 100th birthdays (average annual rainfall in Hong Kong for 2090-2099
“would be about 2,572 mm”), the Big Lychee’s meteorologists unveil two exciting new categories of disaster from the heavens.  In addition to ‘Typhoon’, we will now have ‘Super Typhoon’ and ‘Severe Typhoon’. 

Which of the two is the stronger?  Is ‘Super’ superior to ‘Severe’, or is ‘Severe’ severer than ‘Super’?  It is like the size of cups in Pacific Coffee, where the smallest is ‘Tall’.  Mercifully, the Chinese version offers a simple gradation – ‘Typhoon’, ‘Nasty Typhoon’, ‘Really Nasty Typhoon’ – which even non-readers can understand simply by counting the characters.

Why should the Government want to spread greater alarm about these bouts of wind and rain that swirl towards our shores during summer, often partially exhausted after rearranging the geology and demographics of the Philippines in no uncertain manner?  The answer seems to be nostalgia.  In recent years, people have come to take these giant storms in their stride.  Communal memories of shipwrecks, landslides and mass fatalities have dimmed, better construction techniques have left us all safer, and the densely packed rows of high-rise towers in urban areas insulate many of us from any indication that much weather ever really happens up there at all.
Back in the days when we were poorer but happier, the hoisting of the Number 8 Signal was the starting gun for a wild urban race.  People fought for space on busses as if they were catching the last helicopter out of Saigon.  Supermarket shelves were left bare as the population stocked up on three months’ supply of everything edible, plus toilet paper.  Gwailos staggered home beneath the weight of crates of booze.  People stuck scotch tape in big X’s in every window.  Large shutters with little narrow entrances came down over 7-Elevens.  Tardy residents of outlying islands who had missed the last ferry were laid down on their sides and chained to lamposts – or was that the garbage bins?  Hopefully, the new typhoon taxonomy will bring back a flavour of those wonderful and much-missed days of chaos and mindless panic.

Looking through the Hong Kong Observatory’s helpful prediction for the end of the 21st Century, I see that average rainfall in nine decades’ time will be 11% higher than it had been 10-20 years ago.  Should we wet ourselves about this?  Strictly speaking, I suppose, the answer is no – wait long enough and it will be done for you.  But this is all about global warming, a subject that I try desperately to take an interest in and care about, but which makes my eyes glaze over. 

Ever since Malthus – indeed, going back millennia – people have forewarned of doom.  I recall environmentalists saying that copper will run out, tin will run out and food will run out.  By 2000.  Maybe today’s nine-year-olds will become centenarians amidst heavy rain but be unprecedentedly secure from polar bear attacks.  Maybe Cassandra complex sufferer
George Monbiot is right and it’s already over.  But they have worn me out with all their past scare stories.  And this is before we even consider what must be the most gut-wrenchingly wearisome topic ever invented, carbon emissions trading.  It is something I will leave to those who know better (like my Macau correspondent who kindly informs me that the last African troops were withdrawn from the territory in the 1950s and the crowd-shooting soldiers in 1966 were white Portuguese.)  For example, the person in Ma Wan who has built an ark.
Fri, 20 Mar
Back in the late Devonian-Megalithic period of marketing, a group of executives were sitting around a conference room table letting their lunchtime martinis settle and pondering the poor sales figures of a new product – basically a perfume for men.  If I had been there I would have pointed out that no real man is going to put scent on himself, so let’s just scrap the whole thing and design and sell something people actually want, but of course this is why I am not in marketing.  “We need to convince the consumer that if you don’t use this item, something terrible will happen to you,” one of the executives said.  “So c’mon guys, let’s have some ideas.”

Thus it is that many decades later, on my way to work, I find wild American friend Odell standing outside his neighbourhood branch of Watson’s-your-personal-store, impatiently waiting for it to open at 8am.  When he tells me what it is he needs so urgently, I can only reply, “Why bother?”  I never use it.

“No, you gotta use aftershave, man!  It closes your pores!”  I see.  God forbid that we should walk around with our pores open.  I quiz the ex-Mormon about why we need to close our pores, which were, lest we forget, put there by our Creator for a good reason that requires them to open.  When was the last time you read in the paper about the debilitating effects of the silent killer – open pores?  Where are the Government publicity campaigns urging men to get their annual open-pore screening?  Why don’t women have to close their pores?  Or children, or bearded men?  How come, after all these years of not closing my pores, I remain at least as fit and healthy as anyone else?  I strictly forbid him to move from the spot until he comes up with answers, and I have no doubt that he will still be standing there when I go back home this afternoon.

In the gwailo’s lair on the top floor of S-Meg Tower in the heart of Asia’s leading international financial centre, I flick through the news and my heart sinks like a ton of lead descending into the Mariana Trench.  The Hong Kong Government, in its despair at having 7 million subjects who fail to see the thrill in hosting the East Asian Games non-event in December, introduces a wide range of publicity campaigns that are
as depressing as they are predictable.  Specially painted MTR trains, giant signboards on the North Lantau Highway, a huge wall banner at the border crossing, a new round – in case you missed them before – of roving exhibitions and a cruel-sounding brainwashing programme in schools.  Recalcitrant citizens will be bludgeoned with a 200-day countdown activity, to be followed by a 100-day countdown torch relay in August.

Next thing, a recently manufactured, angelic-faced Cantopop star with an apparent IQ in the low 70s will be appointed East Asian Games Ambassador, take part in condescending ribbon-cutting stunts alongside faux-grinning senior officials and appear on childish posters before photos of her smoking dope and having sex appear on a million websites. 

It is more punishment than anything else.  “You refuse to join in the pretence that it is a matter of great pride, honour and joy to throw tax dollars away on this dim-witted sports gathering,” our leaders spit at us, “therefore you will suffer.”  By late November, the entire population will be under strict orders to be happy and eager.  Any remaining dissidents still refusing to wave furry mascots and jump up and down with manic grins will be visited by the Boundless Cheer Enforcement Squad of the Secret Police armed with pots of lucky gold paint, and have their pores closed…
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