Hemlock's Diary
29 July-4 August 2007
Mon, 30 July
The working week gets off to an instructive and thought-provoking start in the IFC Mall branch of Pacific Coffee, where wild American friend Odell is consoling Terry, stalwart of the Hong Kong Association of Gwailos Married to Southeast Asian Women of Humble Origins.  Terry, not exactly to the manor born himself, seems slightly ill at ease in the palatial magnificence of the place, stuffing his pockets with sachets of sugar and wondering at the free Internet access.  Most of all, he is a troubled man and needs to share his woes.

As with many Association members, his wife is his second, following a disastrous union with a woman from and in the UK, referred to simply as ‘the bitch’, who relieved him of his house, savings and children.   His current spouse is a Filipina who was working as an entertainer (or bar hostess, or – well, we just don’t go there) in Tokyo when they met.  She is somewhat but not stomach-churningly younger than he is, and also has children from a previous liaison.  He shows us a photo of a sweet-looking, grinning, teenage girl with braces in her teeth.

“The cosmetic dentistry costs enough,” he mutters, before revealing the full extent of Uncle Terry’s plight.  It is a story of things like college tuition fees that wound up being spent on some sort of nose surgery, constant requests for the latest mobile phone, bills for the hiring of karaoke machines, and tickets for shopping trips to Hong Kong with her extremely close girlfriend.  “Thank Christ for lesbianism,” Terry says.  “Her mum was pregnant by that age.”  The shopping trips predictably entail financial carnage, though on an endearingly Filipino scale – the most up-market store they ransack being Giordano, whose tatty T-shirts are considered a status symbol in Manila. 

The young lady’s profligacy has now shifted up a gear.  Terry, believing yet another promise to be sensible, sent her 50,000 pesos to set up a small business.  “Making ice cream, or something.”  To augment this seed capital, she did what any hard-headed entrepreneur would do – she went to the casino.  After losing it, she pawned her own and several friends’ telecommunications gizmos and jewellery, thus raising another 50,000, which went the same way.  She has now vanished, while friends and their parents try to hunt her down. 

Maybe she’ll flee to Hong Kong, I suggest.  “Where would she get the money?” Terry fires back.  “Anyway, I’ll bloody shoot her before she gets off the plane, like that Aquino bloke.  Assuming her mother doesn’t get her hands on her first!”  I nod understandingly.  The first time I visited the Philippines was just after the aforementioned Benigno’s widow Cory had become President and the exchange rate was roughly 20 pesos to US$1.  Since then it has fallen to 45, meaning the 100,000 squandered and borrowed pesos represent around HK$15,000.  Still, there is nothing endearingly small about such a sum to Terry, who was proudly boasting not long ago that his salary had just reached the level at which Hong Kong salaries tax kicks in. 

Longstanding assumptions are confirmed.  If my feeling about the concept of marriage is
Why?, re-marriage is a matter of pure bafflement.  Maybe the genetic flaw behind the triumph of hope over marital experience is the same one that keeps casino pawnbrokers in business.  And, as ever – life would be unbearable were it not for the misery of our friends.
Tue, 31 July
Crazed fanatics or publicity geniuses?  Going on hunger strike and writing banners using their own blood, the
protesters fighting the demolition of Queen’s Pier are bothering our balefully bullheaded bureaucrats brilliantly.  I make this point to voluptuous Administrative Officer Winky Ip over breakfast of congee and noodles in the Foreign Correspondents Club, and she winces slightly by way of agreement.  Assuming a last-minute, and probably pointless, court action fails, the authorities could execute an eviction order as early as midnight. 

“TV crews, press, citizen journalists – they’ll all be there,” I tell her.  “You’ll have screaming activists being dragged away, biting cops’ hands, lying down in front of their vans.  Like the Star Ferry Pier all over again.”

“I’m sure the police will find a neater, calmer way to do it,” Winky says.  “And anyway, if these protestors get violent, they certainly won’t have public opinion behind them.” 

Looking ahead, I give her a longer-term scenario.  The Green Paper on constitutional reform works as planned, and the community finally gets the message that real universal suffrage simply isn’t going to happen.  Chattering classes and activists turn their attention to specific issues – the building of a monster tower, a hike in hospital fees – rather than theoretical ideals.  These things affect people’s lives, and their civil disobedience and other stunts raise awareness and attract more and more public support. 

“Next thing,” I conclude, “you’ve got old women being chewed up by police dogs and kids being hosed down by the Fire Department.”

Winky puts down her chopsticks and gives me one of her extra special, Hong Kong Civil Service looks of extreme condescension – 20 percent pity, 20 percent thinly disguised exasperation and 60 percent outright, arrogant disdain, as taught to all our high-flying bureaucrats in their first year on the job.  “Do you really think we haven’t thought about that?” she asks.  She reaches into her Balenciaga bag and pulls out a plain document,
From Consultation to Civic Engagement: The Road to Better Policy-making and Governance in Hong Kong, courtesy of our visionary Chief Executive’s friends at the Bauhinia Foundation.  “No more deciding things behind closed doors.  Genuine public input right from the start.  Mutual trust between the administration and the community.  Harmony and peace throughout the Special Administrative Region.  Donald Tsang and his team of dedicated officials deliver Beijing-friendly government of the people and by the people.”  I glance out of the window.  A flock of wild boars soars across the clear blue sky.
Wed, 1 Aug
It is more expensive to live in places where you can earn tons of money.  This
amazing discovery comes to us courtesy of the Asian Development Bank.  I would have thought that, being based in Manila, the ADB would have noticed by now that those parts of the world where food, shelter and indeed life itself are much cheaper, and a Giordano T-shirt is a mark of prestige, happen to be the same spots where opportunities to earn wealth are smaller and fewer. 

Using a purchasing power indicator known as ‘actual final consumption of households’ (AFCH), the ADB survey reveals that the Big Lychee comes top in Asia (ex-Japan) in terms of the value of goods and services we buy to stuff into our fat faces, wear with an air of studied insouciance, drive badly around the streets, or talk about loudly.  No less than HK$125,000 worth a year.  This compares with HK$14,000 in the Philippines – except perhaps in the Mandaluyong district of the nation’s capital, where the economists working for a certain international institution aimed vaguely at reducing regional poverty are on globally competitive salaries in US Dollars.
It is a measure of the public spirit and dedication of the ADB staff that they see fit to include Fiji in Asia, presumably heading all the way out there personally to research families’ groceries bills.  And they find that the sun-kissed Polynesian paradise is the only place in Greater Asia that manages to be more expensive than Hong Kong.  However, its attractions as a place to get rich are limited, with a per capita real AFCH of HK$25,000, compared with Thailand’s HK$29,000.  Fiji is 7 percent pricier than Hong Kong, while the Land of Smiles is a fat 46 percent cheaper. 

I would be intrigued to know how and why Fiji commands such a premium.  Thailand has much the same ingredients.  Coconuts?  Check.  Sandy beaches?  Check.  Grinning people?  Check.  Military coups?  Check.  Could it be that small islands are more expensive because everything has to be imported?  This is the explanation I received in a couple of overpriced Caribbean spots I once visited.  They were infested with loud tourists in loud clothing who were drunkenly convinced they were enjoying themselves – though to me, sand is sand, brine is brine, and smiling exotic locals aggressively hawking more grotesque apparel do not add any value.  In short, they had succumbed to a post-Gauguin century of propaganda and believed it can’t be a rip-off if there are idyllic palm trees swaying in the warm breeze.  As final proof of my thesis, I would point to the fact that I live on a small island where everything has to be imported, and I know that from the Caine Road 7-Eleven down to Graham Street Market, a few dollars can go a long way.

RUPERT MURDOCH buys Dow Jones, and I am privileged to be sent an advance copy of tomorrow's edition of the best reported, best edited and visually most Victorian newspaper in the world.... 
Thurs, 2 Aug
There is a higher purpose in human existence than making money – but what exactly is it?  It’s not watching entire episodes of
Kojak on YouTube.  Or The Monkees, or HR Pufnstuf, or Tonari no Totoro

If I were a civil servant, it would be Serving The Community.  In exchange for a mere pension for life, subsidized housing, preferential public health care, overseas education allowance for the kids, air conditioning allowance and a (non-flashy, mid-range) chauffeur-driven car for official duties only, I would work tirelessly encouraging the disadvantaged to be more self-reliant, or planning six-lane highways through historic neighbourhoods. 

If I were a member of the property cartel, it would be Putting Something Back Into The Community.  And what an accurate description that is.  After years of skimming wealth created by others off the economy with the help of a certain incline at one end of the otherwise oh-so level playing field, I would donate 10 percent of my hoard to a worthy but highbrow cause and get a Gold Bauhinia Medal and the adoration of the public along with the full naming rights.
But I am not a member of our spiritually minded elite, so I must content myself with monitoring my portfolio while waiting for something less worldly to come along.  And the Hemlock Fund is mostly in rude health, with its solid foundation of HSBC, Swire, Manulife and Stanchart continuing years of steady growth and dividend production, while the smaller, wackier holdings in ASM Pacific, Fujikon, Petrochina and such like are sitting on three-digit gains of up to 700 percent.  Strange rumblings out there have dissuaded me from putting too much extra money into stocks for a while.  As a result, I am sitting on small but meaningful piles of Swiss Francs, Euros, Yen, Renminbi and even gold – spreading cash reserves out and waiting for the Big One. 

One day, the markets are soiling themselves and stampeding for the doors in terror as the specters of sub-prime loans derivatives, a US housing market collapse, carry-trade unwinding and reduced appetite for risk loom up over them as if to pounce and devour.  Next day, we are carried up by a surge of confidence just a few basis points shy of exuberance, as consumer sentiment, order books, corporate profit forecasts and interest rate expectations step forward as one to assure us that there is nothing to worry about.  The day after that, and it’s back into the abyss.  Except it’s not – a 2 or 3 percent drop is kids’ stuff.  I want a proper mayhem-style crash – 20 percent minimum, overnight, plus wildly overshooting currency gyrations – the streets awash with blood and lunatic crowds selling whatever they have at below net asset value, thank you very much.  Meanwhile…  Maybe it actually
is watching Totoro.
Fri, 3 Aug
The mood in today’s morning meeting on the top floor of S-Meg Tower is one of barely disguised joy and excitement.  Like school pupils on the last day of term before the long summer vacation, members of the management team trade eager whispers, sniggers and slaps on the back.  The only difference is that we are all staying here. 

The conference room door swings open and the Big Boss appears.  Behind him, three of the company’s Epsilons drag oversize leather suitcases across the carpet of Private Office, past the statue of Buddha placed at an awkward angle for feng-shui purposes, past Ms Fang the scowling, nail-filing, hunter-killer secretary, towards the reception area and the elevators.  The corporate titan walks over, sits at his central place at the rhomboid table and fiddles briefly with the north-facing, ceramic three-legged toad that stands guard before his throne. 

He barks out simple instructions.  In his absence, the Company Gwailo must fax the English newspaper headlines every day with summaries of appropriate stories, to reach him by 9.00 in the morning.  Human Resources Manager and former Gestapo prison guard Ms Doris Pang must pay extra attention to time-keeping among staff.  Although 99 percent of employees have barely ever even set eyes on our Chairman and Managing Director, a sort of moral relaxation seems to trickle down through the dense, multilayered corporate hierarchy when he is not here – or so he imagines.  “…discipline and punishment!” he concludes, wagging his finger at her.  The spotty accountant is given a stern instruction to simply “deal with” the auditors.   The top beancounter’s people have established a camp in a room at the far end of the floor, hanging up hammocks and sleeping bags, plugging in laptops, piling vital supplies of dry rations in boxes, pinning sheets of figures on the wall, arranging thermos flasks, drawing a flow chart on the whiteboard and pumping a primus stove.  By the Big Boss’s return, immaculate and impressive first-half financial results will be ready.

A knock on the door, and the visionary tycoon’s diminutive wife peers round the corner, mouths something impatiently in her husband’s direction and points at her watch.   The rest of us get a glancing, slightly conspiratorial smirk and a wave of the tastefully bejeweled hand as she turns away.  With a “see you all” splutter, the Big Boss gets up and marches out.  He faces two weeks of socializing, sightseeing, wining and dining in a luxury resort and a Southeast Asian crony’s palace, with old friends, various family and in-laws.  He will have no corporate underlings to bark orders at, and visions of management idleness back home will gnaw at him.  He will hate every minute.  Unlike us.