Hemlock's Diary
2-8 September 2007
Sun, 2 Sep
With the Star Ferry and Queen’s Piers reduced to rubble and Central’s last street market headed the same way, which historic remnant of the Big Lychee’s collective memory will be next to go?  The answer, I hear, is Hardy’s, the self-styled folk club that is the last genuine pub in Lan Kwai Fong.  When it closes at the end of the month the ancient institution will follow Yelt’s Inn, Club 64 and – going back a while – Caroline’s into the district’s annals of real, unpretentious watering holes with atmosphere, for better or worse, instead of a cookie-cutter theme. 

The good news is that the cheery British manager and his nubile young Filipino waitresses already have new jobs lined up, dressing as cartoon characters and dancing before the dribble of visitors to Disneyland.  The bad news is that the landlord, having hiked the rent to HK$20 million a week, is thinking of letting the premises to a Hello Kitty skin-whitening cream retail outlet aimed at Mainland tourists, who as we all know, are far more important than mere local residents. 

The irony here is that our friends from across the border will be among the thousands of people of all races, colours and creeds who will miss Hardy’s, which was pretty much the only establishment in the neighbourhood Mainlanders ever set foot in.  The reason for that, I am ashamed to recall, was my own suggestion that the proprietors install karaoke in order to attract customers on Sunday evenings.  The subsequent surge of riffraff into the bar proved my idea to be as correct as it was appalling. 

The chubby cheeked Shenzheners crooning to their sweethearts in Putonghua.  The off-duty maids who helpfully clog up the doorway by turning it into a dance floor.  The low-life Western males who think it is clever to impress Filipinas by singing
Anak in Tagalog.  All these specimens will presumably vanish.  Another cloud, another silver lining.
Mon, 3 Sep
For what must be the thousandth time in the last 10 years, the second-most important group of people who ever grace Hong Kong with their presence – expat businessmen –
threaten to pack their golf clubs, fire their maids, throw out their six-month supply of Baco Bits and ship their bratty drug-abusing kids and deranged homicidal wives back to whichever tax- and crime-ridden land they hail from.  The air pollution has become that bad.

Perhaps this time they really will do it.  Rents in white ghettos like Disco Bay and Parkview will plummet.  International schools will slash their fees or simply shut down.  The restaurants of Soho and Lan Kwai Fong will serve their last overpriced Caucasian-ized tastes of the orient.  We will be wading knee-deep in club debentures, flat screen TVs (as new) and discarded reproduction Korean chests that seemed a good idea at the time. 

But I will believe it when I see it.  It is about as likely as the Hong Kong Government changing its policy of building more and more roads and bridges, in order to encourage more and more traffic, thus creating more and more emissions, which are the predominant cause of the problem in our urban areas.  Our planners will not be satisfied until our highways are crammed with five times as many hulking SUVs (each transporting an ice cream-guzzling prodigy to kindergarten), gleaming Mercedes (each carrying one sour-faced man in a suit or his vole-like
tai-tai but never both together), white Toyota or Lexus saloons (each accommodating a senior civil servant or Government minister for official purposes only), double-decker buses (each with three passengers fast asleep against dandruff-smeared windows), 10-ton trucks (each delivering one small box weighing two pounds), minibuses (each being driven so fast it is impossible to make out who, if anyone, is in it), and taxis for hire unless it is raining.  And the precious international executives will still be here, still vowing – if more asthmatically – to decamp to Singapore, and still being ignored.
Tue, 4 Sep
If there is something deeply pitiful about people who need to cut the price of their product in order to sell it, how should we feel about those who have to give it away for nothing?  This is what the
Standard will be doing as of Monday, when, in the latest in a long line of transformations, it will be relaunched as a free paper.  This will be excellent news for the 12 readers who actually pay for it at the moment, though it may be of less interest to those who view the Internet edition at no charge or pick it up from the piles of complementary copies that appear in certain locations frequented by a highly select few million folk.

Other English-language publications will no doubt sniff that quality content is what drives circulation and thus revenues for them – unlike, perhaps, a large segment of the Chinese-language market, which is so price sensitive that some consumers only buy a morning paper in the afternoon, after the vendors have knocked a dollar off the price.  Thus today’s
Asia Wall Street Journal (HK$15) tells us that HSBC is the world’s third largest bank by market cap, while the South China Morning Post (HK$7) says it is fourth, and the story in the on-line Standard (HK$0) is silent on the matter.  I am too idle to check, but I do know that self-important American media companies have a devotion to fact-checking that borders on obsessive-compulsive disorder, while those staffed by alcohol-fuelled Brits and Aussies take a more relaxed attitude, especially about minor details that are not especially relevant to the story – so third it probably is.  Finding errors in print curiously entertaining, and assuming you get what you pay for, I look forward to Monday’s Standard with a barely healthy, indeed morbid, fascination.
Wed, 5 Sep
On the top floor of S-Meg Tower, Ms Fang the hunter-killer secretary – who by some miracle I have avoided since my return from the Filial Piety Tour – peers into the gwailo’s lair.  “Hemlock!” she exclaims.  “You’re back!”  There are several possible responses to this statement.  No, I could reply, I’m still out of town – this is just a hologram of me.  Or I could say that I am actually Hemlock’s twin brother, and he sent me here to stand in for him for a few months, and please keep it to yourself.  But her dimwitted comment really deserves only silence, which is what it gets.  “I asked everyone, and no-one knew when you’d be back,” she goes on.  “Even the HR Department didn’t know.” 
Even the HR Department?  Yet more evidence that this woman is insane.  They’re the last people I would allow to have any idea of my movements.
The big story today is dashing Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s declaration about how desirable and right it is for people to be able to overthrow despotic or otherwise incompetent governments.  “When, in the course of human events…” etc.  It would be interesting to know what our glorious motherland’s leaders up in Beijing think of the idea, but they will presumably never know what Sir Bow-Tie said.  It was in English to an audience of students, some of them from distant, barbarian lands.  What was interesting, however – and Radio Television Hong Kong captured it on tape – is the exceptionally energetic and confident manner with which he answered questions.  If he wasn’t on speed, he had definitely done a few lines of coke and knocked back a couple of large vodka Red Bulls.  Sure, he said, Hong Kong people are ready for democracy.  No, there’s no shortage of political talent.  Oh, and a minimum wage doesn’t make economic sense.  Thirty minutes of no-nonsense clarity!  So it only happens once every two and a half years.  As Samuel Johnson said of women preaching and dogs walking on their hind legs, you are surprised that it is done at all.
Thurs, 6 Sep
I hate to advocate the use of violence, especially against a small child, but I would be sorely tempted to volunteer for the job of dragging Baptist University’s nine-year-old mathematics genius March Tian Boedihardjo into a corner and giving the insufferable little runt a good slapping for constantly telling us that degree-level work is “too easy” for him.  We can console ourselves with the thought that as his premature development levels off in his teens and his peers catch up with him, the earlier media pressure and his lack of any social skills will come home to roost, and he will descend into depression and alcoholism, ending up by his mid-20s forgotten and living on the streets.  Meanwhile, shut up.
Fri, 7 Sep
The week splutters to a happy end with Sotheby’s having the rare common sense and spine to “shrug off” (as the SCMP puts it) a Mainland official wetting himself about the Chinese people’s feelings being hurt.  Such forthrightness in the face of imperial wrath is reminiscent of the glory days when Chris Patten faced down the dragon single-handed.  The cause of this recent
cry-baby victim act is – not for the first time – the wretched Yuanmingyuan bronze animal heads that British and French forces took during the sacking of Beijing in 1860.  The dozen creatures ringing a Summer Palace zodiac fountain spouted water in sequence as a sort of clock and were admired by the 18th Century Qing rulers who had them made as fine examples of bronze casting technology.

Like the recovery of Taiwan or the adoption of simplified written characters, the acquisition of these sculptures has become Something China Must Do, regardless of whether it makes any sense.  Mainland interests have bought several
already, and the search is on for the rest.  Anyone, like Sotheby’s, coming into contact with them must be berated for, in essence, continuing the looting that the beastly European powers began 150 years back and causing the entire population of the country to break down in a fit of sobbing and breast-beating about foreigners’ ceaseless and brutal ravaging of the helpless and innocent motherland. 

The real question – why are these artworks so damnably ugly? 

The answer is that they are simply copies of gwailo designs.  The Chinese craftsmen’s attempts to reproduce examples of Western realism tragically resulted in facial expressions that strike the viewer as almost mentally subnormal.  Far from being national treasures, they are artless junk – about as worthwhile as an island full of truculent Taiwanese or a written language infested with unrecognizable words.
More recommended holiday reading.