Hemlock's Diary
6-12 Jan 2008
Mon, 7 Jan
Up early, eager to start five full days of work for the first time in several festivity-infested weeks, I greet the temporary resident emerging from my apartment’s uninvited guest room.  He is en-route from Australia to the UK, and it is not his fault, I suppose, that when someone said “Hemlock will put you up for a couple of days in Hong Kong,” he did not interpret it to mean “don’t freeload off others, stay in a hotel.”  Pleading a backlog of work and crushing social schedule, I have barely crossed paths with him over the weekend, and he is flying out later today.  Since I won’t be seeing him again, he has insisted on buying me breakfast in a wonderful place he has discovered.

We glide down the Mid-Levels Escalator as far as Life, the organic restaurant where most of the food is brown, and stroll down an alleyway leading into Soho’s colonic irrigation and foot massage district, emerging at the New Age Shop, where
Gossamer Cooney, spiritual midwife and soul traveler, was recently assisting souls in birthing their higher bodies.
“Oh brill!”  The uninvited guest licks his lips and pulls me into the Flying Pan, the world’s most popular Filipino-staffed 24-hour greasy British breakfast emporium.  I have been dreading this moment since the place opened several years back.  If the unwitty name is not warning enough, the logo, with its powerful imagery of cholesterol and salmonella, sends an unambiguous message to right-thinking people that this is a place to avoid.

Partly because it will confuse my slightly disorientated companion, and partly because I don’t mind it when visiting the Appalachian Hemlocks and you never see it in Hong Kong, I order grits – American congee – plus a plate of fresh fruit.  The uninvited guest drools as he points to the nastiest looking picture on a largely horrifying menu.  I must now sit and watch him put this into his mouth.
When it comes, the plate is huge and piled high.  On one side is a pair of vast sausages, like leftover props from a sick porno movie, slightly singed on one side, glistening oil oozing from their pores.  Then there is the bacon – thick, pink and shiny, with puffy, raw-looking strips of white fat.  Two fried eggs lie sunny side up, their yolks sagging into lipid pools.  It says something that the most edible-looking items are the disks of black pudding, which I believe are made with oatmeal to bind the pig’s blood in a halfway palatable-looking form.  Then, to crown this culinary achievement, the uninvited guest pours on diarrhea-slippery, glutinous, orange globules from a separate cup – Heinz baked beans, the British variety with sugar as the main ingredient of the slime enveloping the half-dissolved haricots.  At this point, my instinct to look away is overcome by that force that makes us look at roadside pile-ups to see if there are any corpses.  Without having tasted anything, my breakfast-mate starts shaking salt all over the garish heap, not missing a square inch.  And then again.  Traumatized by the sight, the smell and the sounds, I finally turn my head and stare out of the window, secure in the knowledge that this is as bad as it can get.  Or so I assume.  Then, out of the corner of my eyes, I see him reach for a bottle marked HP.  It is a viscous, tar-like version of Worcestershire sauce, and it plops out in thick, thumb-size drops, two or three for every delicacy.

On the opposite table, a couple with broad but largely comprehensible northern English accents discuss in great detail how Wigan beat Sunderland at something, breaking the scintillating narrative only to cram white toast layered with butter and marmalade into their orifices.  Next door, they are getting ready to welcome renowned Cherokee shaman
Daniel Darby, who calls crystals ‘stone people’ and performs symbolic acts to change our thinking patterns.  An uninvited guest, finding himself lost in this most mentally diseased part of Soho, finishes his grits and flees.

Tue, 8 Jan
Do the two front-page stories in today’s papers have more in common than meets the eye?  In one, businesswoman, General Chamber of Commerce chairman, Liberal Party member, member of the Chief Executive Election Committee, and sitter on the usual array of committees and boards Lily Chiang is
charged with alleged conspiracy to defraud and making false statements by the Independent Commission Against Corruption.  In the other, the Hong Kong Government has signed a new regulatory regime with the city’s two electricity monopolies to cut power bills and reduce the amount of profit they gouge out of their customers.
Both events go against the grain of the Big Lychee’s traditional way of doing things.  The ICAC has for many years concentrated on small-scale graft among low-ranking public- and private-sector personages no-one has ever heard of.  The reason, of course, is that our establishment figures are all of such impeccable integrity that it would be a waste of public resources to monitor them.  The decisions made by officials that enable well-connected companies to build bigger-than-planned towers, gain special exemption from corporate governance strictures, win contracts for bridges no-one uses and get minor slaps on the wrist for selling poisonous food all have rational, above-board explanations and are not, say, linked to the jobs those companies give those officials after retirement.  So the ICAC’s decision to haul Lily Chiang up is a surprise.

Similarly, the Hong Kong Government’s dedication to protecting consumer rights and encouraging enterprise and competition by fighting collusion, cartelization, price-fixing and monopoly has for a long time been less than total.  From supermarkets to housing to construction materials to transport to fuel to food imports and much else, markets in this bastion of laissez-faire are rigged in such a way as to benefit a small handful of conglomerates run by tycoons whose families got rich through real estate.  The bureaucrats who run the city – themselves unaccustomed to competition in their own trade of policymaking – have never shown the slightest inclination to side with the community as a whole when private and public interests clash.  So the decision to cut the profits made by Li Ka-shing’s Hong Kong Electric and Michael Kadoorie’s China Light and Power is also something of a wonder.
Admittedly, this apparent change of course is limited.  The Lily Chiang case goes back a long way, and enforcement agencies have sniffed around members of the great and good occasionally in the past, though with no results.  And the power companies will still be guaranteed a 10 (in all fairness, 9.99) percent annual return on invested capital, which is a lot better than having to work for a living.  But, as Johnson might have said, the Hong Kong Government putting its cronies on an equal footing with commoners is like a dog walking on his hind legs – it is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.  Perhaps this is part of our Chief Executive’s new year’s resolution for 2008.  No more favouritism for insiders.  No more sweeping dubious goings-on under the carpet.  No more connivance with tycoons and tolerance of conspiracies against the consumer.  No more pigs walking on all fours when they could sprout wings and soar into the skies.
Wed, 9 Jan
The judiciary join in Hong Kong’s 2008, exciting, new-look Government For The People,
declaring the radio station licensing regime to be an infringement of the Basic Law, Magna Carta, and so on.  As with the ICAC charging Lily Chiang with fraud and the regulators paring back the electricity monopolies’ profits, there is something of Dr Sam’s dog on hind legs about it.  The court decided that the Chief Executive’s power to withhold permission to broadcast is a possible threat to freedom of speech.  However, the ruling came from a humble magistrate, more accustomed to dealing with juvenile triads or peddlers of fake shark’s fin than weighty constitutional issues, and it was suspended after officials claimed it would cause chaos on the air waves before an appeal took place. 

Thanks to the Government’s enthusiasm for competition, only one of the two companies licensed to broadcast commercial radio in this city of 7 million is owned by Li Ka-shing’s empire.  Officially, there are no available channels for more than the existing range of 13 stations because additional frequencies would cause interference.  Most people assume this means the signals would disrupt those of stations in Shenzhen, but in fact, with all these mountains in the way, it would be easy for many parts of Hong Kong, especially the basin around the harbour, to accommodate quite a few low-power FM broadcasters, let alone digital ones.  The interference here would be to the duopoly’s profits and to officials’ right to decide who gets on air – and who could say which of these two horrors is worse?
Does the idea of a retired former Chairman of HSBC and the HK General Chamber of Commerce having a blog bring Johnson’s bipedal canines to mind yet again?  David Eldon on Lily Chiang and the Chamber of Horrors.

Thurs, 10 Jan
I never realized that the United Nations has its own team of economists.  In my naivety, I vaguely imagined that the soothsayers of UNESCO, the WTO, the World Bank, the IMF, the regional development banks, private-sector banks, central banks, finance ministries, public-sector space-wasters like our very own HK Trade Development Council, universities and think-tanks give us all the GDP forecasts we could possibly need.  The UN, I absent-mindedly assumed, had its hands full appointing Libya and Cuba to head human rights commissions, debating hairball resolutions that don’t resolve anything and driving around deserts in white, four-wheel drive Toyotas looking macho.  But I was wrong.  The man with the calculator and sky-blue beret is one Rob Vos, the last remaining member of his exalted profession to pontificate on the chances of a US recession this year.  The odds,
he reveals with a self-assured boldness bordering on rashness – 50-50.  Good to see him so sure about that.
This, by amazing coincidence, is the same degree of possibility that horses participating in the extremely exciting equestrian events in the Olympics later this year right here in the Big Lychee will collapse in the sweltering, humid, sub-tropical sulphurous heat and die – their big brown eyes rolling in agony and their mighty, silken torsos quivering uncontrollably while a terrifying gurgling sounds deep within their throats.  The last time I saw a dead horse, it had already bloated into a sort of mammalian balloon, its puffed-up legs sticking out into the air.  Not long after reaching this stage, I am told, they explode without warning, sending a shower of putrefying flesh and a cloud of noxious-smelling gas over passing UN Toyotas and anyone else unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity.  Hong Kong has enough quality of life challenges as it is.  So hats off to the plucky Swiss dressage team for having the guts to see the stupidity of this whole exercise and announce that will stay at home, feeding chocolate to the cuckoos they keep in their clocks and dressing up in leather shorts to go for brisk walks in the pure, cool alpine air.  May others follow their example.

Quote of the day must surely be from ICAC-harassed Lily Chiang, who tells the
South China Morning Post, “I think this case will take up a lot of my personal time.”  In the estimation of an only-mildly despicable lawyer I met on the Mid-Levels Escalator this morning, she is right – around five years, to be exact.
Fri, 11 Jan
After Beijing handed down its decree that Hong Kong could have something called universal suffrage in 2017-20 on condition it wasn’t really universal suffrage, exasperated Civic Party boss Ronny Tong more or less called for a general strike or some other form of mass action or civil disobedience.  Although it failed to strike the slightest hint of a chord among the population, the idea alarmed our dedicated senior officials, who, beneath their confident, manly exteriors, are nervous and panic-prone wrecks, possibly even suffering a slight crisis of conscience over the role they are playing as collaborators in the Communist suppression of their home town. 

This explains the authorities’ hilariously
timid response to Citizens’ Radio’s blatantly illegal broadcast from the middle of a crowded street using a transmitter with no licence on 102.8 FM.  Following, maybe unwittingly, in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and the Star Ferry Pier protestors, our pro-democrats might just be developing a way to pressure the Government that actually works.  Incessant, ill-attended marches have had their day, petitions are a waste of trees, and judicial reviews are expensive and applicable only in some narrow circumstances.  Can anyone imagine the Government jailing yesterday’s broadcasters while sticking by its current restrictive media licensing regime?  The headlines in the overseas press don’t bear thinking about, though I suppose we could all use a few weeks’ break from Emily Lau.  Employed selectively and skillfully as a form of asymmetric attack, civil disobedience by the opposition could be the Hong Kong leadership’s biggest nightmare.  Fortunately for those in power, the words ‘skillfully’ and ‘pro-democrats’ don’t often appear together.
AN INTRIGUING advertisement for the Standard appears this morning in… the Standard.  The slogan ‘Most read by the mass elite’ implies a have-cake-and-eat-it-too attitude on the part of the paper – I like that.  The picture suggests that a women carrying a copy of Sing Tao’s English organ will look sexy and desirable.  The SCMP had a similar campaign many years ago, featuring a black-stockinged, long-haired, overseas-educated-looking, professional type of girl.  The Standard has chosen a slightly podgy public housing estate bunny – one a bit past her prime at that.  Leering at her is a spiky, ginger-haired consumer of hamburgers and Coke – a real estate agent, to be precise – sporting a nasty striped shirt with striped tie, which may or may not be acceptable these days.  Aside from being a bit old for him, the bunny has an engagement ring.  I notice these things.  Which is why I’m not a real estate agent.  Still, I am impressed.  If anyone deserves a pat on the head for wearing their target market demographic on their sleeves, it’s the Standard.
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