Hemlock's Diary
9-15 September 2007
Sun, 9 Sep
An email from Pui O, the land that time forgot, reminds me of a brief conversation I had one evening years ago sitting in a Central bar favoured largely by non-Westerners.  Next to me, a blonde woman was trying to train a somewhat younger white man to pronounce the peculiar vowel sound in Cantonese words like
yuen, suen, yuet, suet, etc.  I leaned across to the student. 

“Make your mouth round as if you’re going to say ‘owe’,” I advised.  He did.  “Now, without moving your lips at all, try to say ‘eeeeee’.”  And it worked, just as it did in French class all those years ago, when we struggled with the second person singular, ‘tu’.

Helped by this dazzling pedagogical method, the lady subsequently became Hong Kong’s leading Norwegian
teacher of Cantonese, and an occasional broadcaster, writer and what I will call ‘good-time gal’, the thesaurus failing to provide anything more delicate.   And now she has a blog, complete with photos of young men that might send female readers wild with lust (or, I suspect, not – but who am I to say?) each under the headline ‘dude’.   Pronounced, of course, dued.
Mon, 10 Sep
“Look Muffy – a free newspaper for us!”  The non-Chinese reading masses pouring down the Mid-Levels Escalator squeal with delight as the wizened crones who dole out
AM730 and Metro thrust copies of the new-look Standard at them.  Eagerly flicking through the pages, they soon find the paper to be an acceptable, if limited and brief, read.  In other words, like all free papers.  But it is also, in substance, no different from its predecessor.  Thus, it becomes clear, the Standard has in fact been a free paper all along – it’s just that no-one noticed. 

With that excitement over, Hong Kong’s hard-working and clean-living middle classes continue gliding down towards the gilded palaces of commerce in Central in which they create the wealth that keeps the Big Lychee’s bloated Government bureaucracy, rapacious cartel-owning tycoons and indolent and parasitic public housing tenants in the comfort to which they are accustomed.  The big debate today is Anson Chan.  Will she run in the by-election for the Hong Kong Island Legislative Council seat left vacant by the death of Ma Lik?

We all agree that she seems to be waiting.  Partly for her former Civil Service colleague Regina Ip to confirm that she will run, but mainly to see whether the pro-democracy rabble are capable of nominating her cleanly and efficiently, without collapsing into an embarrassing heap of squabbling juveniles.  Regina, for all her forceful personality and hairstyling, has nailed her colours to the pro-Beijing mast and would be an easy opponent to beat in the wealthiest, most cosmopolitan, educated, liberal-bourgeois, pro-universal suffrage electoral district in town.  Loyal supporters of the patriotic cause are scarce on this side of the harbour – a few crotchety old Fujianese in North Point, some shabby old Chiu Chow moneygrubbers in Western and that’s about it.  But someone among the pro-democrats will always seek and find some highly principled reason to undermine the chance of an easy victory.

As the commuters reach the end of the magic moving walkway over Queens Road, we conclude that an Anson-versus-Regina race would be fun.  The Democratic Alliance for the Blah Blah of Hong Kong see the saintly Chan as a former running dog of the colonial regime, yet, in Ip, their Mainland masters will be imposing just such a one on them.  Ever since the handover, they have been kicked in the teeth for their devotion to the Communist Party – forced to support an incompetent capitalist tycoon and then a smug knight of the imperialist British realm as Chief Executive.  It doesn’t say much for the pro-democrats that they, too, have to resort to an opportunistic ex-bureaucrat for want of a more viable candidate who is willing to run. 

What does the
Standard have to say about it all?  Several of us run back up the steps to retrieve our copies from the garbage bins.  Scowling scourge of suffragists Xu Simin has died.  That’s a fact.  But on Anson, no – the free sheet doesn’t offer its readers long-winded, abstract and idle conjecture.  For that, you have to pay.
Tue, 11 Sep
Raymond Wu of ‘dog biscuits ‘ fame, then DAB boss Ma Lik, and now the grumpy and venomous Xu Simin.  It would be tempting to think a higher intelligence is at work here, pushing the buttons that consign leading members of the pro-communist patriotic community to the grave as retribution for their undisguised loathing of Hong Kong and its people.  The fading of such dinosaurs into history does not, however, mean the Almighty is on the side of the oppressed masses.  As unreconstructed, black-hearted throwbacks disappear, the remaining pro-Beijing camp looks altogether more modern and presentable, especially given the gradual infiltration of the city’s bureaucratic caste into its traditional down-market, greasy haired ranks.  The Good Book –
the other one, that is – vaguely predicted the development of an alliance between the former colonial running dogs and the patriots as the Big Lychee’s natural ruling order, and it would appear God agrees.

And who can doubt His good judgement?  When it comes to visionary activity, Hong Kong’s leaders make the creator of light, the heavens, Earth, waters, plants, winged birds and creeping things in six days look hands-off.  Much to the
alarm of the city’s impossible-to-please, mainly gwailo, chattering classes, the Government increases its stake in Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing.  The logic would appear to be something along these lines…
#   Since 1997, Hong Kong has become a pathetic and useless place with no hope for the future save the careful guidance of its genius senior Civil Servants
# The Mainland stock market is undergoing a massive bubble, with prices doubling every year, not least because many of the listed companies have abandoned their original businesses in favour of stock trading
#   With the help of cooperation, partnership, occasional use of big words like ‘arbitrage’ and bare-faced, stomach-churning pleading, shoe-shining and mewling like kittens, Hong Kong officials might be able to induce China’s leaders to let their hopeless city have a bit of this bubble for itself, so stock prices will zoom up here too and everyone will be rich and happy without actually doing any work, like before the handover, and everyone will pat these great statesmen on the head and say how clever they are running Hong Kong better than the British.  At last.
And on the second day they said, “Let there be an Islamic bond market!”

Wed, 12 Sep
The blessed Anson declares her intention to run, but – the breathless headline on the Standard’s front page notwithstanding – the cold and austere Regina is yet to follow suit.  Like her former boss, the former Security Secretary did appear on the radio this morning.  But she eschewed Conscience Chan’s warm and cuddly style, choosing instead to refuse to answer a range of reasonably simple questions with a menacing curtness that roused feelings in the listener on a totally different plane.  “Which of the two would you rather have representing you in the Legislative Council?” is an easy question to answer.  But so is “Which of the two would you rather have chain you to a wall, in uniform and boots, physically brutalizing you?”

Meanwhile, Hong Kong officials launch a major counter-attack on the deluded foreign bores who dare to question the brilliance of the decision to increase their holding in Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing.  The
Standard gets an interview with Financial Services Secretary Chan Ka-keung, who explains that the move is in line with the “Action Agenda on China’s 11th Five-Year Plan and the Development of Hong Kong.”  So the nationalization of the bourse is required as part of a Stalinist system of economic centralization, along with targets for tractor production and collectivization of peasants’ cabbage patches.  My eyes roll with exasperation – why didn’t they just say so in the first place?
The Wall Street Journal Asia, on the other hand, gets half its front page and the entire back page hijacked by Government spin doctors.  While bearing the same byline as yesterday’s far more skeptical report, today’s story lauds the far-sightedness of our policymakers, quoting such authoritative sources as “a person familiar with the matter,” and – I have no doubt at all – totally convincing the world’s movers and shakers that we are not being led by panicking incompetents who are out of their depth.
The Government’s thinking becomes clearer.  Hong Kong is doomed as a financial centre because the Mainland has gone from having too little capital to too much, and since 1997 our city has mysteriously been transformed into a place that is too weak and pitiful to get out and find new business without having its hand held and everything given to it on a plate.  If we can partially merge our stock exchange with Shanghai’s we can skim some of their deals off.  What would Shanghai get in return?  Hmmm...  Rummaging around at the back of the drawer, we can find some exposure to our amazing international expertise!  Those bumpkins up there need that, right?  Failing that, we can always rely on vast amounts of groveling in Beijing, begging for a bit of trade, like the ugliest prostitute at the end of the night – “Hey, darling, fancy a healthy release of pent-up, potentially dangerous domestic liquidity?”

Is it a coincidence that my
Wall Street Journal Asia this morning was also handed to me, gratis, by one of the wizened crone free-newspaper brigade?

Thurs, 13 Sep
“I’ve got a theory,” I tell delectable Administrative Officer Winky Ip as we tuck into old Mrs Ng’s fish congee at Yuet Yuen Restaurant.  “And that is – the Government’s ceaseless search for new roles for the Hong Kong economy is actually a search to find new roles for itself.”  This is such a pithy and clever comment, especially at this time in the morning, she cannot fail to be impressed.  However, I get a dismissive glance, followed by a hint of a smile.  She has just attended her six-monthly Condescending Stare Refresher Course, she says, rising to step out the door and make a phone call. 

A file sits invitingly on the table.  My mother always told me that looking at someone else’s private papers was loathsome, dirty and immoral.  To which I would add – usually boring.  But my attitude is that if you leave it on the table, you probably want me to take a peek.  And, without wishing to sound too Rumsfeldian, I want to know what I think you want me to know, though of course I don’t want you to know that I know what that is.  So, while making a great show of dabbing chili sauce onto noodles with the chopsticks in my visible hand, I idly browse the sheaf of documents.  Most of it is predictably dull – an application for an increase in air-conditioning allowance, for example.  Two things stand out.
First is a before-and-after-shot of the West Kowloon Cultural District, illustrating – in all its glory – the creativity and vibrancy that will facilitate diversity in arts and culture resulting from this community-driven and people-oriented project.  And critics claim the plan lacks a concrete cultural policy vision!
The second is the form teachers have to fill in for the Education Bureau Schools’ 2007 Barbarian Count, which takes place next week.   World cities like New York and London have inner-city schools where kids from 80 different nations learn under one roof.  This student census will find out whether the Big Lychee can match them.  For our purposes, Mongolians and Tibetans are counted as Chinese.  English or Australians are classed as white – unless, perhaps, they are black, in which case they will be classed as hak yan, along with all the happy smiling Haitians and Somalis that make classrooms in the Education Bureau’s schools such cosmopolitan places.
A JEWISH-BORN convert to Islam would surely fit in with no problem among Hong Kong’s multicultural society, teeming as it does with all the Germans, Jamaicans, Moroccans and Latin Americans that have graduated from our Government’s halls of learning.  One such person (well, educated overseas) proclaims his empathy with and understanding of the Big Lychee in a new book – Hong Kong On Air – which captures the atmosphere of 1997 so well it thoroughly deserves its (mostly) positive review.
Fri, 14 Sep
Like sharks attracted by the smell of blood in the water, chattering trouble-makers swarm around the Hong Kong Government’s increased stake in HKEx.  After its pro-interventionist
petit mal on Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal Asia finds its ideological bearings again and spies a Beijing takeover of the Big Lychee’s bourse.  It is joined by The Economist, which sees clout for the Mainland authorities as a quid pro quo for IPOs, privileged access to investment funds and other free lunches that will spare Hong Kong the nightmarish horrors of having to compete.
Ronald Arculli, whose esteemed person warms the seats of more Government boards and committees than many realize exist, raises the stakes in this clash of dogmas by visualizing a stock trading platform straddling a border, on one side of which the free flow of capital exists, on the other side of which it does not.  As well as offering handouts of listings and hot money, this theoretically impossible arrangement also seems to appeal to officials’ minds because after NYSE, Nasdaq, London and Tokyo, it would rank proudly and gloriously as the fifth biggest exchange in the entire solar system.

Few things make Hong Kong bureaucrats salivate so much as the idea of getting their city at or near the top of a list.  It is the instinct that drives the obsession with hubs (cultural, creative, tech, Chinese medicine, health care, etc).  For evidence that this is a sign of low self-esteem, desperation, stupidity and general patheticness, we need look no further than Singapore, whose despotic rulers decreed years ago that their humble subjects must henceforth donate some of their hard-earned wealth to foreign exchange traders – in the form of tax breaks – to entice the money changers to the Lion City from (not least) Hong Kong.  Magically, Singapore rose up the ranks of global forex centres.  To celebrate, citizens were allowed to dance on bar tops and look at
Cosmopolitan for a day before canings resumed.
The logic is that being higher up the list makes you more successful.  This is where the Big Lychee’s policymakers and their critics part ways.  Success, claim the detractors, makes you higher up the list – not the other way round.  And success comes through hard work, risk-taking, freedom of choice, freedom of action, minimal tax or other burdens and, preferably, decent English, common law and a good accountant.  It is not a coincidence that the chattering critics are gwailos, representatives of Hong Kong’s old colonial oppressors, who cared so little about the city that they took no action to improve its economic well-being, relying instead on the reckless and idle policy known as Laissez-Faire. 

Having finally tossed out all the dusty old gin bottles left behind by the Brits, the city’s new regime are now getting to grips with disposing of positive non-interventionism.  The half-Romanian Executive Council member CY Leung describes reliance on market forces as “risky.”  Other notables in the new order have hailed the chance for Chinese to prove they can do a better job than their hands-off predecessors.  The gwailos hurling abuse about intervention have their own agenda.  Everyone knows foreigners want to keep China down.  The argument goes beyond economic principle.

I DECLARE the weekend open and devoid of bureaucratic guidance.
More recommended holiday reading.