Hemlock's Diary
16-22 September 2007
Mon, 17 Sep
Rummaging through piles of festering marriage proposals, Hello Kitty refrigerator magnets and half-full packs of Nice Day tissues in Perpetual Opulence Mansions yesterday, I came across my trusty old MP3 player – a free gift holding a grand total of 128 megabytes of music, with a pair of earplug-type speakers on leads.  Still some power left in the battery.  Out of curiosity this morning, I don the equipment to remind myself why I used it only a few times.  “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream,” the man
sings as I glide down the Mid-Levels Escalator.  Now I remember.  First, the speakers are uncomfortable, squeezed some way up the auditory canal where foreign objects plainly don’t belong.  Second, the dangling leads are irritating.  Third, you can’t hear anything happening around you, which is unnerving and could make you miss a shouted warning of approaching danger or a once-in-a-lifetime offer of some sort.  Fourth, you can’t concentrate on things you would like to think about.  Fifth, you look really stupid.  The little box and its tangle of wires now rests on a shelf in the gwailo’s lair on the top floor of S-Meg Tower, and as I write is burying itself in a nest of newspaper clippings, very boring people’s business cards and half-full packs of Nice Day tissues.
Faced with continuing criticism from free-market obsessed Westerners for the decision to raise its stake in Hong Kong’s publicly listed stock exchange, the Big Lychee’s Government turns to ever more desperate verbal output presumably intended to justify its mysterious action.  Would Confucius have agreed that the wise ruler knows better how to allocate capital than the citizens who earned it?  Would he have accepted that such a gifted leader also knows better how to run a private-sector company than its management and owners?  The Hong Kong Monetary Authority’s boss Joseph Yam is not sure.  As the manager of the Hong Kong Government’s bloated reserves, he is arguably on dangerous ground quoting the ancient philosopher as saying, “The vicious ruler accumulates wealth…” But he seems confident enough to declare that compared with the great sage of the Middle Kingdom, “Adam Smith pales in significance in the field of economics.”  Culture war is declared.
Tue, 18 Sep
A lovely morning – the sun’s rays straining with eventual success to claw their way through the suspended particulates, taking the yellowy, sulphurous edge off the haze and casting sufficient shadow to make the outlines of the tower blocks apparent from the other side of the harbour.  Turner would have loved it.  For every precious expatriate whining about his kids’ asthma and making an apocryphal transfer to Singapore, another dozen rush in, groping eagerly through the nitrous oxide fumes for the 16 percent maximum salaries tax they came for.
Which is why the hand-wringing gwailos and bananas at Civic Exchange are surely wasting their time imagining that the Hong Kong Government is going to pay any heed to their latest impertinence – a suggestion that we follow Los Angeles and London and clamp down on dirty ships and trucks and introduce road pricing.  Our visionary Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s core economic policies revolve around increased air pollution. 

We must have more and more Mainland tourists being bussed around town.  When all 1.3 billion of them are coming here every month, we will step up efforts to make their visits weekly.  We must have more and more trucks carrying containers back and forth across the border.  Whatever the commercial or logistical logic of shipping goods direct from Shenzhen, we must expand our port.  Most of all, we must build and build more roads and more bridges so more SUVs and more delivery vehicles have more space to go round and round in more circles all day long.  And we must cram more malls, offices and apartment blocks into the same heaving, barely penetrable neighbourhoods for the tourists and the extra vehicles to go round.  Every block must have a string of Mercedes, white vans and empty buses circling it incessantly throughout daylight hours.  Otherwise it’s not development.  And isn’t that, of course, what the foreign stooges at Civic Exchange seek to deny the Big Lychee and its glorious mother-hinterland?

Meanwhile, elsewhere out there in the dark recesses of think-tank PDF-land, Regina Ip’s Savantas group considers a major research project timed to make a big splash in 2009.  It will, as the
painstaking proposal makes clear, involve much ruthlessly objective enquiry and empirical observation.  And this will determine that Hong Kong needs forceful Government action to rescue its economy from the doom of financial “monoculture” and drive it, at bayonet point if necessary, into new, knowledge-intensive, high-technology, R&D, trendy, 70s-sounding, leveraged blah-blah industries.  Academics whose funny foreign names obviously make up for their lack of experience in business will contribute.  The conclusion will be – This is our city’s weakest point, therefore let’s put all our money into it.  The Regina for CE in 2012 campaign will be born.
Wed, 19 Sep
“Here – read this and tell me what I’m supposed to say.”  Catching his breath between various rants, the Big Boss tosses a piece of paper in my direction.  The morning meeting resumes with a cavalcade of criticism aimed at Ms Doris Pang, the Nazi Human Resources Manager, for failing to attract management trainees from sufficiently “high-class” colleges. 

He has passed me one of the Government’s Lines-to-Take, which, as a faithful Friend of Donald, the Chairman of S-Meg Holdings receives whenever our visionary leaders feel the need for public support for some buffoonish policy.  We get them quite a lot.  Except this time, it is not labeled a Line-to-Take at all, but a collection of Bull Points – the phrase appearing in quotes, as if the civil servant who put the document together is nervous about using such trendy new terminology.
It is debatable whether the rhetorically unconvincing and grammatically maimed items count as points, but otherwise the new description seems perfect.  The content seems slightly familiar.  It occurs to me that Ronald Arculli was reading from this sheet a few days ago when he was wheeled out in his capacity as Government’s Loyal Supporter On Everything.  Last week, he was proclaiming the wonders of the semi-nationalisation of the stock exchange.  This week, the West Kowloon Cultural District.  In another few days he will be selling us some other bottle of official snake oil.  How much did this fundamentally decent man get for his soul?  The moment he sold it – and cried – is mentioned in the good book, in the chapter where then-Secretary for Justice Elsie Leung, after deciding not to prosecute her boss’s old friend Sally Aw, faces the wrath of Arculli and other members of the Legislative Council…
The management team leaves the conference room and spreads out into the spacious, carpeted gloom that is the private office on the top floor of S-Meg Tower.  The ancient statue of Buddha, placed awkwardly for feng shui reasons, smiles across at us.  Ms Fang the hunter-killer secretary – awkward in any location – looks up with a scowl.  At the far end, a line of a dozen young men and women in gleaming new business attire stand alongside the mahogany wall.  Afflictions of acne and greasy hair suggest a marked absence of Harvard MBAs.  Some grimace in fear, others stare in open-mouthed wonder as they see a fair-haired, blue-eyed figure stroll nonchalantly onto the hitherto traditional, all-Chinese, family corporate scene.  This year’s batch of thrusting new talent, ready to be groomed, they are here to collect their letters of appointment and personal welcome from the great tycoon.  Unless they prove to be exceptional high-fliers, they might not see him again for years.  One definite benefit of a Baptist U degree.

Thurs, 20 Sep
The liquidity crunch in global money markets is a reaction to bad loans, notably US mortgages, which have been securitized, parceled up in gift wrapping paper featuring pink teddy bears, sold, re-wrapped and re-sold in unknown quantities to unknown institutions.  People barely able to afford their weekly groceries were able to get housing loans because the finance houses had too much money on their hands.  That was because interest rates were low – which also increased demand for securities in brightly coloured packaging offering not-too-bad returns.  Interest rates were low because central bankers were being guided by inflation indexes that were being kept down abnormally by (for example) plunging costs of goods and services from China and India.  Or possibly because the people who decide monetary policy are drug-crazed, psychopathic beasts in the employ of Satan.  Either way, with housing starts falling in the US and a bank run, of all things, happening in the equally debt-addicted UK, everyone is getting nervous about a crisis spreading and pulling the entire global economy down.  So, petrified that the fire threatening to consume us may be about to go out, the Fed’s Ben Bernanke pours gasoline on it in the form of a 50-basis point rate cut.  Stock markets soar, with the Hang Seng Index yesterday reaching an all-time high of over 25,500.  Oil, gold and other prices are also rising.  In the background to all this is a weakening US Dollar.  Measured in Pounds or Euros, asset and commodity prices aren’t moving so much, which is why we price things in US Dollars – it’s more fun and it feels like we’re getting rich. 

Meanwhile, on Planet Lychee, we look over the border to our glorious motherland compatriots and find them taking the title deeds of their apartments to pawn shops to raise money to buy stocks with.  Funds raised by companies listing on the Shenzhen and Shanghai markets are being invested in… other companies’ stocks.  The Mainland market has gone up 358 percent in 20 months, according to
Mr Webb, who wonders what effects the shock of a crash could ultimately have on the Chinese people’s relationship with their rulers.  Nothing that a few hundred corpses mangled up by tanks wouldn’t fix, I suspect, but it might at least wipe the smirks off the faces of all those medal-winning divers at the Olympics.  Would it cure Hong Kong’s officials of their own tragic Mainland fixation, which has mesmerized them with facile, patriotism-tinged flights of fancy about integrating us with the stubble-chinned, gap-toothed hordes’ economy? 

Just opened, the market goes through 25,700.  At least life isn’t boring today.

Fri, 21 Sep
Warner Brothers, purveyor of Western civilization’s finest cultural achievements, offers budding media star Kam Nai-wai a chance to grab the limelight and a taste of fame.  The hitherto unknown member of Central and Western District Council is
thrust onto the front pages this morning as he takes a stand against the filming of a Batman movie in his neighbourhood, declaring with righteous vehemence that it will result in traffic jams and noise. 

Having lived and worked in and around this very locale since the days when I could get away with introducing myself as the Boy Wonder, I understand his concern.  The babbling of the brook running down from the Mid-Levels, the rustling of the willow leaves in the warm harbour breeze, the sweet tweeting of the songbird in the hedgerows of Peel Street, and of course the inspirational solitude of Queen’s Road at sunset – silent and still, without a soul to be seen.  Can it be right to ruin all this, even for the sake of cinematic art?

Kam’s greatest fears concern the use of a helicopter while they are shooting the film.  Here he is displaying a certain ignorance of the caped crusader.  The Bat-Copter is known for its silence.  This was drummed into me in early childhood.  Otherwise the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler and Catwoman would hear him coming.  What’s more, the machine’s tasks in the Big Lychee will largely involve flying over the sea, where our hero descends a rope ladder and does battle with a vicious pink dolphin that leaps out of the water at him.
I will refrain from letting Kam learn how this fits in to the overall plot – he will have to wait until The Dark Knight is released on a RMB10 DVD to find out.  As the stills of the rehearsals I have in my possession make clear, it will be exciting.  And of course it will be a feather in the cap for Asia’s World City.  Shanghai?  Batman can’t even find Shanghai on a map.  And given that the camera crews, the fluff girls, the product placement people and all the rest will return to the land of Bugs Bunny after just a few days here, everything will soon be back to normal.  And District Councillor Kam will be able to sleep in peace once more, lulled by the gentle lapping of the ocean on the island shore, the soft warbling of the meadowlark as she soars over a starlit Statue Square, and the barely audible rush of the long, swaying grasslands through which Des Veoux Road cuts its desolate swathe.
More recommended holiday reading.