Hemlock's Diary
23-29 September 2007
Mon, 24 Sep
The mood on the Mid-Levels Escalator this morning is one of mild puzzlement, as Hong Kong’s hard-working and clean-living bourgeoisie read the latest
Newsweek and scratch their immaculately groomed heads…
As deputy to the last British governor, Chris Patten, and then to Beijing-appointed chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, Anson Chan showed decisive leadership and candor – particularly on Hong Kong's need for democracy as promised in its mini-Constitution, or basic law.
“I don’t remember that,” my banker friend Mr Ng mutters as we glide down the moving walkway to our jobs in the central business district.  Ms Chan the marketing manager looks up from the glossy magazine to agree.  “Nor do I...  Maybe I was out of town at the time.”
While Lady Conscience’s history is being rewritten, her likely opponent in December’s Legislative Council by-election is turning the clock back to 1980s colonial rule and appointing Sir David Akers Jones as an advisor.  As a fast-rising civil servant at the time, Regina Ip must have looked to the British Deputy Governor as a source of wisdom in how to run the ‘Territory’ in accordance with the finest traditions of Her Majesty’s bureaucrats here – condescending paternalism towards the locals, and rank hostility to Communists and their agents. 

And how do those agents, in today’s shape of the Democratic Alliance for the Blah Blah of Hong Kong, view all this?  Lacking candidates that would have a chance in middle-class Hong Kong Island, they just have to support whoever Beijing tells them to.  Unlike Ma Lik, their late holder of the seat, Regina won’t make embarrassing comments about the Tiananmen massacre.  She can hold a knife and fork properly, engage Mid-Levels voters in English, Mandarin and tentative Japanese, and even dazzle particularly awkward members of the electorate defiantly insisting that they will vote for Anson by quoting Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney.  All the while guided by her mentor – an ageing colonial oppressor who, despite being acquired by the pro-Beijing camp as a peculiar, tokenistic trophy-relic, is entirely alien to the DAB’s patriotic, proletariat-adoring, Party-worshiping outlook on life.   Is there any instruction from Beijing that DAB members could not bring themselves to obey?
Tue, 25 Sep
Some people remember their first dollar bill, their first kiss or their first car.  Will I soon be able to look back and remember my first 1,000 percent rise in a stock investment?  My holdings in Petrochina are up 876 percent as of yesterday, when the company’s shares rose 10.3 percent. 

There are several reasons for this.  First, the fundamental prospects for the company’s growth are sound.  China is a fast-developing economy full of ambitious moped riders dreaming of getting a gas-guzzling SUV one day.  Second, the company and its state majority owner have no profit-sapping scruples about dealing with oppressive governments like Sudan’s when exploring for oil.  Third, the company will soon raise funds through an IPO in China’s grotesquely inflated stock market, providing it with some ludicrously easy capital for future expansion.  Fourth, but not least, the Hong Kong stock market is itself in one of its periodic fits of gibbering, hyperactive over-excitement, owing to far-fetched expectations that Beijing will allow a billion of the aforementioned ambitious moped drivers to divert some of their savings from their domestic bubble to ours – which is a more reasonably valued bubble, and a better regulated one.
The market opens with a bit of profit-taking, but otherwise every indication that most players have no doubt that the vast wave of Mainland money is about to pour over the border, sweeping the Kowloon hills away from its path in its eagerness to get across the harbour and into lots of lovely H shares.  The Hang Seng Index has risen by over a fifth in a couple of months to 26,500.  Lee Shau-kei – the Henderson Land boss whose supernatural ability to pick undervalued stocks when offered them on a plate by Beijing is so admired by Hongkongers – predicts 30,000.  Over at UBS the hallucinatory drugs are kicking in with a vengeance and an analyst called Andrew Look foresees “fair value of 35,000 points next year.”  While timing market peaks is a game for idiots, and anyone with a well-balanced portfolio and realistic long-term goals should be happy to ride it all out, nervous types who need some hard cash safely stuffed under the mattress might consider this a sell sign.
Wed, 26 Sep
A small mid-harbour, Mid-Autumn Festival gathering of readers of
the good book results in several interesting ideas.  One – that the volume should have been titled How Hong Kong Lost Its Mojo – needs little comment.  Another concerns the best Legislative Council by-election strategy for Anson Chan following her lacklustre performance in the recent quasi-primary election debate.
As the Star Ferry carrying us sways in the swell, we decide that, ideally, Dame Conscience would renounce her past role – declare that since leaving Government she has been able to see things as they really are and that many of the policies she was associated with as a bureaucrat (and which continue) are in error.  As well as resistance to a broader-based political system, these would include all our old favourites – protection of cartels, artificially high land and property prices, a warped fiscal structure, over-expenditure on infrastructure, demented planning, and immigration and welfare systems that attract and trap the poor here.  “Yes, I helped push these policies – now, standing on the outside, I see they were wrong.”  She could add favouritism towards specific industries, refusal to take action on the environment, and a creeping tendency towards economic intervention as examples of how things are only getting worse.
It would only work if her old mindset has changed.  So that’s out.  Over slices of succulent low-cal mooncake, a discussion then follows on the most fundamental reasons for Hong Kong’s poor governance.  This is sparked by the example of Financial Secretary John Tsang, who has yet to produce a single credible explanation for the Government’s semi-nationalisation of the stock exchange, and whose inane comments on integration of Mainland and Hong Kong capital and currency markets make it clear that he has no idea what capital controls are or, presumably, much else about the world of money.  In his defence, he trained as an architect before choosing a career as an administrator.  But then – what is he doing in his current job?  Would we want to live in a building engineered by an economist?
The Big Lychee boasts a population of nearly 7 million, of which some 4 million are of working age or thereabouts.  Of these, participation in policymaking within the Government itself is limited to perhaps 200 senior Administrative Officers under a handful of ministers appointed from the AOs or the outside world, who report to a Chief Executive not known for his deep fascination with other people’s ideas.  Corporate interests have some input through Functional Constituencies and the Election Committee, though this appears to be mainly of the self-serving, begging-for-favours variety.  This probably also goes for the big tycoons.  At a pinch, this brings the total of insiders up to 500.
Then we have the patriots, opportunists, easily flattered and shoe-shiners, who are given nominal advisory positions on various committees, commissions and boards.  Although there are thousands of seats on such bodies, they are routinely occupied by the same ubiquitous group of Ronald Arcullis, Bunny Chans, Philemon Chois and Allen Zemans, whose input of challenging ideas to official thinking is not especially apparent.  This might bring the total membership of the ‘elite’ establishment up to 1,000.

Courts, the media, civic groups and mass movements don’t count because they simply serve as restraints on policymaking.  Anyone – insider or not – who claims extra clout courtesy of connections in Beijing can probably be ignored as deluded.  So the other 3,999,000 adult Hongkongers are completely excluded from this network, leaving a pool of one four-thousandth of the eligible population from which to pick the people who make the decisions.  Is it any surprise Hong Kong is in Mid-Autumn?
Thurs, 27 Sep
“In the Steven Spielberg film
Minority Report, police in the USA have a system that warns in advance if someone is going to commit a crime,” begins a story on the radio this morning.  The newsreader continues by asking, “Sounds like science fiction?” 

“Yes it does!” I shout back helpfully from the shower, “and that could be because it was written by Philip K Dick, noted writer of…”

At this point, I hear the two Filipino elves reporting for duty.  They take a dim view of people talking to themselves or to imaginary companions, so I hold my silence.  A prisoner in my own home.  Are they giving each other strange looks in the kitchen?  Who or what is this ‘dick’ about which he rants in the bathroom?  The news turns to
Burma, where the military regime is employing its own tried and trusted system of pre-empting crime and shooting monks in the streets.  From what I have seen, they are interesting-looking streets – full of the colonial buildings Southeast Asian cities had before all the foreign investment came in and replaced them with skyscrapers and Starbucks.  I am in a moral quandary.  I’d like them to have democracy, but not before I get the chance to visit the place, before they turn it into another standard-issue sub-tropical, Westernized-Oriental, plastic and concrete pile.  The way things look, the junta’s instinctive heritage-preservation has a few years to run.

In the IFC Mall branch of Pacific Coffee, wild American friend Odell and I sip our organic papaya and black olive frappuccinos and ponder some of the major questions facing the world today. 

Why is Batman coming here when everyone knows Hong Kong has an extremely low crime rate?  He should go to  Macau or Manila or some other gun-ridden cesspit.  “Something to do with visas, perhaps,” ventures the ex-Mormon.  That could be it.

And why has Heung Kwok-leung, king of the Mongkok sub-prime loans market and bookmaker to the gentry, reduced the odds on Regina Ip beating Anson Chan from 8-1 to 3-1?  This is interesting.  The pro-Beijing camp are doing all they can to boost Anson’s voter turnout by
accusing her of loyalty to Hong Kong values, while Regina clumsily draws attention to her rarefied position in life by gloating about how she has spent a whole 15 hours visiting “families” – a euphemism for scabby, unwashed wretches in their tiny, malodorous, flea-infested hovels. 

“Yes, there is a problem hanging over Anson,” I advise my my gambling-prone friend, who is wondering whether to put a few thousand bucks on the hirsute former Security Secretary.  “It’s the Barack Obama problem.  Anson’s not yellow enough.”
Fri, 28 Sep
Stealing the approach I had in mind for Anson Chan, Regina Ip announces her decision to run for Legco by admitting her past mistakes and
apologizing.  She also declares that she is as eager as anyone to see democracy.  Which raises the question – why is she so strongly supported by people who are determined to keep the structure that excludes 99.975 percent of the working-age population from any possible meaningful participation in the political process?  Did they accidentally turn up to the wrong event yesterday?  Or did she blunder into the wrong hotel ballroom?  Apparently not.  The faces on the podium say a number of things, but “Whoops!  Wrong press conference!” isn’t one of them.

If Anson’s weakness is her bland, bureaucratic and passionless campaigning manner, Regina’s must be the company she keeps.  From left to right… 
James Tien   Shallow, opportunistic, slimy and living proof that wealth is easier to inherit than intelligence.  After stabbing Regina in the back over the Article 23 legislation in 2003, it can’t hurt to shoeshine her, at least so long as Beijing might have her in mind to replace Donald in 2012.
Sir David Akers Jones   Beijing-friendly colonial remnant and unfortunate reminder of Regina’s roots as an imperialists’ running dog.  He will attract the ageing pro-Beijing gwailo vote (who lives in the block across from Perpetual Opulence Mansions). 
Tam Yiu-chung   DAB boss, thus representative of the loyal patriotic minority of the population that refused to enjoy life under the British.  The great thing about being in the DAB is that you don’t have to form any opinions of your own.  That’s all done for you.  Tam’s appearance here is to tell his followers, “This is the person it has been decided you will vote for.” 
Allan Zeman   The man whose transformation of Lan Kwai Fong from an interesting bar area into a complex of fake, plastic, overpriced ‘themed’ outlets will be complete as of tomorrow night.  Every pub restroom will have a Vote Regina poster, and he might even drag her around D’Aguilar Street at midnight handing out pamphlets. 
Michael Hui Koon-man   A comedian.
ON THE subject of Allan Zeman…  Hardy’s, the last authentic pub in Lan Kwai Fong, closes its doors for the final time tomorrow night.  Already, most of the fittings, pictures and decorative or other adornments that have been accumulated over 20 years have been looted, auctioned or stored away in case the institution comes back to life in alternative premises one day.  And much nicer the place looks too, it must be said. 

It will be a black-tie, invitation-only affair.  No riffraff.  I am scheduled to officiate over the early part of the proceedings at 7pm, when various members of the Antiquities Advisory Board will visit the pub to declare it not worth preserving.  I will slink away soon after, in order to avoid what happens next.  At 8pm, the first of the less-popular brands of beer will run out.  At 9.30pm, the Filipino guitarist will attempt to break his record and sing
Country Roads four times in a 30-minute period.  At 10pm, guests will be entertained by the traditional misunderstanding between a waitress and a Mainland tourist.  At 11pm, the San Miguel will be all gone, and the desperate clientele, unable to face the idea of leaving their womb-like watering hole for ever, will turn reluctantly to the never-opened bottles of cantaloupe brandy, chocolate-chili vodka and guava schnapps.  At 1am, there will be a special, final pugilistic bout between Terry the nice-when-sober teacher and Norris the bulky accountant who took his seat, which will be broken up by the Nepalese barman after one uneventful minute.  At 2.30am, the police will arrive to arrest one of their own off-duty members drunkenly refusing to pay his bill.  Then things will start to go downhill – for the last time.