Hemlock's Diary
25-31 Mar 2007
Mon, 26 Mar
After the banners, the platforms, the ads on the sides of taxis, the pro-Tsang posters near the toilets in many of Allan Zeman’s Lan Kwai Fong outlets and the TV debates, the actual Chief Executive election ritual yesterday passed unnoticed by most of the Big Lychee.  Within hours of the 789 ballots being cast, the winner was announced.  For a week or two back there, it almost felt like the real thing.  This is progress.  Who needs democracy when you can have something that feels like it?

South China Morning Post celebrates by adopting a new, USA Today-style redesign, complete with big colourful percentages of doubtful relevance wedged into stories.  This is to appeal to the 36 percent of consumers who belong to the new Internet generation of hip and groovy young trendy folk with stunted attention spans – the number of whom not reading the SCMP has risen 295 percent in the last year. 

To pay for the overhaul, the paper has attracted a veritable grovel (a collective noun is born) of shoe-shiners to advertise their deep appreciation for Sir Bow-Tie to the world. 
China Daily quotes Beijing officials as telling Donald, “Your re-election fully demonstrates the full confirmation and recognition of your efforts to serve Hong Kong and the various sectors of society.” And what further proof of that can we possibly need than these touching gestures of support from a property developer, another property developer, a real estate company, a jeweler getting rich off Mainland tourists, another property developer and another jeweller?
Tue, 27 Mar
On the top floor of S-Meg Tower, in the heart of Asia’s leading international financial hub, the Company Gwailo makes the mistake of peering out of his office.  At the reception area near the elevators, the strange girl from Human Resources who stares at the floor as she shuffles along in her slippers is having a conversation with Ms Fang the hunter-killer secretary.  “Let’s ask Hemlock,” declares the clerical menace, tugging the socially awkward HR flunky towards me.  It transpires that Amy, May or Mabel – Ms Fang refers to her by all three names and she is too shy to correct her – has been chaperoning someone who is being taken out by a Westerner. 

I didn’t realize this still happened.  It sounds so 1980s.  In those days, every good Hong Kong girl would drag her friend along on dates, much, of course, to the delight of the boyfriend.  The preservation of chastity had even higher priority than the acquisition of a husband with a degree from a good university and a willingness to underwrite the purchase of designer label goods.  These women are now in their 40s, never married, and driven to uncontrollable urges by their explosive libidos – as anyone who has been trapped in a dark corner by one can attest.  I thought the younger generation was more easy-going, but it seems in some remote spots of the Big Lychee old attitudes linger on, especially at the church where Amy/May/Mable’s friend apparently met her suitor.  The trio will be attending the Rugby Sevens this weekend, and I am being called upon to advise the nervous escort what she can expect in the stadium full of ‘foreigners’.

Avoiding eye contact with almost everything as she does, she will probably see no more than the concrete she stands on.  And since I have assiduously avoided this event for as long as I have been in this city, I can only go on second-hand reports.  “On the field, “ I explain, “there will be groups of extremely large, hairy, half-naked black men jamming their heads between each other’s thighs and grabbing their buttocks, while you will be surrounded by loud, drunk, overweight whites cheering them on.  If you look closely, you will see that many of the players wear frilly pink panties.”  I ask if she enjoys John Lennon’s ghastly and tedious
Imagine.  Like most church-goers, for some reason, she does.  I download a copy of it, mutilated with taxpayers’ money by RTHK’s inestimable Steve James.  “This song will tell you more about the nudity and alcohol abuse you will witness over the next dew days,” I inform the girl, who has been giving me her full and petrified attention since the word ‘thighs’.
Wed, 28 Mar
With a population of just 7 million to draw on, is it any wonder that when the Government sought a new Chairman for the Hong Kong Tourism Board, they leapt at slimy Liberal Party boss James Tien as “
the most suitable person for the job with … the vision, leadership and capability to bring the development of tourism in Hong Kong to new heights and to enhance the position of Hong Kong as a premier tourist destination.” 

The usual malcontents and dissidents intent on bad-mouthing the Big Lychee will of course moan.  They will point out that Tien has all the charisma of a toilet brush.  His one and only ever display of business acumen involved being born into a family that got rich running sweatshops and getting a free and highly coveted licence to sell textiles into protected markets.  When running for election in the New Territories, he abandoned his Porsche for a double-decker bus and freaked out about its poor uphill acceleration.   Unless you count the stupid ‘dog-milking’ trick he does at parties, the man is devoid of any real talent.  He is only getting this position because he threatened Donald Tsang with blank ballots at Sunday’s quasi-election if he and other Liberal Party nematodes didn’t get appointed to high-profile jobs that make them feel important.  And Donald gave in because it was an easy and cost-free way to mollify this unprincipled piece of political odiousness for the time being.  And Donald, born in a log cabin and not even owning a pair of shoes until he was 20, will watch in wry amusement as Tien struts around thinking what a clever operator he is, oblivious to the fact that people who stabbed the last Chief Executive in the back over Article 23 and who clumsily blackmail the current one are likely to come to a sticky end.  Whine, whine, whine. 

But the naysayers will be wrong!  Tien is the ideal choice for this chairmanship because the tourism industry is the ultimate example of everything the Liberal Party stands for – parasitism and free lunches.  Tourism is an activity that comes laden with externalities, or to use the technical economics jargon, ‘things that cost other people money and probably piss them off into the bargain’.  A few hoteliers and traders make millions, while the rest of us have to put up with clogged streets, more pollution and our favourite retailers closing down to make way for the neighbourhood’s 200th skin-whitening outlet. 

The next scam will be the Extremely Wonderful and Exciting Cruise Terminal, without which Hong Kong will definitely collapse into a heap of marginalized dust because liners full of dim-witted bores will sail past us rather than stop off for a couple of hours and add nothing to the economy at all.  The people of Hong Kong will grant a property cartel member a plot of land at a favourable price.  The developer will build yet another shopping mall/offices/luxury apartment complex, which will make him X billion dollars.  In return, he will spend a few percent of that profit on an adjacent wharf and let huge ships park there sometimes.  It will be yet another Cyberport-style economic burden and snatching of public wealth. 

And the relentless push to offer more ‘attractions’ the private sector doesn’t consider viable and squeeze more visitors in will continue.  After years of displaying fumbling ineptitude during his “exemplary record of public and community service … as well as extensive commercial experience,” Tien at last has a chance to use his true talents.  His dream role has finally found him.
Thurs, 29 Mar
After recently visiting an auspicious Brazilian padlock exhibition, an auspicious Eskimo padlock exhibition, a display of Indonesian padlocks designed specially to bring bad luck, a show featuring Congolese padlocks that don’t impart any type of fortune in particular but just secure things, and an exhibition that was auspicious featuring some Belgian padlocks that weren’t, can I really make the effort to attend the Auspicious Chinese Padlock Exhibition being held in the old three-storey building where they apparently sell slightly weird clothes and/or furniture off the Mid-Levels Escalator?  I am minded not to bother.  I am still distracted by how close I came to shooting my bathroom radio a bit earlier.
In the Gwailo’s lair in S-Meg Tower, I spend a quick few moments in a state of utter relaxation, blanking all negative, materialistic and earthly thoughts from my mind by perusing the Review on Public Service Broadcasting in Hong Kong. RTHK is a Problem That Needs Fixing because a certain type of ageing gentleman with a shabby suit and slightly greasy hair who was probably bitten by a Westerner when he was a child insists that a Government-run broadcaster should churn out patriotic propaganda, and the post-1997 Hong Kong establishment has to make an occasional gesture towards these benighted throwbacks who, although their thinking is seriously out of line with most Hong Kong people’s, are typical of the city in that they have very long life spans.  People like Xu Simin and Tsang Hin-chi simply will not die until the Government does something about this treacherous public broadcaster – a hotbed of barbarian traditions of editorial independence that dedicates itself to publicizing the views of deranged extremists who think Hong Kong and the rest of the glorious motherland could be run better.
The obvious solution to the civil service-editorial independence quandary is to corporatise the beast.  But this was proposed by Governor Chris Patten before the handover, so naturally that’s out, especially since the suggestion at the time prompted a barrage of abuse from mainland officials frothing at the mouth and banging their heads against the wall.  So the panel that compiled the review is recommending the setting up of a brand-new non-civil service Public Broadcasting Corporation.  RTHK, meanwhile, will be stuffed and mounted, and displayed in a glass case in the foyer of the Commerce, Industry and Trade Bureau.  Converting or merging RTHK into the new body won’t work, says the panel, because the civil service culture is too deeply entrenched in the station, which is now approaching its ninth decade (as, of course, are Xu and Tsang – there is a cosmic dimension to all this). 

On the radio this morning they interviewed one Janet Mok of the RTHK staff union.  Asked something along the lines of what the review meant for the ethos of public service broadcasting and the principle of editorial independence, she blathered away about how it was unfair to RTHK staff, threatened RTHK staff pay and conditions, was really worrying RTHK staff and the only thing that matters in the entire universe is RTHK staff.  I was brushing my teeth at the time, so I didn’t catch her mentioning ‘morale’, a word that has me instantly reaching for my Browning 9mm whenever I hear it from a public-sector employee.  Either way, she made the review panel’s point most eloquently.
Fri, 30 Mar
Respectable, mainstream Hong Kong society prepares to celebrate its annual gwailo-free weekend, while the city’s Western residents and visitors get out their rugby shirts, little plastic footballs and day-glo purple afro wigs, ready to spend two days in a noisy, cramped, beer-sodden stadium.  To many Hongkongers, fun is playing mahjong all night with shrieking relatives while the TV in the corner blares away, three miniature dogs yap under the table and someone next door is drilling in the wall.  To me – to paraphrase Sartre – fun is not being with other people, at least not too much.  (Author Neal Stephenson refers ‘other people’ in need of enlightenment about this to the magnificent
Caring for Your Introvert – The habits and needs of a little-understood group.)  To Asia’s plump, pink, baked-bean-consuming Anglo community scattered around Dubai, Melbourne, Seoul, Singapore and even further away, fun involves a spurious Spring business trip to Hong Kong and the drinking of significant quantities of beer in Happy Valley, while teams of Fijians and Samoans stomp up and down on the field. 

As I understand it, the sensible, seasoned Rugby Sevens aficionado will pace himself.  The first pitcher of beer will go down in sips from noon to 1.30pm.  The next goes down a bit faster, and so on, until by the last game at 8.00pm he has forgotten how many he has had but can still, just, walk.  This is where the real fun starts.  Because within stumbling distance of the stadium there will be free busses to Lan Kwai Fong, supplied by the considerate business association centred in that neighbourhood.  After pouring out of these vehicles the fans will be in the bar district, where waitresses will be manning kegs set up on the sidewalk.  According to Kevin the Australian barman in the pub, a large proportion of these highly inebriated customers will not leave until well into the small hours.  He doubts he will be closing until 5am.  And these extremely merry ale guzzlers will not just go through this tonight.  They will do the same tomorrow and on Sunday.  Kevin expects each night’s takings to be two to three times those of a normal Saturday. 

Those with a taste for greater carnage will make their way to Wanchai, where Mainland and Thai hookers lie in wait.  Some Sevens attendees will emerge with five-figure credit card bills they can’t remember signing for.  Others will simply come out of it with no credit cards – the plastic will have been put through one last mega-transaction in an all-night jewellery store.  Some of the ladies of the night specialize in peering over the shoulder of drunk male clients as they punch their PIN number into an ATM and memorizing the number without writing it down for however long it takes to go to a cheap hotel, put baby to sleep and sneak out with his wallet.  My idea of fun is to observe the battlefield after the smoke has cleared and the gore dribbled into the gutter.  A stroll down Lockhart Road at 7am on Sunday is my idea of rich Rugby Sevens entertainment.  One year, as the sun was rising, I found wild American friend Odell seated on his backside on the pavement outside the flea-ridden den known as the Old China Hand.  He was just conscious and complaining in a loud slur about a Filipino thug who had marched him to the door and shoved him in the chest after the ex-Mormon had poured a beer over a waitress he considered to be insufficiently attentive to customers.  Sitting on the concrete, he pulled his phone out.  “I’m gonna… fucking… call the police,” he blurted, trying to focus on the keypad and stabbing it with a finger.  “Fuck…”  He dropped the phone and glowered into space.  “Battery’s out…”  Now I think about it, I look forward to this time of year as much as anyone.