Hemlock's Diary
24 Feb-1 Mar, 2008
Mon, 25 Feb
Standard’s hilarious ‘Mary Ma’ editorialist apparently hints at the anti-David Li campaign as part of an international plot to damage Hong Kong’s standing as a thrusting and vibrant global financial centre.  Several members of our establishment have muttered darkly about such a conspiracy at times since the city’s return to the motherland in 1997, usually when the Big Lychee has been undergoing some sort of self-inflicted crisis and officials, under fire from impossible-to-please gwailo and middle-class chattering classes, have gone into panic-stricken siege mentality.  According to one variant of this theory, activist Christine Loh is the archetypal fifth columnist or puppet of evil barbarian forces seething with resentment at the way Hong Kong has been such a dazzling success since the British left.  The idea goes down well in the Mainland, where fondness for holding others back is an ancient vice and it is taken as written that the Western world will stop at nothing to prevent China’s rise. 

The Big Boss starts the day by dragging me along to a breakfast meeting with a lady journalist from a mainly regional financial news service.  After pontificating on the state of the world economy for 20 minutes, the great man makes his excuses and leaves.  The fragrant reporteress turns to me and explains she didn’t want to ask him any embarrassing questions – Asian values in action – but what do I think of the debate over whether David Li should resign from his remaining offices?
“Actually,” I reply after thinking about it for a good few seconds, “I think he’s being made a scapegoat.”  The hackette raises a finely plucked eyebrow.  “You know there’s a lot of bitterness among the politically aware, educated people here.  Hong Kong is run by this tiny group of bureaucrats and tycoons who inherited wealth – all the rest of the population are excluded from the political structure.  And you’ve got the favouritism, like the cops taking orders from an entertainment magnate over photos on the Internet.  And all the cronyism. This is a great opportunity to attack that system, by picking on one of its leading insiders.  It’s not fair to David Li, because he didn’t design this structure or ask for it – but it’s a rotten system and there’s a lot of anger out there about it.” 

BACK IN the office, I read that Ralph Nader is
still alive.  This is shocking news – though the media seem to focus on the fact that he is going to enter the US presidential race, which he would do anyway, and how this will help the Republicans by highlighting John McCain’s youth, sprightliness and relevance to the 21st Century.  Assuming Hilary Clinton fails to get the Democratic nomination, this means two-thirds of the candidates in the general election will have Arab names.
Tue, 26 Feb
From the tallest, loudest, shiniest investment bankers to the most warty, Mainland-imported leprous mutant beggars, denizens of Connaught Road Central have long suffered from the inferior aesthetics of their busy patch of Asia’s leading international hub.  Originally, the area between Exchange Square and Worldwide House was occupied by a dull, dark grey multi-lane road with only gleaming vehicles whizzing along it to break the monotony.  Then, this drab vista won the attentions of ‘green’ Government planners, and the gap between the two sides of the road was covered with soil and, in due course, vegetation. 

Over the course of many, many months, passers-by noticed trees and luridly colored flowers being planted in a highly impressive process of large-scale, outdoors Ikebana-by-civil-service-committee.  This involved arranging the plants strictly by colour in beds forming a variety of polygons and ovoids carefully chosen from
My First Big Book of Shapes, offset by straight, parallel rows of tiled blocks.  From certain angles, the discerning eye may detect an allusion to a dollar sign in the design.  In time, the office workers and other inhabitants of the district were able to witness the bureaucrats’ brave determination to be creative come to its full, flourishing climax.

One extra little touch has now appeared – the meaningful but cheerful logo that appears, like the splash of canine urine on the lamppost, wherever the Leisure and Cultural Services Department feels the urge to mark the territory of its leafy-tinged, concrete empire.  A few billboards advertising our favourite skin-whitening treatments and mobile phones, and this urban treasure – this road-girthed botanical jewel – will be complete.
Wed, 27 Feb
A groan – of the sort that greets congee at breakfast when served for the fourth day in a row – rumbles up the Mid-Levels Escalator this morning as the girl in the urban camouflage earmuffs hands commuters their free copies of
The Standard.  With a fanfare of anti-climactic predictability, the newspaper announces that veteran columnist Nury Vittachi will be writing for it, starting next week.  Every day.
Nury will be up against stiff competition.  Not only does The Standard offer a highly amusing Young Patriots edition (best appreciated under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs) but it has the editorial signed by ‘Mary Ma’.  At least several times a week, the author manages to construct this slightly baffled but opinionated persona who grabs the wrong end of a stick and beats unpatriotic or anti-establishment elements with it on the grounds of some non-sequitur or other.  Bits of it could almost be by PG Wodehouse. 

Didn’t we experience a sense of deja vu just like this a few months back? 

Indeed we did, after veteran columnist Kevin Sinclair passed away and was replaced by veteran columnist Tim Hamlett.  Hong Kong seems to be stuck in a series of endless cycles, like planets going in and out of alignment.  For every five times Ronald Arculli is appointed to a Government advisory board a veteran columnist rejoins one of the papers he used to work on, and every second time that happens outrage breaks out over the penis on a statue by Michelangelo or Elisabeth Frink.  It’s as if we half-slipped into a parallel universe where everything that is stale – from political structure to social attitudes to media content – is fixed in a loop repeating itself over and over, while all the nice things in life – the views, the manners, the culture – follow a separate course of steady deterioration.  The whole thing keeping time, of course, to the metronomic complaints of whinging gwailos (all the more impassioned now duties on all alcoholic beverages except spirits are to be scrapped).
Thurs, 28 Feb
Small minds + big bucks = a
Hong Kong Budget.  After displaying astounding incompetence by raising around 50 percent (HK$100 billion) more revenue than they should have, our visionary leaders blow it on a range of one-off handouts and concessions apparently formulated with the help of a Ouija board.  In my case, I will have HK$25,000 knocked off my salaries tax bill at end-year, plus some more from a minor cut in the tax rate.  The Government will – for the heck of it, why not? –  pay the first HK$150 of my electricity bill for 12 months, which will more than cancel out the stiff hike in prices recently imposed by Li Ka-shing’s HK Electric and yield me another HK$1,800.  Although the Government will continue to send me a quarterly bill anyway, Rates on my apartment will be waived for the year, leaving me better off to the tune of another few thousand.
The rest of the population have not been forgotten, though Financial Secretary John Tsang’s much-vaunted return of wealth to the people is similarly scattershot and scatterbrained.  In recognition of the unceasing hard work they must devote to calculating how much to charge their tenants when the lease next comes up, landlords will have the Property Tax on rentals reduced as per that on salaries.  The working lower orders, on less than HK$10,000 a month, will have HK$6,000 placed in their Mandatory Provident Fund accounts, to remind them of the benefits of honest toil, self-help, discipline, regular sleep, a wholesome diet, temperance in thought and deed and abstinence from self-abuse.  The elderly will get a HK$3,000 grant to buy new shoes, gloves, raincoats and string to help them drag piles of recyclable cardboard around the streets. 

Citizens nostalgic for the days when Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa would hand out public wealth to any sleazy shyster offering to make the Big Lychee into a hub will rejoice at the decision to abolish duties on beer and wine to help boost
“catering services, tourism, brand promotion and exhibitions, table wine appreciation and related educational activities that can achieve synergy with table wine trading and create new jobs.” Our hearts swell with pride on realizing that Hong Kong is the only place in Asia where it is Government policy, backed by hefty fiscal measures, to encourage table wine appreciation and beat with anticipation of free and compulsory deportment and art history classes for all.  (Whoever thought up ‘related educational activities’ deserves free electricity and booze for life.) 

Companies big and honest/stupid enough to pay it will enjoy a small but meaningful and perfectly formed reduction in profits tax.  The cartels that control the construction and construction supplies trades will be pleased, though probably not remotely surprised, to hear that extra billions of revenue surplus to requirements will be devoted to extra infrastructure surplus to requirements.  With sweatshop factories in the Pearl River Delta closing down under the weight of new labour and environmental rules, and Shenzhen’s more conveniently located port expanding fast, could there be any better time to build a new container terminal at Tsing Yi?

The lower middle class, earning more than HK$10,000 but not enough to pay salaries tax and who are scrupulous about not wasting electricity, will be able to sample the thrill of leaving their lights on when they go out.
Fri, 29 Feb
A sudden surge of commuters hits the Mid-Levels Escalator at precisely 20 seconds to eight this morning, as listeners to RTHK3 try to get out of their homes before Financial Secretary John Tsang comes on air to receive phone calls of
glowing praise from adoring taxpayers.  Minutes later, I am at a wooden table outside the IFC Mall branch of Pacific Coffee sipping my organic jojoba and wasabi latte and listening to wild American friend Odell scat-singing to a Louis Armstrong classic.  “Dum de wa do dee doo ba bee da wa, and I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”
What, I demand, is so wonderful about it?  “Name three things.”  He thinks about it for a few seconds.

“OK.  Number one,” he says, “is that the Government has scrapped tax on beer and wine.  From 40 percent to zero!  Man, that’s just fantastic.  I mean, the wholesalers, bar owners and bar landlords are bound to pass on a lot of that to us, right?  San Miguel is gonna be – I dunno – 10 bucks a pint less, minimum.  Minimum!  Cos, you know, Allan Zeman’s loaded already, so he obviously won’t want to keep it.  Oh yeah – and think what it’ll do to, um… table wine appreciation and related educational activities that can achieve synergy with table wine trading and create new jobs.”

“Good point,” I tell him.

“Number two, Nury Vittachi is gonna do a daily column in the
Standard.  That’s guy’s so funny he just cracks me up – he’s the funniest guy in Asia.”

“Well,” I interrupt, “not everyone actually thinks that.  You know there are some people out there who think he isn’t funny at all.”

“Show me someone who says that – I’ll give ‘em a good smacking.  I’m serious.  Someone needs to defend the guy.  He’s a comic genius, and if anyone wants to say he isn’t they’ve got me to deal with. 
Dissident’s Diary it’s gonna be called.  Can’t wait.  People will be wetting their pants with laughter when that starts.”

Dissident’s Diary?  Maybe, I suggest, he can start by mocking the newspaper for putting the label for Macau over the much larger Hengqin Island on its front page map this morning – Macau being the little bit peeking out from under the orange blob of Zhuhai.  (Good movie name – The Orange Blob of Zhuhai. Obese woman goes berserk and wrecks city after skin-whitening treatment has opposite effect.)  And the third thing?

that front page story.  The Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge getting the go-ahead.” 

“No,” I tell him.  “That bridge has ‘not going to happen’ written all over it.”  I explain how Guangdong Province’s leaders, like all Mainland officials, loathe Hong Kong and see cross-border infrastructure projects either as a way to screw money out of us, or at least to get us to throw our money down the drain so they can laugh.  Their insistence that the Big Lychee should foot the biggest part of the bill because we will enjoy most of the ‘economic benefits’ suggests a protectionist mindset that a link across the estuary will cost them business in some way.  And officials over there have already insisted that Hong Kong vehicles will not be allowed to access the Mainland road network after crossing the bridge but will have to park and transfer to local transport, which is a curious restriction to put on a six-lane, all-road, HK$40 billion bit of infrastructure. 

“Yeah,” Odell says, “but apparently it will kill all the horseshoe crabs.”

That’s different.  Those things must be the most vile, revolting creatures in the sea – they look like some giant louse that’s crawled out of a primeval swamp. I walk the long way around wet markets to avoid seeing them lurking in polystyrene boxes.  We can get rid of them for 40 billion plus a bridge we’re not allowed to use?  He’s right.  What a wonderful world.
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