Hemlock's Diary
28 September-4 October, 2008
Sun, 28 Sep
Back in the Big Little City, where they are celebrating the nationalisation of banks and the transfer of US$700 billion of dubious debts to generations of taxpayers to come by opening the region's biggest vaguely up-market shopping mall.  Tired, hand-me-down retail fads from Go! Sushi to Harvey Nichols to Swarovski to Zara to El Somethingorother Tapas to Thomas Pink have crawled into town like ageing hookers descending on a naïve, chaste backwater in the hope that they will be exotic enough to score a few more tricks before hanging up their moth-eaten fishnet stockings for the last time.  Sure enough, yeomanry and peasants from a 200-mile radius come to stare in wonder, comforted no doubt by the presence of such familiar brands as the Body Shop and Gourmet Burger Kitchen. 

By local contemporary standards, the architecture is not totally dismal – a Norman Foster-style glass canopy covering what were previously outdoor courtyards, except they weren't previously anything because they built the surrounding structure to prop up the canopy in the first place.  Even before encountering the emporia, the wide-eyed yokels shaking the pig manure and straw from their boots and entering the half-billion project look upward in awe.  What would they make of Chek Lap Kok or just the Great Court of the British Museum?  Then, bundles of credit cards and actual cash at the ready, they make a beeline for Hardy Amies, Patisserie Valerie and La Senza.

Meanwhile, in the world's leading financial centres, former masters of the universe finally come to terms with the collapse of their investment bank employers and the evaporation of future bonuses and start darning their socks and digging in their back yards to grow potatoes.

Packing beckons.  But time for
a couple of book reviewsBusiness Republic of China by Jack Leblanc and With Bare Hands by Alain Robert.
Thurs, 2 Oct
The 12-hour flight back to the Big Lychee gives me my occasional glimpse at the movie world. 
In Bruges could have been a superb black comedy.  Two hitmen flee to the Belgian town after a botched job in the UK and get themselves into a string of weird, violent and hilarious escapades.  Then, three quarters of the way through, the producers succumb to Hollywood’s instinct to assume the audience is too simple-minded to get it, and the film turns into a generic gore-fest with the satire stripped out.  (Falling Down was ruined in the same way.)  The Escapist is a prison breakout, with the action cutting between the background story and the digging and fleeing.  As in Shawshank Redemption, the sympathetic characters satisfyingly succeed in getting away.  Except there’s a huge twist at the end.  Kung Fu Panda I manage 30 minutes of, in awe of how clever computerised animation is.  The Orphanage is a Spanish drama-horror movie that owes a bit to The Shining, and is as scary.  Eerie parallels with the Jersey children’s home revelations in the UK earlier this year.  Finally, in The Visitor, an anti-social widower academic finds a pair of young illegal immigrants squatting in his New York apartment and comes out of his shell to befriend and help them, even ending up in bed (very tastefully) with one of their mothers.  Hollywood, amazingly, gives us a realistic rather than happy ending.  And the plane approaches Chek Lap Kok.
Typically, I have missed the fun and excitement of two great Hong Kong panics – the Monumental Mainland Melamine Milk Madness of ‘08 and the run on the Bank of East Asia.  I have always thought that after some 200 million years of breast-feeding, mammals could and should work out a more convenient and less unsightly way of feeding their young.  Perhaps I have been wrong.  As for the financial panic, I see that in my brief absence from town it has become a criminal offence to spread rumours on-line, with two people arrested so far.  I better not write ‘HSBC is about to collapse so savers should get their money out now’, or it will be three.

Sitting next to me on the flight is a woman explaining how wonderful Hong Kong is because its property market is miraculously holding up so well while residential and commercial real estate values everywhere else have been plummeting, as has the Hang Seng Index.  Prices can’t fall much, she reasons, because supply is so tight.  An owner of several flats, she is quite adamant about this, to the point of being smug, with perhaps a trace of hopefulness.  I suggest that maybe the market had already factored scarcity into the equation before the credit crisis, and if global events reduce local demand prices can only head downwards.  I even wonder aloud whether cheaper homes and offices might boost disposable incomes and spur economic activity, but she strongly rejects this heresy and reminds me (thank God) that the Hong Kong police could arrest me for posting such a claim on the Internet.  She is why I watch five movies.

Fri, 3 Oct
An instant cure for jet lag – switch on the radio and get RTHK3’s manic sports presenter trying to break the world record for blurting out as many obscure soccer results as possible in three minutes while apparently on speed.  Nothing could be more important, his babbling delivery suggests, than the number of goals a team from some town in Cyprus scored, how many minutes into a game a player from somewhere in Portugal was sent off, what happened when some Italian side got a free kick, and on and on and on.  Any working-class inhabitants of minor Mediterranean nations tuning in must be frothing at the mouth in frenzied excitement.  Then the crescendo of data about the kicking of balls around distant fields suddenly ends.  Something urgent about a Greek goalkeeper echoes briefly in the hills.  Then silence.  And a calm, measured and relaxed voice takes over and gently informs us that the global economy is doomed.

The Chief – not to say only – Economist of S-Meg Holdings says much the same in the morning meeting.  Starting in the West Coast of the US, he reports, banks are cutting off credit to even their most trustworthy small- and medium-size business clients.  It is a trend that is spreading across the world’s biggest economy and the rest of the globe.  With unemployment rising (7.7 percent in California), consumer lending is being tightened.  Trade finance is increasingly scarce, and more and more business is being done on a cash-or-forget-it basis.  There is no way Hong Kong and its hinterland can escape the effects.  The world, he concludes, is heading for a recession, and next year is going to be nasty. 

He delivers this prognosis with a big smile and a generally upbeat tone, as if he is almost looking forward to it.  Sure, he seems to be saying, we’ve got a year or two of starvation and bartering and putting our daughters on the streets ahead of us, but the cycle will turn.  Bad ideas will be tossed aside, inefficiencies squeezed out, weaker companies driven to collapse. And then it all starts again!  His joy at witnessing something straight out of the textbook is quite infectious.  Get a grip on yourselves, it’s just a downturn.  Not the first, not the last.  Nothing to get too worked up about.  It’s not as if the centre-forward for Algeciras nearly clinched a goal just before half-time.
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