Hemlock's Diary
30 November-6 December, 2008
Mon, 1 Dec
RTHK3 starts the working week by giving its listeners a lengthy description of the latest events concerning the mysterious ‘Syria Ah!’.  It is something to do with Italian soccer, a subject that Hong Kong’s main English-language radio station once totally ignored but which in recent years has slowly wormed its way into the daily news bulletins to the extent that it invariably warrants a dedicated in-depth item every 30 minutes.  In response, presumably, to unquenchable demand from the fast-rising numbers of southern European sports fans living here these days.  Thousands of reactionaries’ stooges occupying Bangkok airport may come and go, and Bombay can succumb to Islamist amphibious assault while India’s leaders sit and watch, but nothing can stop us from being fully informed about every tiny detail of the fascinating goings-on at Syria Ah!, day after day after day. 

This morning, however, it has to take second place in the news rundown to a lengthy and uncritical (as in respectful-verging-on-adoring wonderment) interview with the Democratic Alliance for the Blah Blah of Hong Kong’s Starry Lee.  In an absorbing and heart-warming exercise to encourage civic education, the DAB has held a competition among the city’s primary school children to produce the most interesting ideas for stimulating the Big Lychee’s economy as it plunges into the Great World Depression of 2009.
As would be expected from 10-year-olds, the suggestions focus almost entirely on Santa Claus-style Government largesse.  I would have hoped that at least one or two of Hong Kong’s studious and bright pre-teens would exhibit a passing interest in supply-side structural reform – but it seems our first post-colonial generation has been reared solidly on the principles of Keynesian counter-cyclical fiscal intervention, albeit with the sort of amusing twists to be expected from naïve young innocents.

Some of the ideas meet with my instant approval, notably a 50 percent refund on salaries tax for 2008-09.  The caveat that it be capped at HK$15,000 strikes me as the sort of goody two-shoes fussiness typical of children today, brainwashed as they are by trendy, politically correct, socially aware teachers.  The waiving of rates for a further year smacks of prompting by the DAB competition organizers.  How many kids even know, let alone care, about a quarterly property tax?  My hunch is that our very own Government – planning to extend the waiver anyway – asked the DAB to sneak it into the results, so they can make Starry Lee and her merry pro-Beijing band look important.  It is a sad reflection of Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s increasingly limp leadership that officials find their policies have more credibility when the DAB ‘suggests’ them first.
Where the fourth-graders excel themselves is in their wacky idea for a weekly lucky draw, to which the Government and (charmingly) companies would contribute such prizes as apartments, cars, bus passes, tickets to Disneyland and Ocean Park, Hello Kitty backpacks, Twins Cantopop CDs and a lifetime supply of Meltykiss chocolates.  What jaded, hidebound adult, focusing on sound economics rather than letting the mind play freely in childhood’s boundless world of dreams, could ever imagine such a thing?  Other delightful proposals involve paying cash to companies that don’t fire staff, having the state guarantee 100 percent of enterprises’ loans (cue a stampede of drooling citizens to register companies), letting the people of Shenzhen (average salary – RMB1,000 a month) come here for spending sprees, and opening up unused land for restaurants, boutiques, Pokemon gift shops and sanctuaries for small furry animals orphaned by hill fires.

Most of Hong Kong’s media obviously consider it trivial nonsense – only the
Standard gives it similar front-page treatment – but during these pessimistic times can’t we all do with a lightweight, feel-good story to cheer us up in between the incessant grave and gloomy updates flooding in from Syria Ah!?
Tue, 2 Dec
British officials are made of stern stuff.  “Our role is to provide consular assistance,” says a Foreign Office spokesman in response to whining tourists stuck in Thailand because the airports have been overrun by the now-familiar mouth-frothing, yellow-clad protesters who have convinced themselves that, among other things, the country’s democratically elected administration is going to kill the King. 
“The airlines provide hotels and flights.” You’ve got warm weather, cheap booze, food drenched in chilli and – push comes to shove – trains to KL and Singapore.  Why would you even want to get back to the UK?

Things are different in Hong Kong, however, where the city’s people are in uproar after learning that their Government has murdered – no less – one of their fellow citizens, David Yick.  Yick, like 100,000 other foreign visitors, was unable to get a flight back home out of Bangkok. 

Given the limited capacity of alternative airports, the Hong Kong Government
said on Sunday it would liaise with airlines to help bring residents back to the safety and civilization of the Big Lychee rather than directly arrange charter flights.  Yick took an overnight minibus with other tourists to catch a Dragonair flight out of Phuket, but was killed when the vehicle collided with a truck.  Officials, stung by accusations from politicians that they had for all practical purposes caused Yick’s death, hurriedly announced charter flights.  The embarrassing and unconvincing excuse for the reversal (henceforth to be known as the Great U-Tapao U-turn of 2008) was that the security situation in the Land of Smiles had suddenly deteriorated. 

Even normally pro-establishment lawmakers and commentators, including the
Standard’s fictitious but mouthy Mary Ma, are now turning on our luckless leadership for their incompetent and uncaring response to the plight of helpless Hongkongers abandoned to their fate as the Kingdom of Inane Grins descends into bombings, riots and civil war.  We demand, they declare, that Chief Executive Donald Tsang immediately dispatch a personal, leather-upholstered Learjet with a bodyguard, butler, nurse, well-stocked refrigerator and large box of Meltykiss chocolates to rescue every single Hong Kong tourist stuck in the Siamese hellhole.  Anything less will be an insult to them as taxpayers and to the memory of David Yick.
Wed, 3 Dec
Divine vengeance for its past decadence and venality is suddenly being visited upon Hong Kong in the form of a plague of acne-ridden, spiky-haired, nose-picking, Salem Lights-smoking young men in cheap suits forcing themselves on passers-by on the street in attempts to push credit cards issued by obscure finance companies.  For all their lurching, jabbering and brochure-waving, the hideous-faced salesmen find few takers.  Not even the promise of a free coffeemaker or life-size toy panda bear can lure the citizens of the Big Lychee – at least here in Central – into considering the offer of loans that, taking
up to 12 years to pay off, are clearly tailored for the educationally subnormal.

Where did these pushy and aesthetically dismaying loan sharks’ pimps come from in such a short space of time?  Aficionados of Hong Kong recessions will know the answer without thinking.  They were, until a few weeks ago, in the business of inducing people to take on decades-long burdens of a different sort – multimillion-dollar mortgages on concrete boxes containing a few hundred square feet of space and bits of upstairs’ plumbing poking through the ceiling.  With sales of nasty, overpriced property
plummeting, the city’s grubby real estate agents have been struck by famine and are reduced to rummaging around on the sidewalks in search of scraps of commission.  How soon before we are treated to the sight of these intermediary vultures fighting with each other over some dimwitted lump of personal-finance carrion who has to spend more than he earns?  Just another scene in the wildlife documentary that is the concrete jungle during hard times.

Thurs, 4 Dec
The day starts with a glance at the menu in the Foreign Correspondents Club.  Congee or Mexican-style eggs?  Maybe the latter would add a final exotic and spicy touch to what is, under the circumstances, if we look at it objectively, not a bad existence here in Hong Kong.  Everyone has food on the table, most people are busy and productive, we are free of Bombay-style terror and violence – even the weather is close to perfection.  The only thing missing is my hot breakfast date.

Before I can choose what to eat, delectable Administrative Officer Winky Ip marches in.  She has messy hair, hastily flung-on clothes and a shortness of breath.  “Can’t stop,” she blurts out.  “Everything’s just…”  She waves her hand around and looks up in despair.  “…going wrong.  What a mess!  One thing after another.”  She turns and rushes off to the office in Lower Albert Road. 

Of course, I forgot.  On Planet Government, the whole structure of society is coming apart at every nail.  When the newspapers do their Year in Review space-fillers over the holidays, they will need a special section – the Top 10 Official Screw-ups of 2008, as voted by our readers.  There was the political appointees, allowed to keep foreign passports one day and then arm-twisted into losing them the next.  There was the political appointees’ salaries, starring a 28-year-old bag-carrier getting HK$130,000 a month, almost 10 times the city’s median household income.  There was the old people’s ‘fruit money’ allowance, to be means-tested one day, not means-tested the next.  There was the levy on foreign maids, suspended in such a way as to cause an administrative nightmare, then in a less stupid way, first for two years, then for five, when all they had to do was kill it. 

There was the HK Monetary Authority and the Securities and Futures Commission blaming each other for letting banks sell high-risk ‘minibonds’ to illiterates.  There was the Great Bank Run Panic.  There were embarrassing Executive Council members like David Li and Henry Fan, featuring respectively in an insider trading charge and the grotesquery that passed for corporate governance at CITIC Pacific.  Then there was the predictable bed-wetting about the economic downturn, with every round of layoffs at banks, restaurants and retailers being met with promises to create more and more construction jobs.  (This last trauma came with a silver lining, in that few politicians – even among the opposition – raised so much as an eyebrow at the announcement that the administration would spend HK$100 billion on infrastructure to create 40,000 jobs.  Divide HK$100 billion by 40,000 and you get HK$2.5 million – rather a lot to create, say, two years’ work for a HK$10,000-a-month imported labourer.  But apparently fine by our genius pro-democrats.)

The crises
du jour are the Helpless Hongkongers Abandoned in Thailand Without Charter Flights Scandal, which has Chief Secretary Henry Tang bowing and scraping to the masses and begging for forgiveness, and – just last night – the Great Taxi Driver Revolt.  I am not sure how the world’s most highly paid administrators can concoct a new fare system that puts green taxis out of business on airport-to-New Territories routes and has drivers of red taxis frothing at the mouth as well.  But they seem to have managed it.  Did it occur to anyone to lean out of their chauffeur-driven car at the traffic lights and bounce the idea off a cabby first?

So congee it is.

Fri, 5 Dec
The unmistakable aroma of mothballs wafts across the Fragrant Harbour today, as the last hardy individuals able to survive early winter in short sleeves, single layers or sandals
feel the need to pull out their furry headgear, thick woolen coats and Eskimo-style footwear.  I know, because I am one of them.  Scraping the ice off my bedroom window this morning, I peer out through the raging blizzard and can just make out a couple of brave workers lighting fires under the Mid-Levels Escalator in an attempt to get the frozen machinery moving. 

If I were a woman, my choice of clothing this frigid day would be easy to make.  A puce, fake-Alpaca, Peruvian-style (or is it Tibetan?) pointy bonnet with long flaps covering the ears and ending at the shoulders with fetching bobbles.  A padded (as in bullet-proof) sky-blue corduroy jacket with sequins, partly wrapped in an elegant, eight-foot Hello Kitty scarf.  Tweed trousers that go down to just below the knees and probably have a special name, and long black boots with silver zips and medium heels – leaving a half inch of bare upper calf peeking through to signal availability to passing single males with advanced professional qualifications and at least one fully paid-for property.

But a man faces a tougher decision.  Rummaging around in a drawer, I find a collection of white T-shirts, many of which do not have holes in them.  For the first time since March or so, I put one on under my usual white shirt.  After donning the rest of my standard attire, I open the wardrobe and delve into a little-visited corner.  Waving dust and small invertebrates aside, I pull out a down-filled jacket – an unwanted gift to a husband passed on to me circa 1992 by a female colleague who felt the cold and imagined I lacked such garb through poverty. 

Only when the mercury plunges to extremes do I put the thing on.  Obtaining something more appropriate to the first howls of Hong Kong’s winter monsoon would not have been impossible at some stage during the last 16 years, I suppose.  But it would have involved visiting a clothes store.  I can’t remember the last time that happened.  A shiver of Arctic proportions runs through me at the thought of going into one of those places, looking through numerous garments hanging from racks, examining labels to check the size, trying items on and finally looking helplessly at my reflection in a mirror while some obsequious assistant smiles blandly.  I would rather have a root canal done.  The Filipino elves gift-wrap socks and underpants – paid for from kitchen money – for birthdays and Christmas.  That suffices.  I walk to the door muttering “I may be some time,” mentally preparing myself to climb down the glacier-like hill into the sub-zero sleet and wind-chill factor of Central, wearing nothing on top of my shirt.