Hemlock's Diary
1-7 June, 2008
Mon, 2 Jun
I seem to be the only person in Hong Kong this morning who is not leaping on our dashing Chief Executive Donald Tsang and biting his head off over the Great Undersecretaries-With-Foreign-Passports Scandal Carnage of 2008. 

The Democratic Party, with its distinctive whiff of gangrene these days, decides to do
whatever damage it can to old tormentors before it finally expires.  With its past record of opposing the Chinese Communist Party, demanding that the post-1997 Big Lychee hire overseas judges and defending individual rights, it may seem odd that the gang of martyrs founded by Martin Lee all those years ago should suddenly adopt the ‘patriotic’ position that the newly appointed ministers’ assistants must tear up the Canadian, British and American passports that – like the fat kid eating ice cream in the back of the Mercedes – are a standard bourgeois accoutrement in the city.
It may seem stranger still when we remind ourselves that the Democrats are, like 99 percent of Hong Kong society, among the scheduled castes of citizens excluded from the inner circle of Sir Bow-Tie’s trusted ruling elite.  Not for them a seat next to Ronald Arculli on an important-sounding board or committee.  The pool from which insiders are drawn is small enough as it is, yet the fighters for universal suffrage are demanding that it be made even smaller – and in a way that would make it less cosmopolitan.  It would all be an unfathomable stance to take if the Democrats foresaw a long-term future for themselves.  But as the last chance for the waning party to hurt Donald before its probable poor showing in September’s Legislative Council election, it perhaps makes sense to them.  It’s entertaining, anyway.

Then Joseph Wong, former bureaucrat of the old school and no doubt aghast at the appointment of non-civil servants into the hallowed sphere of policy-making, uses the
South China Morning Post to lament the lack of political astuteness exhibited by the Government over the appointees’ passports and salaries.  A populist little rant questioning the need for holders of barbarian citizenship in this day and age skewers his former boss a bit more.  He pretends to support the introduction of ‘accountable’ (as in ‘expendable’) politicians into the system, but like ex-Chief Secretary Anson Chan’s reservations, this is the last gasp of the old guard.  The arrogant, nannying, colonial, Anglo-Confucian, condescending Administrative Officer elite are on the way out.  As they have to be.  Under the careful stage management and puppetry of one-time AO Donald, power is passing to the fresh, media-aware, Beijing-friendly, rather nervous, out-of-their-depth, Lines-to-Take-carrying, political appointee zombie-cronies of the New Order – beholden to the Bow-Tie.  Not an improvement, but a change.  You can’t have everything.
Tue, 3 Jun
Will Hong Kong’s legions of gourmands take to grilled suckling seal (a bit like dog, but fishier), stewed beaver tail in maple syrup, and roast leg of wombat?  These are just three of the delights that will be on the menu of the new Canadian restaurant Canuck, which I passed yesterday on Central’s charming Elgin Street.  It is easy to find – go down the south side of the road from the Mid-Levels Escalator, past the alleyway with the warning about rat poison, and it’s just to the left of the building entrance way with the 40-year-old junction box.  Or take the north side of the road, then cross when you bump into the bamboo scaffolding blocking the sidewalk, which you will have to anyway.

There are limits to how exotic and authentic Canuck’s offerings will be.  Food writer Yummy Chow tells me the management drew the line at
poutine – the evil and disgusting Quebecois dish in which curd cheese is crumbled into French fries, then smothered with the greasiest chicken or beef gravy that can be found.  However, by the standards of a neighbourhood full of phony dining places, Canuck is real and gritty.  And this is why Yummy is conducting the Worst Restaurant in Soho Competition.

She believes the wretchedness of the district’s many laughably awful hostelries comes down to a number of factors.  The premises – once little grocery stores – would make great noodle places or cafes but are too small to accommodate real restaurants.  The high rents preclude a no-frills approach, however, and force owners to ‘add value’ to the dining experience by installing superficially luxurious but actually cheap and nasty décor.  The crux of the problem is that the ingredients follow the same pattern.  It is not that the food is of poor quality, she says, just very average.  Transplant it to a less pretentiously crafted outlet in a cheaper area, and it would fetch (and deserve) half the price.

To blame landlords is absurd.  They simply let to the highest bidder.  To point the finger at the cynical and corner-cutting restaurant owners is also missing the point.  They too are simply meeting a demand.  The fault, Yummy declares, lies with the suckers who insist on dining in the cramped, fake, themed eateries every evening.  Lan Kwai Fong, she points out, is no better.

Three places made it onto Yummy’s Worst Restaurant in Soho shortlist...
Fat Angelo’s   Elgin Street
Disqualified for not actually pretending to be any good but being mainly honest about what they are offering.  You could almost argue it represents value for money.  Suitable for kids or the extremely easy-to-please.

Duke’s Burger   Staunton Street
Cookie-cutter ambience **
Pretentiousness  *****
Almost disqualified for joking, but they assure us they are serious.  High-end burgers.  Yes,
hamburgers!  For HK$200.  Each.  McDonalds with a bordello’s interior, foie gras and, “carefully selected bun-meat pairings to optimize combination of textures and flavours.”  Oh and don’t forget the “Haute bohemian sophistication.”  But too ridiculous (and therefore, in a perverse way, original) to win the coveted top slot.

Soho Spice   Elgin Street
Cookie-cutter ambience ****
Pretentiousness  ****
This is it.  The classic example of the lame Soho restaurant, with its cynical, contrived theme, phony décor, and of course…  Very ordinary pieces of food dressed in impressively insipid quasi-Thai/Vietnamese trimmings.  Call that watery stuff
tom kha kai???  It almost seems deliberate, as if a lot of work has gone into aiming at diners desperate to pay an awful lot to avoid anything remotely like the authentic cuisine.
Thanks to Yummy, we have been warned.

Wed, 4 Jun
The 19th anniversary.  The consensus this morning on the Mid-Levels Escalator among those of us old enough to remember is that we will skip the vigil this year – again – but put a note in the diary for 2009.  “There are too many teenagers who weren’t even alive at the time,” is one reason, as is “All those Mainland tourists staring and taking photographs.”  It’s a wonder we ever set foot out of our homes.  Rain, however, always keeps us in.  It’s called getting older.

As we glide down the hill towards Central, the inevitable question arises – “Where were you when it happened?”  It was 19 years ago last night.  I was in a pub on Robinson Road much favoured by under-age American and British school kids.  Everything suddenly went quiet and everyone was standing in silence, watching the blurry images of tanks on the TV hanging from the ceiling in the corner. 

ON THE top floor of S-Meg Tower, in the heart of Asia’s leading international financial centre, the Big Boss puts on his special ‘bad-tempered fruit bat’ look when someone mentions the 5-6 percent
pay increase the Government is awarding the world’s most overpaid civil service.  In theory, the Government looks at private-sector remuneration levels, then sets its own pay policy accordingly to attract and keep the right people.  In practice, total compensation in the public sector has become so unhitched from the rest of the labour market that during his lifetime, a career bureaucrat can easily pocket some three dollars from his employer for every buck the private-sector worker gets.  The percentage adjustments might look the same but the bases they are being applied to are in separate universes.  What’s more, civil service pay now sets the tone for the rest of the work force.  Which is why the Big Boss is so unhappy.  A 6 percent pay rise for the desk meat of S-Meg Holdings next January would take a painful chunk out of 2009 profits that have gloom and uncertainty written allover them. 

Even following the better-than-deflation cut (hike, in real terms) in civil service pay following the economic shocks Hong Kong endured in 1998-2003, the Government would be more than justified in freezing bureaucrats’ salaries for years to come.  Instead, in making this award, it assumes the burden of an extra recurrent HK$6.8 billion a year.  This is not far off a quarter of health care expenditure.  Meanwhile, officials are plotting to find ways to convince the work force to pay more for that very same health care via an MPF-type scheme because the Government claims it can’t afford extra.  The Democratic Party could point out how absurd this is.  Instead, in the hallucinogen-addled reverie that passes for its policy analysis, it actually
supports higher pay for civil servants.  With representatives like this, what defenceless citizenry needs oppressors?
Thurs, 5 Jun
Deep in the Appalachian Mountains, young members of the Hemlock clan are celebrating.  They are unusual in a community of tobacco-chewing coal miners, trailer-dwelling National Guardsmen from the chicken factory, and snake-handling Pentecostalists who say that if you reject Jesus and miss the Rapture, you will take the mark of the Beast and be cast into the lake of fire.  They worked for Barack Obama, stuffing envelopes and making phone calls.  With the Democratic race now over, they will presumably be starting again.

Although the party establishment hasn’t technically finished driving the wooden stake through Hillary Clinton’s heart – nor actually broken the news to her – it has finally determined that Obama will run against John McCain for US President.  Up in Copperhead County, Hillary was the resounding favourite.  They didn’t question her credentials as friend of the blue-collar folk or raise eyebrows at the gut-wrenchingly awful working-class accent she adopted at opportune moments for the cameras.
Despite its reputation, the place is culturally proto-Mid-West rather than Southern.  They don’t resent or fear blacks – they never even see any – but a half-white-half-African is otherworldly in a place where, so legend has it, marrying someone with a different family name only recently caught on.  Maybe Obama could win Middle America’s white non-trash but non-cosmopolitan demographic if he had Hillary as his running mate, but he would be insane to pay that price, getting attached to someone who takes drooling after power to new heights and brings that baggage so elaborately described in Todd Purdum’s infamous Vanity Fair epic.  So, although they are not (or barely) old enough to vote, the idealistic stateside Hemlocks and their counterparts throughout the small-town interior have a job to do, or it will be President McCain come January.

CLOSER TO home, the Great Undersecretaries’ Passport and Pay Disaster of 2008 continues to unfold, as the remaining three appointees with foreign citizenship say they will become
all-patriotic 100 percenters.  Liberal Party leader James Tien meanwhile joins the debate over the more junior new appointees’ salaries.  One of the new political assistants, a Paul Chan in his late 20s, was earning HK$20,000-30,000 a month beforehand, and now gets around HK$100,000 more.  How come?

There are two explanations for what is going on.  Explanation 1 is the conspiracy theory.  By
failing to seriously support the constitutional right of these office holders to have foreign citizenship, the devious and clever Government is setting a precedent.  Ownership of a foreign passport now implicitly reduces a Hong Kong resident’s ranking in the grand scheme of things.  The repercussions could touch everyone.  ‘No other citizenship’ equals first-class citizenship.  The lavish pay, meanwhile, locks these new appointees in to a lifetime of patronage and cronyism.  Many of them were apparently selected by former Monetary Authority deputy boss Norman Chan, now head of the Chief Executive’s Office.  If Chan succeeds Donald Tsang in 2012, he will have a ready-made power base of people who owe him already in place.  This is, after all, how they have done it in Beijing since 1949.  Explanation 2 is that we are being run by clueless, out-of-their-depth clowns.
Fri, 6 Jun
There is a marvelous invention that transports people around at walking pace standing upright.  It is called legs.  However, there is something undeniably primitive (and in some cases, unsightly) about these lower limbs, and few people were sorry several years ago when the news suddenly arrived that a new device – the Segway – would be making them redundant.  Except, for some inexplicable reason, it never caught on beyond a few over-funded, publicity-starved police departments.  You would have thought everyone would want a box on wheels costing thousands of dollars that yields none of the comfort of a car or even bike and delivers none of the flexibility or healthy exercise of walking.  But apparently they do not. 

At least up to now.  That is about to change, as charismatic and clean-living Hong Kong thespian Jackie Chan
does his sums and calculates that he could make a mint if every one of China’s 1.3 billion people would get off their smelly old yak, noisy little motor scooter or Flying Horse brand pushbike and start gliding effortlessly up and down the verdant valleys of Sichuan, the rocky wastes of the Gobi desert and the ancient steps of the Forbidden City on one of the slightly awkward-looking contraptions.  Going for US$5,000 in the US, the Segway will retail at US$10,000 in the glorious motherland.  Allowing for transport costs and import tax, that should give Chan a mark-up of, say US$2,500 per unit, or 3.25 trillion bucks (or 25.3 trillion Hong Kong Dollars), faster than he can say, “This is very little money to me.  I don't rely on this to make money.”
On the subject of tiresome Hongkongers, this week’s Economist features none other than lapsed Canadian Greg So, of passport-sacrificing Undersecretary fame.  One word has so far been absent from the sprawling debate on officials’ nationalities, and that is ‘jealousy’.  Casting my mind back to the days when we were poor but happy – when we would donate blood for the free can of San Miguel the nurse gave you afterwards – I recall the covetous, acquisitive leers from receptionists and secretaries in every workplace.  They were under orders from their parents to marry someone with a foreign passport.  The rich could get one at the drop of a few millions into an investment incentive programme, while the middle class scrimped and saved to send a spouse or offspring away to a second-class job or school in Australia, New Zealand or, of course, Canada.  The poor, however, could just sit and watch. 

After the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, the yearning for an insurance policy became a frenzy, and a young white male could barely walk into or out of an office without being propositioned by desperate clerical staff (decently – this was before young Hong Kong women became the disgraceful sluts they are today).  Immigration advisors set up shop pushing scams and weird Third World citizenships, and employers preferred applicants with foreign papers because they wouldn’t suddenly disappear.  To the majority for whom overseas citizenship was an unattainable dream, it was just matter of waiting and accepting their fate under the evil Communists come 1997, and silently despising the lucky, privileged ones who, in some cases, flaunted their passports.  The recent public hullabaloo must, to some degree, be powered by class envy and revenge.  How the old have-nots must have enjoyed watching the highly paid Undersecretaries squirm and chuck their once-treasured documentation in the trash.  Then again, who didn’t?
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