Hemlock's Diary
2-8 Mar, 2008
Sun, 2 Mar
A weekend of weird flashbacks.   The first was sparked in the Foreign Correspondents Club by a glimpse in the corner of my eye of smartly pressed, pale blue cotton.  In the spilt second it was there I perceived it as tailored in a slightly military cut, and I was suddenly a couple of decades younger in a meeting room just upstairs.

A sweaty but trim, red-faced man, late 40s or so, was seated at a table.  He was wearing a powder blue safari suit and had hairy arms and a chunky steel watch.  Opposite him were two other men, maybe a bit older, also in safari suits, smoking and drinking spirits with ice from tumblers.  All three were looking serious, if not grim.

“Been into China yet?”  “No, we’re planning to go into China next week – waiting for the visa to come through.”  “I was up there about… oh, a month ago.”  One of them paused and looked up at me standing by the door, keeping them company while they awaited one of my colleagues.  “You live here – must go into China quite a bit I bet, huh?”

“Um, no, not much,” I said.  “I’m going into Canada in a couple of weeks.”

Which I did, on a vacation that also took in the Appalachian and Washington DC outposts of the Hemlock clan and a couple of side trips for no good reason other than idle curiosity to Bermuda and the Bahamas. 

The weekend’s second flashback came while flicking through the
South China Morning Post when I saw an advertisement for the famous ice cream manufacturer Dolce & Gabbana…
Within an instant I was back in Nassau.  There is a white minority community there who go back centuries, during which time they have apparently gone to great lengths to avoid marrying into the black population.  You can tell they’re not tourists because they ride in horse-drawn buggies and wear straw hats.  And they have those faces.  And, in particular, those foreheads.  My one attempt at conversation with one yielded strangely accented monosyllables.  No.  yes.  Mm.  That was about it.  It took effort not to stare at the towering expanse of frontal cranium above the eyes and wonder ‘what’s in there?’
It is good to see them getting into the modeling business.

Mon, 3 Mar
The Standard reports (or ‘spreads’, ‘encourages’, ‘starts for a laugh’, according to taste) a rumour that Hong Kong’s congenital bureaucrat par excellence Rafael Hui is angling for the job of Macau Chief Executive.  Article 46 of Macau’s Basic Law says that the boss of the Sino-Luso-sleazo enclave must be a permanent resident who has lived in the place for at least 20 continuous years, which would appear to rule out Donald Tsang’s sidekick in the Communist-backed Civil Service putsch that ousted Tung Chee-hwa three years ago yesterday.

But in the parallel universe that is the post-1997 Big Lychee, things that appear to be ruled out sometimes happen anyway.  The poor wretch who went to the police nine months ago when her ex-boyfriend posted nude photos of her on the Internet probably ruled out hopes of justice when our dedicated law enforcers waved her away.  But then, after being criticized for mobilizing half the cops in town to unearth the perpetrator of the Catastrophic Edison Chen Gynecological Visual Aids Carnage of 2008, the prosecutors made a great show of digging up her case again as if they had planned to all along.
Similarly, people demanding a licence for an alternative radio station must have ruled out the chances of such a thing happening when the authorities not only said that there were no spare frequencies but arrested people who appeared on illegal broadcasts – or didn’t arrest them if they were members of the pro-Government camp.  But then, as if by magic, a new station now looks set to get the go-ahead, albeit it one backed by nearly every recent member of the Executive Council except Rafael Hui.  (A new superlative is needed.  We have ‘common’, we have ‘widespread’, we have ‘ubiquitous’, we have ‘unavoidable’, and we have Ronald Arculli.)

In a similar vein, commercial radio stations in most cities would rule out broadcasting patriotic education and 30 hours a week of ‘harmonious society’ programming on the grounds that it would wipe out listener ratings and thus profits.  Once again, in the nether regions of the Pearl River Delta, the unlikely and improbable weirdly become feasible.  No-one will tune in, but property developers, cartel operators and other tycoons seeking to keep themselves in Beijing’s and Sir Bow-Tie’s good books will fall over each other in their attempts to sponsor every episode of
Let’s All Be Proud of the Motherland.  It’s a brilliant idea.  I am insanely jealous. 

In short, the 21st Century Big Lychee has been liberated from boring, predictable order by the spirit of making it up as we go along.  The only fixed constant outside the laws of nature is the iron determination of former senior officials to Serve the Community.  ‘Serve’ here, of course, means ‘gratify exhaustively at any cost’, ‘the’ means ‘my’, and ‘community’ means ‘pathological and obsessive urge to run and expand a bloated empire supported by public wealth’.  The South West Kowloon Cultural Hub, Macau or the Moon – Rafael will get one.  At least.

Tue, 4 Mar
With the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in
full, zippy swing, and the fun, action-packed National People’s Congress following straight afterwards, anyone who is anyone is out of town right now in Beijing, including the visionary Chairman and Managing Director of S-Meg Holdings.  But this does not mean his loyal underlings can – to pluck a purely fictitious example from thin air – simply wander off to Shenzhen and check out some new Hangzhou restaurants recommended by Jenny the girl from Beijing-but-she’s-got-an-American-passport.  Not just like that.  They must sit at their desks first thing in the morning while Ms Fang the hunter-killer secretary does her eavesdropping-switchboard act and passes the Big Boss from one person to the next for his daily conversation.  Then they can wander off to Shenzhen…

Sticking my head out of the gwailo’s lair, I can monitor the tycoon’s telephonic progress among his senior managers by listening to howls of contrition in one office giving way to frantic expressions of total agreement in another.  The cause of anguish
du jour is the company’s forthcoming 2007 financial results, which are being compiled by a squad of spotty accountants camping out in the conference room.  When they have crafted suitably pleasing and admirable numbers they will be let out.

By the time he gets to me, the Big Boss wants to hear some good news and unburden his troubles on the court jester and confessor. 

“The big story,” I tell him, “is the record levels of respirable suspended particulates, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide that we are breathing in.  The Government says
it’s caused by still air.  So they’re pressing ahead with the new freeway along the harbour front, the new bridge over to Macau, and so on.  When all the extra cars and trucks are circulating at speed, that will get the air swirling again and everything will be OK.”  The great man mutters his approval and I ask him how things are up in the nation’s capital. 

“Pah!  Same as always,” he splutters.  “Complete waste of time.  Everything’s just so slow!  You go to a meeting, listen to a long speech, then there’s a long lunch, then all the Mainland delegates go to their hotel rooms and have a nap while all the Hong Kong people sit around waiting for things to start up again.  Another meeting in the afternoon – just sitting there!  Dinner, then they all go off to their hotels, while the Hongkongers sit around complaining about how we could fit the whole schedule into a day.”  I voice my sympathy, in my best conclusion-of-phone-call-approaches tone of voice.  It’s tough, doing your patriotic duty, but some of us have a ferry to catch.
Wed, 5 Mar
I have never commuted to work by ferry before, especially not on a route that requires a passport, but my trip from western Shenzhen to Hong Kong this morning suggests that it can be done.  You can get from house to desk in 90 minutes provided your apartment and office are within 10-15 minutes of the respective ferry terminals.  One drawback is that there are no Hong Kong newspapers in that part of Communist-run territory at that time of the day, so I pass the time mulling over Hangzhou cuisine.  The latest food craze to take the Mainland by storm, it is, we are told, characterized by freshness of ingredients, light flavours and delicate cooking methods (which is exactly what they say about Beijing, Shanghai, Cantonese, etc).  I was especially impressed by the fish omelet – an egg dish that stares back.
The Big Boss decides that we should come to him rather than the other way round, so S-Meg Holdings’ senior management team and hangers-on gather around a speaker phone for the morning conference call from Beijing.  He starts by barking a few orders at people, who silently roll their eyes in exasperation, shake their heads and grin at each other, or – in the case of Ms Fang the hunter-killer secretary – stick their tongues out.  As he moves on, some loyal subordinates start to tiptoe out of the room.  He describes how he has had his photo taken in the Great Hall of the People shaking hands with a prominent heavy consumer of black hair dye.  He will be presented with a 12-by-18-inch print of this picture in a tacky cardboard frame before coming back here.  He then asks, “Hemlock, are you there?  What’s in the news today?”  Not having a clue, I am about to make something innocuous up – another food poisoning/nude Cantopop photos/air pollution/Hello Kitty/grassroots/tourist attraction/freedom of speech/karaoke/property prices drama – when he remembers something of far greater urgency.  “Oh Ms Fang!” he demands.  “I want it on the wall in the reception area where everyone sees it!  Not stuffed behind the sofa in my office like last time!”  I catch the flash of a scowl and a glimpse of a tongue darting out at the phone as I quietly escape to catch up on the papers on the ferry.
Thurs, 6 Mar
One of the unexpected consequences of residing in Shenzhen and dropping into the Big Lychee for a few hours every morning is that I find I am reading Nury Vittachi’s new
Dissident’s Diary on the trip back to the land of two-eyed omelets.  The daily piece appears on his own website, plus that of the Standard, and of course in the Standard’s print version.  A highly privileged and exclusive elite – of which I am a member – also receive it by email.

It comes as little surprise, therefore, to find it is on display, fresh every day, neatly framed on the wall in the restrooms on the Central-Shenzhen ferry.  Normally when taking a pee on a boat I might sit rather than stand, but with this column to read I am taking the risk, aiming with care while perusing the literary miniature. 

On Tuesday, Nury wrote that Hong Kong shop assistants’ mangled English pronunciation, though very difficult for native speakers to understand, is somehow
comprehensible to other Asians.  This is a bit like claiming that the lost detail in a very blurred photo, though it cannot be detected by someone with perfect eyesight, is clear to people with poor vision. 

Hong Kong McDonalds staff who greet customers with “Harlowelcumkaneye L. pyoo?” are simply parroting a phrase, maybe without even understanding it.  The managers who train them to recite it have terrible English accents themselves, having learned from unqualified non-native speaker teachers.  To complicate things, they are
careless enough with their own language.  The spoken sounds customers hear from these serving staff are equally hard (or easy) for Filipinos, Singaporeans, Indians or whiteys alike to catch.

Some parts of Asia do have an English-derived, commonly understood vernacular that is to some degree impenetrable to outsiders – Singaporeans’ Anglo-Hokkien-Malay hybrid Singlish being an example.  With its own grammar and vocabulary, it can communicate many ideas and thus serves as a language.  Phrases like “Harlowelcumkaneye L. pyoo?” learned by rote do not.

Yesterday, Nury presented a list of “Why do men do
x, y or z?” questions designed to humorously illustrate the difference between the way men and women think, as bulk-emailed from time to time by the easily amused.  Only he inserted the word ‘Asian’ before the word ‘men’ throughout.  If anything, the original questions describe ‘oafish’ Western males rather than the more refined Oriental stereotype. 

As with the previous piece, there is an underlying agenda to construct differences between ‘Asian’ and ‘non-Asian’ that do not in fact exist.  The effect is jarring, maybe even slightly disturbing.  Addictive stuff!  Sadly, my daily migration between Chimera Rissoles City and the Big Lychee comes to an end today and I am unlikely to burrow so deeply into the
Standard every morning for a while. 

Shenzhen continues to feed as imaginatively as it does cheaply, while offering space, live music and other novelties.  Every day, it seems, it finds another way to overshadow the Fragrant Harbour.  For example, thanks to the steady rise in Shenzhen’s population towards 10 million, Hong Kong can no longer claim the title of biggest city in the world without a proper museum.  The shame!
Fri, 7 Mar
Former Chief Secretary Anson Chan quotes folk singer Joni Mitchell – “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot” – in a South China Morning Post article decrying the Urban Renewal Authority’s psychopathic plans for the Graham Street area of Central.  The URA’s basic mission is to re-house slum-dwelling people and businesses, but for reasons that manage to be equally complex, depressing and tedious, it can’t think of a way to achieve this other than leveling entire low-rise, historic neighbourhoods where people walk around, and replacing them with high-density tower blocks, shopping malls and vehicles. 

Which 70s rock act would the URA quote?  Joni suits the one-time top bureaucrat-turned legislator.  I can just imagine Anson Chan in a long flowery cotton skirt with beads dangling from her neck, rolling a joint in some creaky house in Laurel Canyon, surrounded by her pottery and cats, Kerouac and Zen on the bookshelves, Navajo rugs on the wall, patchouli and wind chimes in the air.  Who can’t?  The URA, on the other hand, would wear torn leather, have a mostly shaven, partly tattooed head and a safety pin stuck through its lip.  It would be picking its nose and urinating in a dark corner of a London Underground Station where it had just stamped on a stranger’s face for looking at it the wrong way. 
Smash It Up by The Damned, perhaps.

The Graham Street market that will be buried under the rubble is where I grab my weekly ration of lemons and limes, which I like to squeeze into soda water (or, sometimes, a 50-50 mix of soda water and San Miguel, to make an exquisite shandy).  So this is personal.  If the URA gets its way, I get scurvy.
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