Hemlock's Diary
4-10 May, 2008
Mon, 5 May
With all the fuss and excitement of the Olympic Games finally over for another four years, Hong Kong can once again concentrate on the things that are extremely boring but matter, like the people who have the moral authority and position to shame our uncontrollably self-indulgent leaders into governing more wisely and fairly and less wastefully – but don’t.  Yes, the heroic Democratic Party continues its gradual decline into obscurity and irrelevance as Vice-Chairman and presumed boss-in-waiting Sin Chung-kai
backs out of September’s Legislative Council election.  He could probably have held on to his current Technology Functional Constituency seat had he wished, but like many representatives of the rotten boroughs he hankered for the relative legitimacy of a Hong Kong-style popular vote.  Calculating that his band of losers seem unlikely to win more than one seat in his chosen Geographical Constituency – Hong Kong Island – he has decided not to take up the chance to run in third place on the Party’s list.  Gazing into my crystal ball, I see the Government and malignant Beijing emissaries in the Big Lychee discreetly re-jigging the fuzzy qualifications for membership of the Technology electorate with a view to claiming it for the patriotic forces of darkness.

Top place on the Democrats’ Island list goes to an unknown called Kam Nai-wai.   The idea is that we will all feel compelled to cast our votes for him because of outgoing Chairman and second-placed candidate Yeung Sum’s magnetic charisma.  Sin doesn’t help anyone much this morning on the radio by blurting out that he thought Yeung’s chances were zero (though they probably are).  Those of us in favour of universal suffrage will also have a number of elegant and very nice-smelling ladies from the Civic Party to vote for, not to mention former Chief Secretary Anson Chan.  So that’s three different lists of pro-democrats.  (Maybe Sin should take second position on Anson’s list, on the highly unlikely but not arithmetically impossible off-chance that Dame Conscience attracts a sufficient surfeit of votes to grab a second seat – but that implies rational thought and cooperation in the pro-democracy camp, which is asking for a bit much).  The sadism-whips-and-melted-wax brigade will of course have former Security Secretary Regina Ip, while masochists who enjoy being ripped off by cartels will have a friendly neighbourhood Liberal at hand.  And those of us who obey orders and love the glorious motherland and want to vote for someone who is against voting always have the Democratic Alliance for the Blah Blah of Hong Kong.  As the Democratic Party fades slowly and embarrassingly away, like a toothless, emaciated dinosaur sinking into the swamp, the voter is left with no shortage of choice.
Tue, 6 May
In the luxuriant splendor of the IFC Mall branch of Pacific Coffee, I flick through the day’s news.  In Burma, the Junta has raised the cyclone death toll from 200 to 10,000 to ‘We don’t care anyway’.  In Anhui Province the number of hand, foot and mouth disease cases has gone from 21 and no deaths to 340 and no deaths to untrustworthy totals of dead kids.  Uninterested, wild American friend Odell leans back in his easy chair and swirls his organic, low-sodium, Omega-3 cappuccino with 25 percent less sugar.  “You’ll never guess what I did on Sunday,” he says. 

Let me think.  He woke up at 8am in the Old China Hand with his watch and wallet missing?  He impaled five taxi drivers on wooden stakes respectively for impertinence, deafness, bad English, not having change for a thousand dollar bill and aggressive driving?  He managed to talk his way out of it when his jealous and hot-tempered Thai wife Mee found used condoms and mysterious girls’ panties under their bed?  The possibilities are endless, so I just ask him to tell all.
“I signed a petition,” he announces, with a hint of pride.  “At the supermarket.  It’s against the Government’s mandatory nutrition labeling scheme.”  He pulls out a leaflet and shows me.  “If this thing goes ahead, millions of healthy pre-packaged food products that gwailos need, like fat-free Baco Bits, low-cholesterol organic Froot Loops and calcium-enriched cupcakes, will be off our shelves because it will cost too much money to stick on the special nutrition labels the Government is demanding.  With no healthy processed foods available, all our teeth will fall out and we’ll get rickets.  And we’ll have to eat other stuff, like from the market, and – you know, then you need to take a dump like every freakin’ day, right?”
The leaflet makes for alarming reading, but something isn’t quite right.  “Listen,” I tell the ex-Mormon, “the petition is organized by the HK Retail Management Association – big supermarkets, and so on.  If you read about this issue in the papers, you’ll see that most of the Legislative Council members against this labeling system are from the Liberal Party.  What does this tell us?”

He thinks about it for a few seconds.  “It tells us that Park N Shop, Wellcome and the Liberal Party care really deeply about the interests of consumers.”  He ponders some more and scratches his head.  It doesn’t sound right, and he knows it.

“Could it be,” I suggest, “that these products are basically junk food, and the health claims are a way of suckering people into paying big money for what is really just nasty cheap rubbish – and the trade groups are petrified consumers will find out if they’re forced to put labels on these packages of high-profit-margin garbage?”  As he looks down in shame, I pour the cappuccino over his head to reinforce the message. “Yes,” I conclude, “it could.” 

I’ve told him before about signing petitions without checking with me first.
Wed, 7 May
Another month, another Hong Kong Government consultation paper.  Over the border in the glorious motherland, you wake up one morning and agriculture has been de-collectivised, foreign-owned factories are being welcomed, private property has been legalized, they are flooding whole counties behind giant dams, and they are shooting things into clouds to make the rain start or stop.  No-one asks your opinion.  Here in the Big Lychee, our officials unveil proposals for grand reforms and schemes and invite us all to take a good look and speak up.  What do we think?  Does it meet the needs of all stakeholders?  Will it upset any various sectors?  Are the bureaucrats who thought it all up really cool or what?

Now, from the folks who brought us such memorable successes as the 2000 Consultation on Sustainable Development for the 21st Century, the 2002 Consultation on Implementing Article 23 of the Basic Law, the thrilling 2004 West Kowloon Cultural District Consultation, the exciting 2006 Consultation on Broadening the Tax Base and last March’s
Your Health, Your Life Consultation on Health Care Reform, we have the Consultation on Detailed Proposals for a Competition Law

The word ‘cartel’ appears three times (in footnotes about obscure overseas bodies at the bottom of page 43).  The word ‘property’ does not appear once.  Nor does the word ‘supermarket’.  It is a dry document, focusing on structures and processes, taking care to avoid any juicy bits about famous local oligarchs being dragged away in chains and flung into prison for their collusion, bid-rigging, minimum price maintenance and suppression of the merest hint of competition.  But who can doubt it will happen?  Just a few years to go…

Hong Kong will enjoy true, cut-throat rivalry between developers, as they seek to deliver the maximum number of top quality square feet at the lowest possible price to home buyers.  Tesco, Wal-Mart and Carrefour will open spacious stores, offering families a dazzling array of new choices and lower prices.  Duopolies from commercial radio to personal care retailing will crumble as a hundred providers of goods and services blossom in every sector.  And the notorious pork import monopoly will collapse as thousands of Mainland pigs, vying with one another to get to the Hong Kong consumer first and most cheaply, sprout wings and soar into the sky.

Thurs, 8 May
It seems some 199,999 well-intentioned people joined wild American friend Odell in signing the Hong Kong Retail Management Association’s petition against new nutrition label rules that would supposedly force up to 15,000 products off the market because their packaging declares ‘low fat’, ‘low sugar’, ‘transfat-free’ and ‘contains omega-3’…
If it were the HK Medical Association, the Consumer Council or the Nutrition Association organizing this campaign, this concern for consumers’ well-being would be understandable and credible.  (Touching, even, in the case of our rapacious and venal doctors.)  However, the people who are behind this are essentially our friendly local supermarket duopoly – purveyors of high-quality processed, refined, brightly packaged junk to the gentry.  They do sell fresh produce too, but it is what anti-nutritionism writer Michael Pollan calls ‘edible foodlike substances’ that offer the industry the big price mark-ups.  Products with ‘low fat’ on the package increase obesity among consumers (at least, dimmer ones), while of course making Li Ka-shing fat in other ways. 

To quote Pollan – “A health claim on a food product is a good indication that it’s not really food.”  It is not, in the end, all that surprising.  Indeed, it would be remarkable if people simple-minded enough to think that the HK Retail Management Association cares deeply about consumers did not also imagine that Oreos, Ketchup and Cheez-Whiz are fit to be put into their mouths.

Fri, 9 May
An anguished e-missive from the South China Alliance for Non-natural Ketchup Sauces takes me to task for saying nasty things about the bright red, gummy, sugary concoction they dollop over anything on a plate.  As they point out, their use of the stuff is partly a psychological crutch – a link with their distant homelands, where their parents brought them up to consider many dishes incomplete until they had poured quasi-tomato goo onto them. 

It is a dependence that knows no class or educational boundaries.  From the lowliest British-born day labourer in the building trade to the highest-paid American investment banker, the Heinz bottle is a source of comfort.  Only the other day, I witnessed a respected member of the fourth estate at the Foreign Correspondents Club tipping the viscous vermillion all over his breakfast of corned beef hash then mashing the whole lot up, before taking even a mouthful.  Like a pile of mangled corpses at a roadside calamity – which it strongly resembled – it was physically sickening to behold, yet impossible to look away from.

But, SCANKS asks me, what else are you supposed to put on frenched (or chopped, commonly and erroneously spelt ‘French’) fries?  This is an excellent question.  The thin, fleshless, crispy, cardboard-like slices served at such illustrious culinary emporia as McDonalds demand something both sharp and sweet to overpower the salty greasiness that the chefs have somehow contrived.  Out of pure academic curiosity, I have tried to recreate this aroma in my own kitchen and found it almost impossible.  The fat needs to be matured just the right way, and a special, highly concentrated and slightly rancid molecular form of sodium chloride needs to be used.  Since McDonalds colonized the streets of Hong Kong starting some 25 years ago, the Big Lychee has sadly become as big a per-capita consumer of this bastardized
ke tsap – ‘tomato juice’ – as benighted Anglo-Saxon nations.
All of which brings us rather neatly to Chief Secretary Henry Tang’s current tireless efforts ‘to secure closer ties between Hong Kong and the European Union and Belgium’.  The Kingdom of Belgium’s most outstanding contributions to the modern world are few in number but impressive.  The first is surrealist painter Renne Magritte.  The second is the discovery of mayonnaise as an alternative complement to fried potato.  While shocking and undoubtedly obnoxious, it is an improvement on SCANKS’ sickly scarlet slime.  Rather like Belgium’s third great claim to fame – whipping someone for non-payment of taxes as a liberal and progressive alternative to cutting off their daughter’s hand, as practiced in the colonial-era Congo once it was no longer under the direct rule of King Leopold II.
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