Hemlock's Diary
8-14 June, 2008
Tue, 10 Jun
Countries unaccustomed to being taken seriously rejoice this morning as they receive evidence of how important they are. 
India has three cities in the list of the world’s top commercial centres, as does Canada, while China has no fewer than five – thanks to the sterling efforts of Chengdu and Chongqing.  Compilers of the survey inform us that plucky little Paris has pulled ahead of Frankfurt, while all four Asian tigers – Hong Kong, Seoul, Singapore and Taipei – “rank well in the financial as well as knowledge creation and information flow dimensions.”

How does Singapore rank above Hong Kong when by any standard measure – depth of markets, size of skills clusters, trade volume, etc – the former is a shadow of the latter?  The compilers of the report considered livability as a factor, which would obviously weigh against a city where urban planning is controlled by psychopaths who for all practical purposes might as well be on the take from real estate and construction interests.  On the other hand, they also gauged personal freedom, which must have counted against a city where government is controlled by a senile, mouth-frothing tyrant who bankrupts those who disagree with him and throws film makers in jail.  As it happens, the more successful commercial centre is the one where the air is poisonous but the taxes are so low no-one wants to leave. 

Looking closely, we see that the compilers of the report include several Canadians, a Chinese and what would appear to be a Singaporean Indian.  And, on further investigation, we notice that the whole thing is a
public relations exercise by MasterCard, designed primarily to get the name MasterCard into the newspapers.   So it is a more pretentious version of the infamous annual Durex survey that reports Hongkongers as having sex only once every six months, which at least sounds fairly accurate. 

Although the MasterCard report’s writers did not consider propensity to flooding, the Big Lychee’s status as a business hub would not have been helped if Saturday had been a working day.  For residents of Central, the highlight of the storm that morning must have been the silver Lexus that found its way on to Des Voeux Road less than an hour after the area had experienced nearly six inches of rain between 8am and 9am.  Finding himself ploughing through two feet of an extremely unappetizing-looking liquid later described by the media as ‘water’, the driver clearly imagined that the best course of action was to put his foot down and force the tons of murk aside through speed as if it were, say, a group of orphans on a pedestrian crossing.  After raising an impressive amount of spray, much appreciated by the easily amused crowds gathered to watch outside Worldwide House, the vehicle inevitably spluttered to a halt a few yards from an abandoned taxi, leaving the occupants to starve to death.
Wed, 11 Jun
Words change their meaning over the centuries.  The word ‘silly’ used to mean ‘blessed’ and came to mean ‘innocent’, and then ‘gullible’ – hence its modern use.  Future etymologists will no doubt cite the Hong Kong Government when they trace a semantic shift that started yesterday when officials
announced that “The eight newly-appointed undersecretaries and nine political assistants have voluntarily disclosed their salaries.”  The adverb used to mean ‘of one’s own free will’, then it came to mean ‘at knife point to get Chief Executive Donald Tsang out of a predictable and avoidable mess’.

FEDERATION OF Trade Unions representative Kwong Chi-kin dredges up every band-aid welfare solution to rising food costs for his motion today in the Legislative Council…
Free breakfasts and lunches in school for children from poor families.  Free food and milk in the classrooms.  Food cooperatives to buy in bulk, community hot food centres and food banks for the hungry.  Food and meal coupons.  Free meal deliveries for the elderly.  Is there anything we’ve missed?  Anything from Britain’s Labour administration in the late 1940s under Clement Atlee?  Something from Johnson’s mid-60s Great Society perhaps?  A trendy scheme from Scandinavia maybe?

Given Kwong’s tragic picture of ragged waifs scraping mouldy cabbage from the ground at wet markets, and his careful avoidance of hinting at anyone having to dip into their own pockets to pay for anything, even the most pro-business lawmaker will vote for this motion.  They might not entirely like the emphasis on kids and the elderly, preferring welfare for the working poor so they can pay lower wages (‘twas ever
thus).  But even the Liberal Party – which normally regards fellow humans as low-cost production units and captive consumers of overpriced goods and whose anti-poverty platform centres on euthanasia – offers only a mild amendment…
Don’t, in other words, blame the Big Lychee’s supermarket duopoly and wholesale cartels, because they wouldn’t dream of profiteering.  As if any such thought would cross our minds.

Thurs, 12 Jun
In the IFC Mall branch of Pacific Coffee this morning, a plump woman wearing those Buddhist jade beads on her wrist is sitting in my favourite chair – the one where the creepy looking girl who reads the Bible in Chinese can’t mentally undress me, and I don’t have to listen to the largely Western, latter-day ‘Muscular Christian’ men who hold hands around the table and ask the Lord to guide them through the day ahead.  The outlet’s one atheist customer is soon joined by wild ex-Mormon friend Odell, who is enthusing about Hong Kong’s chicken cull – thousands of innocent birds, machine-gunned to death in the streets on the Herod-style off-chance that one of them might be carrying the H5N1 virus.

I tend to agree.  Not only is it a good idea to slaughter the birds to protect public health, it sends a message to other life forms not to be irritating.  Don’t make stupid clucking noises, don’t keep jerking your head around, and stop looking so stupefied about everything.  And as if that weren’t enough, the feathered ones’ elimination offends a wide range of worthy people.  The impossible-to-satisfy market-stall holders who demand compensation when they are not allowed to use the sidewalk as a blood-splattered abattoir.  The crotchety old ladies whose extreme Cantonese culinary fundamentalism requires them to examine avians’ rear ends before putting them in the cooking pot, heart still beating.  And, for all I know, the deranged anthropomorphic Western women who mount mercy missions to Sichuan earthquake disaster zones to rescue gerbils. 

But the real reason to welcome the dispatch of the squawking, malodorous egg-layers is surely for the rush of nostalgia.  Go back a bit over 10 years, and Hong Kong – and the world – was watching in astonishment as men in sinister protective suits roamed the new ex-colony bundling 1.4 million chickens into black plastic bags and gassing them.  In the background, the city’s property market was starting to crumble, and its Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa was introducing his new style of leadership – government by running round in circles and flapping your arms.  It was the start of 60 months of despair, joblessness, rising suicide rates, celebrity death, the SARS plague and a people’s uprising.  An era of such wretched awfulness it was fascinating and we miss it.  No wonder the Big Lychee’s authorities today are poised to zap edible fowl faster than you can say ‘bird flu’.
Fri, 13 Jun
Otter-like Education Secretary Michael Suen
praises critical thinking, albeit from the comfortable obscurity of Peru.  Suen’s finest example of lively, inquiring thought came when demolition crews shocked the more sentimental folk of Hong Kong by starting to knock down the much-loved old Star Ferry Pier one day in late 2006 without warning.  The Housing, Planning and Lands Minister, as he then was, declared, “…amendments to the Central District (Extension) outline zoning plan were gazetted in February 2002 to invite views from the public, and no objection was received … public consultation has been conducted in accordance with statutory procedures,” in a leaden, numbing monotone that would make millions from insomniacs if it could be bottled. 

It is a thankless task, weaving bureaucracy, mendacity and condescension in just the right way to impose on a reluctant and ignorant citizenry the policies that you know – and they refuse to accept – are correct.  It takes its toll on a man.  The evidence is there for all to see in the new book,
Serving The Community Whether it Likes it or Not, a long-overdue paean to Hong Kong’s golden generation of locally recruited administrators, the men of vision who rose through the ranks of officialdom to emerge in that hallowed pinnacle of power where it is forever the bold and fearless 1970s. 

A Government employee since 1966, Suen in particular goes from strength to strength – inspiring and leading through vacuity and total risk-aversion. “Applied learning courses to be offered under the new senior secondary academic structure will provide a broad and balanced curriculum for students.”  Lima sleeps deeply this weekend.
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