Hemlock's Diary
11-17 May, 2008
Tue, 13 May
Does the earthquake that hit Sichuan Province yesterday and claimed some 8,700 lives presage the fall of the mandate of heaven – the first shudders in the collapse of China’s evil communist dictatorship?  Or were the gods directing a timely message to the Tibetan people whose ancestral homelands were at the epicenter – a reminder to splittist elements that without the benevolent Central People’s Government to come to the rescue, they would be doomed?

People as far away as Beijing and Bangkok felt the shocks.  I was on the Mainland myself, and at the precise time the tremors struck my body was wrenched, jerked and flung across the bed I was lying on.  Tectonic plates were not to blame, however.  It was the halfway stage of the monthly Shenzhen massage, when the deceptively petite but lithe girls in their silk pyjama suits turn the victim over for a severe pummeling with a bag full of red-hot pebbles.  To Jenny-the-girl-from-Beijing-but-she’s-got-an-American-passport, this is the highlight of the event.  To me, it is an indication that the bone-stretching, body-battering torment has less than 30 minutes to go. 

After visiting the men’s room to admire the exquisite and original use they have found for plastic ivy, I joined Jenny at the restaurant across the road for tea and a glance at a menu that would delight not only juvenile fans of ‘steamed crap’-style misspellings, but linguists studying the process by which humble catering managements attempt to convey the glory of Chinese culinary terms in an alien language…
The satay is excellent.

I am still aching this morning.  I didn’t have a building cave in on top of me, but it feels like it.
Wed, 14 May
Everyone agrees that China is finally ‘getting it’.  During past natural disasters, the Communist regime’s instinct has been to cover everything up or allow only a highly sanitized account of events to eventually reach the public and the outside world.  By contrast, Mainland media coverage of the Sichuan earthquake appears to be largely spontaneous and factual.  Getting aid to victims is taking longer than originally envisaged, we are told, because of landslides blocking mountain roads and air units’ inability to fly in bad weather.  It works.  With this level of openness, rumours are less likely to start.  And rather than sneer at Mainland authorities’ incompetence, we sympathize.  The Chinese press are even starting to report on themselves, an unmistakable and almost depressing sign that the country’s state mouthpieces are gradually becoming a fourth estate – the self-important, self-absorbed, egotistical and oversized occupant of national space that we all know and love in the West. 

There is no comparison with disaster-struck Burma, where the regime is now ordering monks to evict homeless and starving cyclone victims from the temples for fear – apparently – of people gathering in groups.  The military junta would feel far more secure if everyone would please just wander around the flooded, corpse-strewn countryside in ones and twos.  China’s leaders care desperately how others see them, while the generals in Naypidaw have their minds elsewhere, like Nero fiddling in Rome, or Condoleezza Rice shopping for shoes in New York.

A hitherto rare, if not unprecedented, letter in today’s
South China Morning Post bolsters the impression that the People’s Republic is making a genuine attempt to get a grip on this public relations thing.  The local branch of the Foreign Affairs Ministry deigns to respond to public opinion – barbarian public opinion, indeed – and spell out its side of the Great 2008 Olympic Chinese Visa Screw-Up. 

After denying any change in visa policy, spokesperson Song Ronghua lists the changes, points out (between the lines) how easy foreigners have it compared with Chinese trying to visit the US
et al, and throws in a tear-jerking reminder of how hard the plucky consular staff are beavering away for applicants.  It is, as Johnson would have said, like a dog walking on its hind legs – it is not done well, but you are surprised to see it done at all.  Yet another little bit of history in the making.
Thurs, 15 May
If – thanks to an air-conditioning allowance, a lifelong non-contributory retirement pension and a plethora of other subsidies, perks and handouts – I enjoyed a remuneration package around 250 percent above that of other members of the workforce, I would be more than cheerful this morning after learning that a
6 percent pay rise was in the offing.  Shapely Administrative Officer Winky Ip, however, enters the Foreign Correspondents Club in the blackest and foulest of moods, shoving her way past a friendly waitress, slamming her Tanner Krolle handbag onto an adjacent chair and greeting me with a scowl that would curdle congee.  She takes a deep breath and prepares to get something very serious off her redoubtable chest.

“Westerners think they still run Hong Kong, don’t they?” she blurts out, slapping the table with her hand.  I look around.  I don’t know of any who would want to claim responsibility for the state of things in the Big Lychee these days.  “It’s terrible!” she goes on.  “Those loud expatriate mums making all that fuss!  And now the Government’s had to…had to…”  She is almost sobbing.  “Make a concession!”  She is wringing her hands in anguish.  “It’s so humiliating!” 

After she has collected herself and I have convinced the waitress that it is safe to approach and take back the strangely lumpy
juk, Winky describes the unspeakable tragedy that has befallen our visionary, all-knowing officials.  Egged on by the Liberal Party, the big supermarket chains and foreign diplomats, Hong Kong’s legions of outspoken, large-boned Anglo females have signed petitions and berated lawmakers in an attempt to keep certain obscure types of junk food on the shelves after the new nutrition labeling law comes into effect.  Determined to keep their families on their precious all-processed, packaged and preservatized diet, the blonde, round-eyed amazons forced the administration to back down and exempt their sugar-free cinnamon-flavoured Baco-Bits and low-sodium Cheez-Whiz with added Omega-3 from the new regulations. 

I give Winky a sympathetic pat on the wrist.  “Don’t feel so badly about it,” I assure her.  “You civil servants can hold your heads up with pride.  This was a concession to the cartels – not to public opinion.”

“That’s not the point,” the morose bureaucrat shoots back.  “Those people
think it was a concession to them.  So to us it feels like one.”

“Well, look on the bright side,” I tell her.  “With the press full of reports from Sichuan, few people will notice this – it’s a very discreet climbdown.  And, in the long run, years after everyone’s forgotten all about this, those gwailo housewives and their kids who refuse to eat fresh food will be constipated, obese, you name it.  Revenge!”

She considers this and brightens up a bit.  “Good point.  And the concession’s only for an extra year, anyway.  We’ll get that loophole eventually.”  She’s looking happier already – and there’s still that 6 percent pay hike to think about.

Fri, 16 May
Not for the first time, the Embarrassing Tycoon of the Week Award goes to Walter Kwok, the slightly normal-looking member of the trio who run the Sun Hung Kai portion of Hong Kong’s property cartel, albeit with their mother peering over their shoulders and nagging.  His two brothers, Curly and Moe, get honourable mentions.
The movie will be a Hollywood blockbuster.  Ever since being kidnapped for ransom in 1997 by the gangster known as Big Spender, Walter has been acting sort of distracted and has become mesmerized by a manipulative vamp who becomes his lover and assumes control of parts of the company.  A doctor hired by Moe and Curly diagnoses Walter (behind his back) as having bipolar affective disorder, a modern euphemism for manic depression, itself an outdated euphemism for being a lurching lunatic to be avoided at all costs.  He responds by hiring a doctor of his own, who pronounces him 100 percent sane, at least in comparison with his two born-again Christian wacko brothers.  Bickering breaks out over questionable deals in which the firm has paid over the odds for land in Beijing and a plot uncomfortably close to a crematorium in Hong Kong.  In February 2008, the family feud comes to a head when Walter agrees to take a long trip a very long way away, but doesn’t.

Fast-forward to 15 May, and the company’s board, which includes cartel member and late Daddy’s buddy Henderson Land boss Lee Shau-kei, is about to vote on kicking Walter out for his alleged high crimes and misdemeanours and overall weirdness.  But not so fast!  Walter takes out a last-minute injunction forbidding the directors from doing any such thing.  The
South China Morning Post, being very mature, reports only the bare facts in its business section but obliquely hints at the madness by printing a map in an adjacent column in which the Aegean Sea appears off the coast of East Africa.  The Standard, aware that its readers’ attention spans are waning after four days’ depressing coverage of dead Sichuanese toddlers, devotes page after salacious page to the Sun Hung Kai furor.  Should Walter be sent off to a padded cell in a straitjacket?  Are the two really dorky looking ones fit to run a kindergarten picnic?  Isn’t that creepy old bat the mother to blame for all this deep down somewhere?
In the final scene of the film the action cuts to the Hong Kong Legislative Council.  Valiant Chief Executive Donald Tsang chooses this moment to make an announcement.  Functional constituencies, which reserve a large share of political power in Hong Kong to the Kwok brothers and a number of similar upstanding families who contribute so much to the economy, can remain in place after the city becomes a democracy.  Outside, children frolic in the park, loving couples stroll hand in hand along the harbour front, the sun sets and the credits start to roll.
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