Hemlock's Diary
13-19 July, 2008
Mon, 14 Jul
It doesn’t get much more exciting than this.  The
South China Morning Post starts to publish a series of biographies of every single member of the Legislative Council who has decided not to seek re-election in September.  I will have to buy a leather-bound scrapbook so I can cut out and keep the whole souvenir set. 

It is almost as thrilling as the recent, impossible-to-miss frenzy over the launch of 3G iPhones.  My knowledge of these devices is incomplete, but I do know that 3G refers to the third generation of mobile phone, which was introduced in Hong Kong – if I recall correctly – a good three or four years back by Li Ka-shing’s Hutchison.  The idea was that you could see the person you were talking to, but for some reason that didn’t work, though you could still view clips of soccer or porn, provided you liked watching things on a screen only an inch or so across.  After pointing out these shortcomings, the
Post found itself threatened with an advertising boycott by Li’s string of corporate empires, and the newspaper hurriedly bestowed its annual business award upon the great man’s Tom Group.  As for iPhones, I can only presume they are related in some way to iTunes, the juke box-on-a-PC that has left my CD player largely gathering dust for several years. 

Whatever these things are, wouldn’t Karl Marx, Thorstein Veblen or someone have been fascinated at the way people rush en masse to clutch at these shiny boxes as if their very identity depends on them?  A certain breed of these consumers have near-orgasms over the prospect of being among the very first humans to buy the sacred contraptions and then squeal and wet themselves over the purchasing ritual’s arrangements, if not the fact that it doesn’t really work very well, or the batteries run out in minutes, or the price drops a few weeks later.  Meanwhile, a few handfuls of us remain dotted around the globe who do not want people to call us anytime, anywhere, who do not walk around with plastic cables sticking out of our ears, and who never saw
Titanic.  We are the left-behind, staring bemused at these brightly coloured little gizmos and unable to identify a single thing they do that we want.  Unless, of course, the iPhones can store the SCMP’s entire series on lawmakers not seeking re-election.  At last – the worldwide mania becomes clear!
Tue, 15 Jul
The Hong Kong Government calculates our per-capita GDP for 2007 as HK$232,836 – call it a respectable-sounding US$30,000.  The IMF and others who adjust it for purchasing power (at around HK$5.9=US$1) make it a more mouth-watering US$40,000 or so.  That’s a bit more than the UK or Germany, and around three times that of Malaysia.  Our median monthly household income in the last quarter of 2007 was HK$18,000, or US$2,300.  (This is the same as it was in 2001 – it bottomed out at HK$15,500 in 2003.)  This is less impressive, with breakdowns for the US and the UK showing that even West Virginia and Scotland can beat that.

At this point the Big Lychee’s officials, fearing an imminent mention of the dreaded phrase ‘gini coefficient’, will rush to blurt out that this last figure is tarnished by the growing number of single elderly people, who each – rather inconsiderately – needs to be counted as a ‘household’, plus the Government provides virtually free homes, hospitals and schools to the poor, plus less than half the workforce pays any salaries tax, and so on. 
There certainly seems to be a growing number of single elderly people delving in the shiny purple garbage bins of the lower Mid-Levels and Central area these days.  Is it simple demographics – an aging population by definition means that wrinkled, meanly clad old folk dragging piles of cardboard around will make up a larger proportion of the population?  Or is their growing density leading to internal migration?  Is competition among our impoverished senior citizens leaving the garbage bins in poor neighbourhoods so depleted of pickings that some them of must roam farther from their hovels to hunt and gather?  Or is it that the garbage is more enticing in the rich folks’ districts – lots of Haagen Dazs cartons and old Economists instead of crumpled cigarette packs and gambling slips?

A question from a few years back comes to mind.  A high per-capita GDP, an observant visitor agreed, but why is it that outside of Central and a few other areas the standard of living in Hong Kong looks about the same as Kuala Lumpur’s?  Thousands of people get soaked queuing overnight outside branches of the Bank of China for the right to buy special, limited-edition presentation sets of
Olympics HK$20 billsThe Standard is too coy to mention it, but it is not a patriotic, souvenir-hunting urge leading them to push and shove.  Assuming the rumoured demand materializes, dealers will buy a HK$1,388 set for several times its original price.  But this doesn’t answer the question.
Wed, 16 Jul
In his lair on the top floor of the corporate headquarters in the heart of Asia’s leading international financial centre, the Company Gwailo of S-Meg Holdings looks out of his window through the gold-tinged haze over Victoria Harbour and across to nearby commercial towers.  The headlines are shrieking ‘Market plunges amid sub-prime credit-crunch meltdown inflation recession panic horror crash doom bloodshed mayhem’.
Down nearly 4 percent yesterday, the contemporary Hang Seng Index is clogged up with Mainland companies run by podgy, ill-shaven sharks with Communist officials in their pockets.  But the local market still lists some examples of the good old corporate Hong Kong, with highly professional managements, unimpeachable integrity and sound future prospects for profit growth.  More or less.  And there will come a time to buy – but how to tell when?  Hence my eagle-eyed examination of the neighbouring architecture.  Particularly the windows and the streets far below.  Plastic bags, suspended particulates and the occasional black kite drift past.  But no-one is hurling themselves to their deaths today.  So not yet.
YET MORE evidence of the cluelessness of our pro-democracy politicians presents itself in the form of a plea to voters from ex-Chief Secretary Anson Chan not to answer exit pollsters’ questions in the September Legislative Council election.  The pro-democrats would like to ban researchers from approaching members of the public and asking them how they just voted, but this clear infringement of free speech has been rejected by the Electoral Affairs Commission.  The reality is that, apart from the Hong Kong University Public Opinion Programme, the numerous and apparently innocuous polling organizations are a front for the pro-Beijing camp.  They use the data they gather during the course of Election Day to mobilize activists to get out the vote where it is most needed.  As in real democracies like the US and the UK.

The pro-democrats are miffed because they don’t have the resources to mount a similar effort.  Their opponents have a real advantage, with Beijing’s local agents, loyalist civic groups and Government officials pulling strings for them, twisting patriotic arms for funds and giving guidance on how to gather and use the data.  But Dame Conscience’s advice to declare ‘I know nothing!’ is wrong.  The pollsters might assume that many of the respondents refusing to answer questions are pro-democrats, and adjust their figures accordingly.  The correct response for the citizen who has just marked his ballot in favour of his local, fragrant Civic (or, if an incurable supporter of lost causes, Democratic) Party candidate is of course to lie and lull the enemy into a false sense of confidence.  Stare the researcher in the spotty, oily, public housing estate face, and shout out, “Hell yes, I voted for Regina!” or “Of course I voted DAB, you fool – long live the glorious motherland, and death to evil Tibetan and foreign splittists!”  More proof, I fear, that Anson was not cut out for politics.
Thurs, 17 Jul
With no superfluous jewellery, no overexposure of the flesh and no visible panty line, Administrative Officer Winky Ip is the epitome of bureaucratic good taste and feminine modesty this morning as we meet for breakfast at the Foreign Correspondents Club.  But the set Chinese breakfast of fruit, congee, noodles and dim sum has vanished from the menu, replaced by an up-market version of the inadequate Anglo-Cantonese fare offered in such palaces of fine dining as Café de Coral – fried egg and sausage with macaroni and ham in soup.  The individual components of the real deal may be ordered separately, but the combined cost works out at about double that of the old combo.  In short, it’s a price increase in disguise, reflecting – I would guess – the rise in the cost of rice.
To help us out, dashing Chief Executive Donald Tsang is going to throw HK$11 billion our way.  Not all of it lands in our lap, but our policymakers have obviously worked hard to ensure that the working classes and the poor will not be morally corrupted by overly lavish handouts.  For example, HK$1.66 billion will go on subsidizing public housing rents, while HK$2.2 billion will be distributed among the much smaller number of employers of domestic helpers through a waiver on the foreign workers’ levy.  Is it possible, I ask the well-formed civil servant, that the 11 billion figure was chosen because it neatly exceeds the 10 billion the Government has proposed spending on the reconstruction of earthquake-shattered Sichuan Province?  The Legislative Council votes on both the anti-inflation subsidies and the first HK$2 billion of the Sichuan aid tomorrow.  She thinks about it for a few seconds.
“Yes and no,” she replies.  “It’ll obviously help shut up critics who complain we should look after our local poor before we contribute to the Mainland.  But, between you and me, we’re not going to be giving 10 billion to Sichuan, anyway.  It’ll be less.  Beijing isn’t that impressed with it – it’s a PR thing.  But Donald thinks the bosses up there will flay him alive if inflation here leads to street protests.”

Visions of starving
sans-culottes rampaging down Nathan Road occupy just one small, dark corner of the crazed mind of Sir Bow-Tie, according to the Standard story
So obsessed is he with grandiose and pointless public works that he has convinced himself that such expenditure dampens inflation.  It is scary to imagine that we are being led by someone so warped and delusional.  But then, all of a sudden it isn’t.  It’s worse than that...
The last time our genius leaders thought (but not aloud, for God’s sake) about tampering with the dollar peg was when we were in the abyss of Tung Chee-hwa’s rule six or seven years ago.  Donald was Financial Secretary-going-on-Chief Secretary, and the idea then was to devalue.  There is much to be said for a floating currency, but can anyone really imagine these panicky, meddling, out-of-their depth, hallucinogen-addled paranoiacs being let loose on an independent monetary policy, pushing and pulling on the interest rate lever all day in their latest lurching attempt to fine-tune the economy?  It’ll be one-way-ticket-to-Shenzhen time.
Fri, 18 Jul
Good news for sensible people who detest the stink and slime of decaying vegetation and decomposing marine life – the Town Planning Board has reportedly
given the go-ahead for a badly needed highway wrapped around the waterfront from Kennedy Town all the way down to Aberdeen.  Perverts who prefer the coastline at the foot of Mount Davis to remain a festering strip of woody, aquatic compost fought to scrap the plan for Route 7, as it was known, a few years ago.  They appeared to succeed.  But no-one said anything about Route 4! 

It is possible that even after reclamation and the construction of an elevated road through the area some trees on the hillside will remain, gathering unsightly green mould on their barks and shedding malodorous, rotting leaves all over the place.  And it is almost inevitable that at least some of the algae, gastropods and fish that infest the adjacent waters will continue with their repulsive breeding, creeping and defecating.  But the disgusting mingling of arboreal and oceanic smells will at least be eradicated when the two are sealed off from one another by a sanitary, four-lane strip of nice, clean concrete – on which (fingers crossed!) we can hope to see the occasional impertinent small toothy mammal crushed flat from time to time.  As Donald Tsang promised, “I will get the job done.”  Or, to quote the Book of Job 41:32, “He maketh a path to shine after him...”
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