15-21 June, 2008
|Mon, 16 Jun
On the top floor of S-Meg Tower, in the heart of Asia’s leading international financial centre, the Big Boss shares the received Canto-plutocratic wisdom on the state of the world with his highly appreciative and loyal team of senior managers. Our spotty financial controller has voiced concerns that the Government’s proposed healthcare reforms will push up employers’ costs, either by requiring companies to match employees’ contributions to a compulsory insurance scheme or by increasing demand for pay hikes. “No, no,” our visionary Chairman assures us all, “the Chief Executive is very aware of the business sector’s views on that. There will be no employers’ contribution – end of story.” As a fully paid-up Friend of Donald, he knows what he is talking about.
But what about upward pressure on wages? The great man doesn’t mention it, but it is hard to believe companies are going to welcome a mandatory health plan with open arms even if only their staff have to pay into it. Indeed, the whole idea has ‘isn’t going to happen’ written all over it. Hong Kong’s population currently pays towards Government revenue either visibly through taxes or invisibly via artificially high land prices trickling down to every consumer. Officials take the money and stash some of it away in massive and unneeded reserves, which they sit on, grinning, for no apparent reason. Some of the rest they squander on unnecessary infrastructure, such as multi-billion dollar bridges to nowhere. They then come back to the public and ask for more funds on the grounds that they don’t have enough to increase health spending. Even in the absence of politicians with enough brainpower to articulate and stimulate opposition to it effectively, Sir Bow-Tie will find health financing reform an uphill struggle.
The Big Boss turns to the next item on the agenda – gossip about fellow tycoons. Now in his 60s, he has been growing more sensitive about his relative standing among Hong Kong’s titans of commerce and more inclined to want to emulate some of them in style if not substance. He nearly got interested in the demented Buddhist sect the Falun Gong because a prominent member of the city’s super-rich had become a proselytising adherent. Mercifully, Beijing declared the loons to be an evil cult, and our billionaires dropped it. When his oily Filipino crony Bong-Bong Queveco had a book of profound thoughts published, he clamoured to do the same, though efforts to find someone to write it floundered, owing to extreme half-heartedness on the part of a certain Company Gwailo tasked with the job. The Big Boss has never, to his credit, succumbed to the mental disease that is golf.
|So there is more than a hint of jealousy about his report that Bank of East Asia boss David Li is going to be the proud bearer of a genuine English coat of arms. Will he be the first Chinese person to have one? To symbolise the Big Lychee’s brave defiance of avian flu, the shield will apparently have two roosters’ heads on it. The motto will be callide et honeste – Latin for “The US Securities and Exchange Commission got me all wrong.”
I am tempted to tell the Big Boss that, to those us with established pedigree, the acquisition of a coat of arms today is frowned upon, to put it mildly. It is a bit like a Russian oligarch buying an obscure Scottish manorial title. But then, maybe it is a bit cooler than that. George Martin, producer of the Beatles, got one – complete with witty design. According to the organization that doles them out, they cost 4,000 pounds. He should get a dozen. Our other magnates would be green with envy.
|Tue, 17 Jun
Director of Immigration Simon Peh does his bit to keep the tourist menace at bay during the forthcoming Olympic Games by suggesting that terrorists are planning to target the Hong Kong equestrian events. The evil plotters, he explains, could be the sort of people who disrupted the exciting Olympic torch relay, and his valiant officers will turn them away at the airport after astutely noticing the phrase ‘Tibet flag waver-turned suicide bomber’ tattooed on their foreheads. If the story, picked up by Reuters among others, deters half the anticipated number of horse fans from visiting the Big Lychee, that will mean 20,000 fewer people clogging up our streets and roads – and more than averagely undesirable people at that, with their muddy Range Rovers, buck-toothed teenage daughters and malodorous golden retrievers. Peh’s department naturally has a vested interest in minimizing its own workload, which consists of stamping passports with efficiency and courtesy, but we will all win from this.
And the good news continues, as a survey shows that large numbers of otherwise intelligent Hongkongers have fallen into the trap of using credit cards as reserve cash they can dip into when they just can’t bear going without some tatty, overpriced bit of consumer junk. These are not starving old women dragging cardboard through the streets, but able-bodied, educated, salaried citizens who, despite apparently being fit to vote, sit on juries or breed, have chosen to manage their personal finances in such a way as to carry debt at up to 40 percent annual interest around with them. Mmmmmmm… my mouth waters, and I cannot resist typing it again – 40 percent! That’s why my HSBC shares yield such juicy dividends. Every three months another wave of money turns up in my account, faster than I could ever spend it. But that’s because I live within my means. Mr Micawber did it, old folk who recycle paper do it, and even nut-gathering arboreal rodents can do it. But a third of Hongkongers can’t/don’t/won’t. Bless them.
|WHO WILL buy a magazine full of material that has already appeared on the Internet? My hunch is no-one. It’ll never sell. But that’s what they said about the Sony Walkman, silent nail clippers and Wellington boots for dogs. It takes a particularly eccentric visionary to ignore the cynics, the sneers, the hoots of doubt and the hints at lunacy and go for it. As a skeptic, I am surprised to find the publication in question, Not the South China Morning Post, has materialized and appears on my desk this morning, along with the word that Bookazine will be carrying it, as will some branches of Park N Shop – between the melon flavoured soy milk and the two-for-one sour cream and onion Pringles.
Assuming, that is, that the supermarket’s ultimate owner Li Ka-shing is OK with the two unflattering photos of his son, various unkind references to the Communist Party, assorted rudeness about Hong Kong and Mainland politicians, large dollops of bad taste and some slapdash layout. Chunks of a certain on-line diary, partly mutilated, occupy a generous amount of space, as do classic highlights from the NTSCMP archives. Insults about RTHK Radio 3 fill a bit over half a page and another half page is devoted to mockery of the Standard. The South China Morning Post is honoured with over a page of vicious skewering. So coverage of the magazine’s launch in the Hong Kong English-language media is unlikely to be intense or positive – unless someone takes action for libel or at least copyright infringement. And there’s some nasty stuff about lawyers, too.
The answer to the question, apparently – people who don’t read things on-line.
|Wed, 18 Jun
The Hon Lau Kong-wah places a motion right at the bottom of today’s Legislative Council agenda demanding that…
|…as international oil prices have repeatedly reached record highs, this Council urges the SAR Government to reduce the duties on unleaded petrol and Euro V diesel by half, so as to relieve the pressure of inflation and persistently high oil prices on the public and the relevant industries.|
|Or, to put it another way, force the population as a whole to subsidize particular individuals and industries who don’t want to economize or adapt their business model to suit changing market conditions.
Petrified of protesting truck drivers, the Government will presumably give in where diesel is concerned. Among the main beneficiaries will be the companies that haul big metal boxes full of the Pearl River Delta’s wondrous manufactured goods across the border to our port. With ports on the Mainland being far cheaper and more conveniently located, Guangdong’s factories starting to move elsewhere, and cross-border container movement being a major contributor to air pollution, it is hardly surprising that this is a moribund economic activity, and it thus goes without saying that the Hong Kong Government is determined not just to prop it up but try and get it to expand.
A quick glance at Google News shows that the Governor of Connecticut, Canada’s New Democratic Party, GOP presidential candidate John McCain, British truck drivers and India’s state of Karnataka all have hankerings to reduce tax on fuel. And this is just one day’s hankerings in English. So the Big Lychee’s leadership are hardly alone in lapsing into this particular blend of populism, expediency, spinelessness and economic illiteracy.
But this is also the Government that, just a few months ago in the 2008-09 Budget, decided to pick up a chunk of everyone’s electricity bills for 12 months. Just a week or so back, it clamped down on bus companies’ fare hikes. At a time when the world economy needs to adjust and make more efficient use of significantly pricier energy, the Hong Kong Government is trying to con people into thinking the stuff is getting cheaper and encouraging them to waste it. A mildly dim but attentive 16-year-old with a textbook on basic economics would know that this is storing up trouble – one day, prices will have to snap back up to where they should be, and truck drivers, bus passengers and electricity consumers will get a nasty shock. Tragically, there are no mildly dim but attentive 16-year-olds in our Executive Council.
|Thurs, 19 Jun
Passing Jardine House this fine morning, I pause to admire my reflection against that of the General Post Office in the window, and find myself looking at an all too rare incident of truth in advertising. A hoarding in the foyer announces the imminent opening of another branch of Starbucks, the ubiquitous purveyors of fine, hot, coffee-colored, water-flavoured liquid to the gentry, and gives us a startlingly honest description of what is wrong with the company’s core product.
No doubt Hong Kong’s real estate developers, inspired by this example, will now start marketing their still-unbuilt apartments by explaining that, of the 750 square feet on offer, 20 are in the elevator shaft, 50 are in the fire escape, 10 are outside supporting air-conditioners, 50 are in the car park, 20 are under the treadmill in the gym, 75 are at the main entrance downstairs covered with newspaper because it’s raining, 1 is in your mailbox, and 100 are in the outdoor common area that is supposed to be open to the public but is on the 5th floor.
|Fri, 20 Jun
Morale on the Mid-Levels Escalator this morning is positive, as news circulates of another victory in the fight against the great tourist menace. An almost perfect cross-section of the burdensome transients – Australians, Mainlanders, Taiwanese, Europeans, Southeast Asians and South Americans – were ejected without warning from one Tatami Hampton when bailiffs shut the budget hotel down over a bad loan. Having been bodily hurled out onto the Mong Kong street, sitting amid the pitiful pile of suitcases, street maps, cameras, fake handbags, conical straw hats and funny little jade ornaments dangling from knotted red cord, what could these battered and bruised visitors have been thinking? ‘Damned if I’m coming here again’, would be the first reaction, followed by ‘wait till I tell everyone back home about it’. As would be expected, our Government, which regards tourists as the only worthwhile breed of humanity on the planet apart from civil servants and property developers, is now attempting to track down the evictees in order to hush them up with lavish gifts.
The hero of the hour is surely the Bank of East Asia, for taking possession of the property in such a forthright manner. It sends an important message – Nothing personal, nice overseas folk, but we are drowning in human bodies, sweat, vehicles, exhaust fumes, rapacious landlords, skin-whitening products, malls, bloated hoteliers and blood-suckers like Disney and the cruise terminal fetish. Some years back, Manila largely succeeded in killing off its tourism threat when many of its hotels started burning down. David Li deserves another coat of arms for developing a suitable, developed-economy equivalent solution to the problem.
|One other possible idea is to have a line painted on the floor in the transit hall at the airport. Travellers could step over it, have their passports stamped, pose next to a cardboard cutout of Jackie Chan and be presented with a certificate saying Thank You for Visiting Hong Kong, Now Go Back Home. Or we could just shoot them. But prevention is better than cure, and (BEA’s valiant bailiffs aside) what better form of dissuasion can there be than high-profile, vile-sounding pestilence? Cue our latest outbreak of hand, foot and mouth disease, and the new Tourism Board slogan – See Hong Kong, Warts and All.|
Dymocks, IFC Mall
& other HK Dymocks
(some, probably, maybe)
Hong Kong & worldwide
USA & worldwide