Hemlock's Diary
16-22 Mar, 2008
Mon, 17 Mar
What are the chances of the world’s righteous, free, democratic, apple pie-munching nations boycotting the Beijing Olympics in protest against China’s crackdown in Tibet?  Imagine the intensely gratifying and entertaining humiliation of the godless Communist tyranny, combined with the relief from the excruciating tedium of diving, formation cycling and medal ceremonies – a coincidence of near-orgasmic quality.  A quick call to Heung Kwok-leung, master of the Mongkok sub-sub-prime loans market and bookmaker to the gentry, confirms my suspicions that it sounds too good to be true.  He would offer odds of 30 to 1. 

Intending to discuss the matter with wild American friend Odell, I seat myself in the IFC Mall branch of Pacific Coffee, perched a safe distance from the creepy looking girl who reads the Bible, and who in recent weeks seems to have taken up mentally undressing me again.  The ex-Mormon collapses into his easy chair with his murumuru butter and organic rosehip latte and listens as I ponder whether the Chinese army is slaughtering hundreds of Tibetans, or Tibetans are slaughtering hundreds of Chinese shopkeepers, or just 10, and whether it would make more sense to cut out the middleman and get the army to slaughter the shopkeepers, or vice-versa.  But he wants to tell me a story – the latest example of his death-defying brilliance.  “You’re gonna love this,” he promises.

He tells me he was woken up at noon yesterday by a sharp slap on the face courtesy of his Thai wife Mee, who had taken advantage of his post-Saturday comatose state to rifle through the text messages on his mobile phone in search of incriminating evidence.  He shows me the week-old electronic missive that stirred her into cheek-striking mode…
ok honey, no problem i see you sunday 4pm sweetie Luv N kiss Trixie
“Talk your way out of that one!” I taunt him.  I’d rather be given the job of devising the official version of events in Lhasa.  

“Now get this,” he continues.  “I tell her it’s from Ben – you know, the bartender who’s into body-building.  I tell her it’s like a joke we have.  He calls me sweetie and I call him cutie pie in text messages.  And I’m meeting up with him this afternoon for a beer.  She’s tried calling the number but, thank God, it’s switched off.”  I choke slightly on my hot, brown water-flavoured liquid over what must be the most appalling excuse ever.

“She’s between me and the door.  What can I do?  So then I get all worked up and go for the moral high ground – how dare you read my messages like that, blah, blah.  Then, while she’s getting her head around that, I tell her I’m gonna have a leak.”  He leans closer.  “Now get this – she goes off to the kitchen to choose something to castrate me with, I guess, and I manage to grab her mobile phone.  In the bathroom, I call Ben and say buddy, please please please do what I say, no time for questions.  Text me right now about meeting up this afternoon, and call me sweetie and honey and shit OK?  Just fuckin’ do it.  And if Mee ever asks, you were borrowing some Indonesian girl’s phone when you sent me a message last Sunday.”  He takes a sip and puts his drink down triumphantly.  “I think of everything!”

The horribly convenient SMS arrived just in time to put Mee off her stride, while our hero put on an act of wounded dismay at his wife’s cruel mistrust. 

“It’s like it’s such astounding bullshit it could actually be true!” he declares.  I am less sure.  One call from Mee, with her photographic memory for suspicious phone numbers, to Trixie…  Maybe I should point it out.  But it occurs to me, as I flick through the latest Xinhua reports on saboteurs
disturbing the happy and stable life of loyal Himalayan citizens, that when someone wants to delude themselves, most of the rest of us will just go along with it.

Tue, 18 Mar
A man, I wake to hear, has been arrested in connection with the deaths of four women over the last four days.  I would be tempted to turn over in bed, pull the covers up and snooze for another hour – which, multiplied seven million times, would of course be disastrous for the economy.  Mindful of the urgent need to rouse the Hong Kong workforce from their slumbers first thing in the morning, RTHK’s newsreaders spice up the report with details.  “A Pakistani man,” they announce, “has been arrested in connection with the deaths of four prostitutes over the last four days.”

No-one’s going to fall back to sleep with such intriguing specifics to mull over.  Police hadn’t ruled out the possibility that a serial killer was at work as the bodies were found one by one over the weekend.  They were hookers, therefore no-one we know, and we could be reasonably confident that if a murderer was indeed on the rampage, he posed no threat to us or our nearest and dearest.  We could wonder what will become of the small children several of the victims were bringing up.  Or is it too early in the day for that?  In which case, we could wonder why the alleged Pakistani allegedly did what he is alleged to have done. 

Experts quoted in the papers postulate that the killer was in desperate need of money.  Which leads us to wonder how much cash these ladies keep about them in their little ‘one-phoenix’ apartments?   Do they, like taxi drivers, carry enough to make change from a five hundred?  (Do they take credit cards?  Octopus cards?)  The social studies and criminology gurus are surely right to use the word ‘desperate’.  The killer’s method is a fairly labour-intensive way to acquire funds, what with travelling all over the New Territories and right down to North Point.  One theory is that he had arranged a little short-term financing from the likes of Heung Kwok-leung, and the tattooed enforcement agents were leaning on him for repayment.  That would have focused his survival instincts – whatever happened, someone was going to get killed.  He was picked up entering Macau, which, assuming they make a movie about it, saves the script writer from having to think up at least one cliché.

What does the word ‘Pakistani’ bring to mind?  For me, it conjures up the names of several cities and politicians, and a few dishes like pullao.  But also phrases like ‘Muslim’ or ‘Islam”.  No-one is so far suggesting that the slayings are part of some deranged fundamentalist attack on ungodly harlots, and I probably shouldn’t even be mentioning it.  The guy might be a Quaker for all we know.

All the victims were alone, and thus not breaking the law against vice establishments, when the killer struck. He apparently backed off from one apartment when he found two women present.  Noting these facts, activists involved with sex workers are pleading for the legalization of two- or three-women brothels for the sake of safety.  The
Standard’s irrepressible editorial writer ‘Mary Ma’ smacks the activists down for making such an untimely and unjustified proposal.  Any chance of dozing off again vanishes as we get the chance to witness vehemence butchering logic and reason. The community, she essentially declares, will not accept measures that make impoverished Mainland immigrant women who sell their bodies less likely to be attacked or murdered.  So there.

Wed, 19 Mar
The man accused of slaying several prostitutes over the weekend produces an alibi – he was in Macau being nabbed at the time the North Point killing took place.  Cast-iron proof of a one-year stay in Timbuktu right up to Monday night would be ideal, given that fingerprints or eye-witness accounts place him at the other three crime scenes, but it’s better than nothing.  That means that a second killer is
out there

In response to understandable fears expressed by sex workers, the police say they might issue warnings when a murderer targeting one-woman brothels is on the loose.  This implies that current policy is not to do so.  Presumably, if a mass-murderer was going after those of us who are not hookers, our valiant sleuths would let us know.  It’s not as if they have an incentive to keep such things under wraps – in a city with a total of just 17 homicides in the whole of 2007, a tally of four in as many days threatens to play havoc with the year-on-year statistics.

According to the
South China Morning Post, Civic Party lawmakers are calling for Hong Kong to take an objective, adult, no-snickering look at the whole issue of prostitution and vice laws.  In a city where moral guardians go into mouth-frothing hysterics at the sight of a penis on a statue by Michelangelo and mass-market publications carry reviews of individual whores’ services and prices, this seems unlikely to happen.  It would take a few ounces, at least, of political courage and leadership among senior officials, for whom this issue makes air pollution look like a fun priority.  If sex workers had a functional constituency, made a big thing of National Day and operated a cartel that colluded with the Government to rip off the rest of the population, it might be different. 

There are three policy alternatives for Hong Kong.  The first is to see the whole thing as an economic activity between consenting adults, and legalize and regulate the associated marketing, accommodation and other services any industry depends on.  Singapore does it, with official red light areas.  This is the pragmatic option.  The second is to see hookers as victims of economic injustice who are being treated as commodities, and make it illegal to buy their services.  Sweden does that – prosecuting not the prostitutes but the clients (fines or jail) and putting their faces in the newspapers.  This is the high-minded option, not necessarily popular with the working girls themselves, but offering some fascinating new material for the press.  The third is to double spending on infrastructure, demand an extra health tax, strengthen patriotic education, advise everyone to wash their hands, and issue a revised Application List including additional small sites that should be particularly attractive to medium-sized and small developers.  This is the Big Lychee solution.

Thurs, 20 Mar
Inspired by the jet-setting global statesmanship of glamorous predecessor Tony Blair, Britain’s usually depressing Prime Minister Gordon Brown tries his hand at playing a leading role in international affairs.  He
tells Parliament that he has spoken to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (whose name he mispronounces), and he can announce to the world, with only a moderate amount of fanfare, that Beijing is prepared to sit down and talk with the Dalai Lama, provided he does not support full Tibetan independence or violence.  The charismatic Buddhist leader, Brown is very pleased to confirm, goes along with that.  The taciturn British leader shows signs of real enthusiasm for this process, which he is too modest to refer to as a breakthrough, and will meet with the visionary monk himself. 

There are two possible explanations for this.  One is that Brown is clueless about the fact that Beijing has long been
willing to chat with the Dalai Lama on the simple condition that the holy one endorses the complete absorption of Tibet into the PRC, renounces all his doings and sayings since the 1950s, welcomes Communist Party control of the Buddhist faith, disappears into obscurity and supports the invasion of Taiwan if the island doesn’t follow his example.  In the meantime, the saffron-robed splittist is “a wolf wrapped in a habit, a monster with human face and animal’s heart.”  For the British leader to meet the holy man some time between last week’s Tibetan mini-uprising and the Olympic Games is guaranteed to trigger in Beijing the apoplectic fit about foreign conspiracies to end all apoplectic fits about foreign conspiracies, complete with students pelting the British embassy with paint, etc.

The other explanation is that Brown knows all this and is simply being disingenuous – choosing this sensitive time to irritate China because he thinks it is the morally right thing to do, or he thinks it will deflate the upstart country’s standing in the world, or he just thinks it’s good for a laugh.  In which case, I must say he rises in my esteem.  I thought his main interest in life was adding more and more paragraphs and loopholes to the tax and welfare codes in an endless attempt to more closely micromanage indigents’ inclinations to work, save and lead wholesome lives. 

The bad news is that the UK has a Foreign Office whose main mission – as we in Hong Kong well recall – is to ensure that British international policies conform to the wishes of the Chinese Government at all times.  The first hint that angry Beijing will downgrade a British trade mission from a one-week kowtowing extravaganza to a mere three-day grovel session, and Brown will be forced to eat his words and scratch His Himalayan Holiness from his diary.  A pity, since a pre-Olympics explosion of self-righteous seething and ranting about bullying and external interference hurting the feelings of the Chinese people would have been fun.  But we can’t have everything.
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