Hemlock's Diary
16-22 November, 2008
Mon, 17 Nov
In the early 19th Century the savage, barely literate, Scots-Irish future President Andrew Jackson led an army of soldiers to drive the Seminole Indians out of their Georgia and Florida homelands to their deaths in the swamps.  Years later, surviving members of the tribe took their revenge by
buying the Hard Rock Café chain and forcing the portly, uneducated, low-bred descendents of their white oppressors to wear a badge of shame in the form of T-shirts displaying the tacky restaurant’s logo.  At first it seemed like a just punishment.  But over the years, as the chain opened up in more and more cities around the globe, totally innocent populations in places as far away as Asia found themselves subjected to the sight of these dimwitted damned plodding around their streets advertising the dismal-food-with-guitars-on-walls eatery’s locations in Dubai, Berlin, Tokyo or, in the case of a young and now-disowned member of the Hemlock clan, Myrtle Beach.  So the time has come to fight back, and the Big Lychee as always leads the way by driving its one and only Hard Rock Café out of town.  Yet more proof, following the highly welcome demise of Krispy Kreme Donuts, of the vital role played by a recession in delivering the divine ruination of the gastronomically unrighteous.

Tue, 18 Nov
When the time comes for the
Good Book to be updated, there will be some tempting parallels to draw between Hong Kong’s first two Chief Executives.  Tung Chee-hwa started off popular but refused to listen to anyone beyond his own small circle.  With no principles or philosophy to guide him, he made it all up as he went along, making bigger and bigger mistakes, panicking and becoming something of a joke.  When hard times came, Beijing – who had foisted the crop-haired incompetent on the once-confident community in the first place – added insult to injury in the form of economic ‘favours’ like meaningless trade concessions and conceited promises to support the nation’s richest city.  When the pain kicked in and unemployment climbed, extravagantly paid officials helplessly wrung their hands, offering companies vacuous tips on how to avoid layoffs and begging banks to extend credit to near-bankrupt firms.
His successor, the dashing Donald Tsang, has somehow managed to replicate this pattern, right down to Premier Wen Jiabao recently promising to send us food and clean underwear, and lifelong public-sector employee Commerce Secretary Rita Lau urging bosses to explore new business opportunities rather than shed staff.  The main difference is that Sir Bow-Tie supplements Tofu-for-Brains’ total lack of political, leadership or policymaking skills with a complete absence of humility.  The crop-haired one at least sensed he was hopelessly out of his depth and looked at you like a puppy dog that knows it has just disgraced itself and is desperately hoping to be spared a kick.  Donald is a British-trained Hong Kong civil servant and by definition omniscient and infallible.

Another difference is that Tsang is wrapped up in his own self-indulgent mission to throw as much of our money away as possible on white elephant infrastructure projects.  When Hong Kong retailers or banks lay off staff, the Government rightly does no more than tut-tut.  But when casino projects in Macau stall and construction workers come back to the Big Lychee, officials make a big show of speeding up – for the tenth time – major projects to ‘create jobs’.  It is an excuse they welcome with glee.  Apart from their own material well-being, the bureaucrats’ only other main concern is property prices, which are being propped up by the old policy of keeping the supply of new land even tighter than usual.
A chimpanzee who has been shown the last couple of economic cycles in Hong Kong and wants to get the banana he is being offered could predict exactly what comes next.  By the time the economy picks up, he would indicate, two things will happen.  One, the white elephant projects will finally be starting, so badly needed private-sector construction work will be squeezed out by a severe labour shortage and high materials costs.  Two, there will be virtually no new housing units to meet the pent-up demand for homes that will have formed during the downturn, so anyone needing an apartment will have to give half his salary to Li Ka-shing for the next 20 years in exchange for a tiny concrete box.  Tragically, we have no chimpanzees in Government.

To Macau on a special inspection tour tomorrow.
Thurs, 20 Nov
The aim of yesterday’s trip to Asia’s capital of half-built casinos was to investigate a rumour concerning the extremely tasteful
Grand Emperor Hotel, with its gold ingots set into the lobby floor, chandeliers in every Louis XIV elevator and genuine gwailo (or at least Rumanian) red-coated Buckingham Palace-style guards on the entrance.  Word had reached me that in every room, on the desk in front of the flat screen TV, was an elegant box.  And in the satin-lined magnificence under the lid of the box lay an exquisite Baroque remote control. 

Gaining access to a room proved relatively easy – you just stroll down a gilded corridor knocking until someone opens a door, flash a Hong Kong ID card in the bewildered Mainland tourist’s face and march in while jabbering urgently in English.  And, to my delight, I find it is true.  A regal channel-switching device, as presented by pageboys to nobles in the lounge at the court of Versailles itself.  If the hotel were run by Richard Branson, it would be witty.  But it belongs to entertainment mogul Albert Yeung and it is aimed at a clientele that wouldn’t know the glamour of Europe’s royal palaces if it walked up and bit them on the nose.  It’s closer to genius.

BACK IN the Big Lychee, Secretary for Concrete-Laying Carrie Lam pulls off a bold achievement in the field of Striking a Balance.  On the one hand, 7 million people need a habitable urban environment.  On the other, half a dozen families want to make billions in easy money by building oversized structures that swamp neighbourhoods with traffic.  How to solve this conundrum?
Carrie brings every ounce of her British-trained civil servant’s problem-solving skills to bear in the case of Hopewell Holdings’ longstanding urge to build a 93-storey block in highly congested Wanchai, preferably using some nearby woodland and an area zoned for use as a public park.  Local residents, who seem to want Hong Kong to become one of those desolate cities with old buildings where you have to walk 10 minutes to find a 7-Eleven, are bitterly opposed.  Even the real estate company’s generous offer to change the name of the structure from Mega Tower to Hopewell Centre II has been spurned by these fussy, troublemaking opponents.

Ms ‘meek-as-a’ Lam’s solution is to urge each side to compromise, and it looks as though – after making threats and/or promises of what must be cosmic magnitude to Sir Gordon Wu and Son – she might have
succeeded.  It will now be a mere 55 storeys.  Assuming the protestors are too browbeaten to go on, the public will now have to put up with some extra air pollution and congestion, but not as much as they otherwise would have, and the developers will gain some billions of dollars, but not as much as they otherwise would have.  It’s yet another win-win, brokered by the Hong Kong Government.  What other city puts such effort into striking a balance between wrecking the environment and not wrecking it?

Fri, 21 Nov
Taiwan’s decision earlier this week to distribute vouchers worth around US$100 to every resident to get people spending in the shops is
‘harebrained’, in the considered words of the Wall Street Journal.  In Macau, I found on Wednesday, locals are proudly convinced that the scheme is inspired by their own territory’s HK$5,000 anti-inflation handout a few months ago (they spent it on trips to Japan, donated it to charity or blew it at the casinos). 

In Hong Kong, the Liberal Party couldn’t care less whether it makes economic sense, let alone who first thought of it.  They are
seeing dollar signs in their eyes and hearing the ‘ker-chung!’ of cash tills ringing in their flabby, waxy ears.  Long bankrolled by the tycoons who run the property cartel, the Liberals know that if the Big Lychee handed out such coupons to its citizens, much of the extra revenue rolling into the shops would end up in landlords’ pockets.
By coincidence, the Hemlock Policy Research Institute has just completed a project on how Hong Kong could best subsidize its down-at-heel consumers.  It recommends that the Government give every family free weekly return tickets to Shenzhen, where groceries, household items and clothes typically cost a third of what they do on this cartel-infested side of the border.  Better still, judging by the ads I saw there over the weekend, pay people to move there.  Even in the relatively middle-class Nanshan district, RMB800 a month will rent a 350 sq ft apartment, and RMB1,900 gets around 780 sq ft – not even a fifth of the price of their equivalents on Hong Kong Island.

One measure of consumer confidence in Hong Kong is the popularity of the Mass Transit Railway’s Fare Saver machine – also known as the cheap scumbag magnet – on the Mid-Levels Escalator above Hollywood Road.  After waving their magic Octopus stored value cards over the device, Central’s secretaries and clerks enjoy HK$2 off their train ride home that evening (the discount only applies out of Central MTR Station on the same day).  The line of people waiting patiently to use it at lunchtime has grown noticeably in recent weeks and now stretches down as far as the walkway over Lyndhurst Terrace, maybe 80 yards away.  Including the trip from their offices along Queens and Des Voeux Roads, people are taking at least 20 minutes out of their midday break every day for two bucks (some carry a clutch of workmates’ cards).
The Hong Kong Government could, and probably will, argue that it has already handed out subsidies via its anti-inflation measures earlier this year, flinging cash around in the form of cut-price electricity, transport, public housing rents and even, thanks to a tax cut, booze.  Since that time, the global bubble in food and energy prices has burst, and Donald Tsang’s genius is now – possibly – about to plunge the Big Lychee into negative inflation.  As we found out during the 60-month period of deflation from 1998-2003, nothing convinces consumers to keep their wallets firmly shut (ie, prolongs a recession) like falling prices.  In real terms, the cheap scumbag magnet could be offering a HK$2.10 discount this time next year, and the line will stretch down to the empty-as-ever designer label outlets of IFC Mall.