Hemlock's Diary
17-23 Feb, 2008
Mon, 18 Feb
“After serious consideration, he insisted to tender his resignation letter to me this evening.”  As his lapse into Chinglish grammar suggests, dashing Chief Executive Donald Tsang was on an emotional roller-coaster on Saturday night, tortured by a battle between his heart and his mind over whether to
accept the resignation of Executive Council member David Li.  Not only was he racked by this cruel dilemma – should he abandon a garrulous and supportive banker or the whole city’s international reputation? – but, owing to the tragic timing of the affair, he was alone, unable to share his burden with his loyal people, who were distracted by the shallow delights of Red Box Karaoke, TVB’s latest Korean soap opera or Lan Kwai Fong.

South China Morning Post carried a column by Chris Yeung on the role of age in politics, in which he noted, among much else, that younger faces had been appointed to the Central Policy Unit, the Hong Kong Government’s think-tank.  These included, he wrote, “sons of tycoons.”  Like most articles in the Sunday paper, it was no doubt written in the knowledge that any readers would have been too hungover (or exhausted after agonizing over resignations) to care, and if the piece had a conclusion it has since faded from my mind.  The phrase has stuck with me, however.  What are “sons of tycoons” doing exactly in a think-tank that should be occupied by economists, policy wonks and academics?   (A quick glance shows that the offspring of the late tycoon-patriot Henry Fok and mouth-frothing leftist businessman Tsang Hin-chi are members.)

The answer is that the CPU does not help formulate policy rather than produce wearisome evidence to support it.  In this respect, it is a children’s version of the Executive Council.  In both cases, full-time staff produce the material that endorses Sir Bow-Tie’s vision while appointed part-timers, mainly heads of big family businesses, sit around basking in all the big face.  Until the US Securities and Exchange Commission accuses them of insider trading. 

Hong Kong’s legislative arm has a parallel system, courtesy especially of the functional constituencies, with their small, highly restricted, easily manipulated franchises.  If David Li is able to spurn calls for him to step down from the Legislative Council, it will be because the voters are so few and inter-connected that the poll will be, for all practical purposes, fixed.
Which brings me rather elegantly to the results of a Google search for the phrase “insisted to tender”.  All the results refer to reports of Donald Tsang’s night-long, heroic struggle with his conscience – “his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground,” etc.  Except for one.  And that is a footnote to a letter dated 1713 from Jonathan Swift to Archbishop King, in which the Dean and satirist complains of…  the rigging of an election.  Cosmic or what?

Tue, 19 Feb
Sun Hung Kai Properties, the South China Morning Post reports, announces that Chairman Walter Kwok is taking a mysterious leave of absence involving months away from Hong Kong.  He appears to be in good health, the paper says, quoting various folk who think it’s all a surprise and strange but unlikely to affect the company’s fortunes.  His two brothers, occupying the next top posts, will meanwhile run the show.  To remind us that Walter is the relatively normal-looking of the three siblings, the Post brightens up our morning with a head-and-shoulders shot of the tycoon.

Standard, now given away free in the street to Hong Kong’s tabloid-minded secretaries, marketing assistants and HR floozies, delivers the gory details.  The boys’ mother has kicked married man Walter out because the girlfriend he brought into the company has been throwing her weight around and worrying the rest of the clan.  To remind readers how startlingly and slightly weird (respectively) the other two brothers appear, the paper ruins millions of hangovers and breakfasts by featuring a large photo of the trio receiving rapturous applause from the audience after doing their famous ‘three wise monkeys’ act.

SHKP is a publicly listed company and generally considered one of the less scummy players in the Big Lychee’s highly profitable real estate industry.  Is the
SCMP correct in its reassurance that the firm will thrive regardless of the Chairman’s sabbatical?
The great skill and entrepreneurial flair it takes to inherit a property company from daddy is common to all three scions, so that’s good news.  Furthermore, the ever-supportive Government will continue to keep under-supply of land and artificially high housing prices cornerstones of its policy.  On top of that, the inalienable right of the developers to operate a cartel – taking it in turns to win land auctions and release new high-rise rabbit-hutches with ridiculous names onto the market – is as secure as ever.  As is their freedom to plough the profits into power, transport, retail and other sectors with high entry barriers to potential competition (enabling our city to glow with pride in having tycoons that have risen to the top of Asia’s rich list without ever actually creating any wealth).  And then we have the property families’ visionary policy of paying minority investors disappointing dividends – given the humungous market prices the industry’s measly, tacky and shoddy products command – after awarding construction and other contracts to their own privately held, high-charging suppliers.  Yes, SHKP seems safe enough in Walter’s absence.  The Big Lychee sighs with relief.
Wed, 20 Feb
Jarring but not necessarily supernatural-metaphysical juxtapositions are two a penny, so it doesn’t totally amaze me when I read news about the death of amply proportioned comedienne Lydia Shum next to a story about Hong Kong slimmers
ingesting worm eggs to get their weight down. 

My most enduring memory of the great Fei-Fei was her appearance many years ago – presumably on
Enjoy Yourself Tonight – in a swimming costume.  As if this were not mind-boggling enough, she took a metal hoop that seemed to be no more than a foot in diameter and pulled it up one arm and over her head, then got the other arm through, and then somehow grappled her entire torso through the ring before squeezing it down her thighs and finally slipping it over her legs and triumphantly stepping out, in bold defiance of numerous rules of human biology and physics.  She would also sometimes do the splits, in a tutu.  Who would have thought that photogenicism could come by the ton?  More often, she would sing, usually in the company of someone much thinner – though everyone looked much thinner next to her.  Most of all, millions would tune in simply to watch her eat.  Sometimes it would be buns or cake.  At others, dumplings or noodles.  Young stars of today might like to note that she was never filmed putting anything in her mouth that you would be ashamed of letting your granny see.
This was back in the days when we were poor but happy, and there was no Internet and we were easily impressed.  The old Hong Kong spirit was alive – people accepted the way they were, made do with what they had and didn’t look for quick fixes.  If you were hugely overweight, you acted goofy and made everyone laugh and made a multi-million dollar fortune.  You didn’t reach for the worm eggs.

Thurs, 21 Feb
Back in the days when we were poorer but happier – in fact, even earlier – the Big Lychee hosted a peculiar breed of people who specialized in reading tea leaves.  Hardly anyone ever went to China (or ‘went into’, in the parlance of the time), so readers of the tea leaves had to sift through drab Mainland newspapers looking for clues about what was happening up there.  Day after day, they would study the cropping of photos, the positioning of stories on the page and the odd discrepancies in captions in the hope of gleaning some hint about which people, organisations or regions were winning or losing in the sleeping Communist giant’s latest power struggle.

Since its handover from the British to the evil Reds in 1997, Hong Kong has suffered a gradual but unceasing closing of its government and ratcheting down of its liberties, like a frog caught frozen in the headlights in the bottom of a well and not realizing that the water is mixing with that of the river and is slowly being heated up towards boiling point.  To such an extent that we must now go through every edition of the
South China People’s Post with a magnifying glass, reading between the lines, to find out what is really going on.
It takes perseverance to wade through all the journalistic miasma, the shrill propaganda and the heavy handed distractions such as the Great All-You-Can-Eat Cantopop Gynecology Massacre of 2008 or the fascinating but essentially trivial Embarrassing Tycoon Of The Month Competition.  But eventually it pays off.  And it is with a joyous sense of discovery and fulfillment that I detect a little nugget of intelligence that is officially top secret but which someone, somewhere wants the world to know. 

SCMP this morning carries a photo of David Li with the distinctive dome of the Legislative Council building seen over his shoulder through the gleaming suspended particulates and nitrous oxide.  The caption clearly states the place as… Wanchai (spelt post-colonial-style).  There are two possible explanations.  The first is that the seat of government is being relocated from Central to the less accessible, backward area to the east, possibly suggesting that the regime is fearing an invasion from overseas, or that the leadership is relying once again on the advice of fortune tellers.  The second is that rebellious cadres in Wanchai, long resentful of the privileges enjoyed by the Big Lychee’s economic and political capital, have made an incursion of some sort and redrawn the boundaries so their region now has control of a strategically vital part of Queens Road.  Given the difficulties of moving Victorian buildings, I would judge the latter.  It is too soon to say what this all means.  Perhaps from now on there will be more to do in Central in the evenings.
Fri, 22 Feb
Many perceptive people view the Olympic Games as humanity’s ultimate orgy of tedium – an interminable procession of dull-witted, over-developed physiques sweating and grimacing their way through tests of utter pointlessness and gripping the attention of the world’s unthinking billions, who interpret the whole process as having some deep meaning.  Which is true enough.  But they miss the point this time around, since the 2008 event is a potential must-see spectacle for connoisseurs of the ancient art and sport of needling.  This is because, following two decades of rapid development as a global economic power, the host country – China – has become the world’s largest holder of reserves of
amour propre.  Two news stories today offer just a hint of the rich entertainment this promises.

Beijing officials get into
a mild but amusing huff over the US Olympic team’s decision to bring its own supply of Twinkies, BacoBits and Cheese Whiz, rather than risk the locally provided rat-infested, MSG-laden cardboard dumplings, steroid-enhanced chicken wings and botulism-filled steamed buns.  Is it not a humiliating slap in the face when a guest insists on bringing his own food on the grounds that his host’s offerings could result in unfortunate diarrhea-in-swimming-pool calamities?  It is – not a big one, but it’s a start.

Meanwhile, equally comical
outbursts of grumpiness have followed the decision by film director Steven Spielberg to stand down as the Games’ Trendy Artistic Guru-in-Chief after his conscience was struck by the plight of Darfur.  This little bout of needling is made all the funnier by the relative weakness of Hollywood stars’ criticism of China.  The movie world’s previous faddish anti-China cause was Tibet, but it is less fair to hold the Middle Kingdom responsible for the behaviour of the savages who run Sudan.  Initial Chinese reaction was to go into a major bout of spluttering along these lines and how politics shouldn’t mix with sport.  Now, to add to the hilarity, a desperate-sounding Beijing bureaucrat thinks he is saving face by claiming that Spielberg never had the job in the first place, therefore (an extra medal for labouring the point) could not have resigned. 

Will we get another eruption from scowling, hyper-sensitive and defensive Mainland officials following released journalist Ching Cheong’s
affirmation that he is innocent of the spying charge that led to his imprisonment?  For face-saving reasons, the Chinese authorities usually extract a quasi-confession or concoct some sort of incontrovertible evidence of guilt when they let framed convicts out early, and they consider it dreadfully unsporting when the victim doesn’t play along and openly refutes the official fiction once free.  It is not Olympics-related, of course, but it would add nicely to the growing atmosphere of official Sino-sulk. 

As the Games approach, this not a time to switch off, but to pull up a chair and sit down to enjoy some excellent goading and insults, mouth-frothing and temper tantrums.  It could be the best thing since bear baiting.
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