Hemlock's Diary
19-25 October, 2008
Mon, 20 Oct
To HSBC’s special Most Beautiful Customers’ Service Centre, to tread on the thick carpet, bounce gently on the generously padded leather chairs, flick through the latest glossy issue of
Asian Golf Victim, have a quick peek in the garbage and help myself to a quadruple espresso from the space-age coffee machine.  And a cookie.  And – because I remember I have a specific reason for visiting the place – present my charming Relationship Manager, Ms Colic Poon, with a cheque for deposit into my multicurrency account.
After asking her assistant to fill in a form for me, she brings the cheque back over.  “Um, Mr Hemlock, this is quite a lot of money.”

I take the thing and examine it.  Did I miss any commas or zeros?  Unfortunately not.  Is it a ‘lot’ of money?  It works out at around six months’ salary for me, but perhaps it is an unimaginable fortune to an HSBC Relationship Officer.  Except, working in a department of the bank where all the clients have over a million bucks in their accounts, she must see such sums fairly often. 

She looks embarrassed.  “Um, do you mind if I ask… this money… it is in respect of what?”

I give her a Hard Stare.  If I admit that it’s the proceeds from the heroin I bought from the Taliban, to be used to buy weapons for the East Turkistan Islamic Freedom Fighters up in Urumqi, she will call the Hong Kong Monetary Authority and snitch on me.  So I have to think up a good story fast.
“Well,” I tell her, “my father died last April.  He left some of his savings to his children, and this is my share.”  She looks at the cheque again, perhaps noticing it was issued by a respectable-sounding small-town law firm and drawn on a well-known bank.  I explain it again in slightly more detail, labouring and repeating the words ‘died’, ‘dead’ and ‘death’ – not to win her sympathy but to discomfort her and hasten the transaction.  But I forget that HSBC has a strict policy of not tolerating primitive superstitions among its employees.  Mention unlucky words all you want, it makes no difference.  She is not to be put off.

“Do you have any relevant documentation?” 

“You’re holding it,” I tell her.  “Otherwise, not on me.”  She looks very concerned.

Is this going to become one of those Kafkaesque sagas between a lone, valiant Westerner and an uncaring Hong Kong corporate bureaucracy?  Will it end up with a picture of me posing glumly outside HSBC appearing in the City section of the
South China Morning Post between stories about a cheeky young Belgian cycling around the world and gutsy working-class women in Tin Shui Wai becoming more self-reliant?  Or worse, will it make the front page of every paper in town – Crazed Expat Arrested After HSBC Relationship Manager Strangling Mayhem Outrage.  We shall see.

Tue, 21 Oct
Colic the charming HSBC Relationship Manager wants me to go back to the exclusive luxury banking centre and go through the whole bouncy carpet-coffee-cookie thing again to show her ‘relevant documentation’.  But this is the era of the paperless office, and the only hard copy of anything is my father’s will, which confirms that I, plus siblings, plus good causes like the Hong Kong Banking Staff Benevolent Fund get equal shares of his cash.  There is no indication as to how much the sum would be, nor is it proof that he has passed on – so it is worthless as a cover for the Taliban heroin money. 

However, I also have a pdf file of an embarrassingly extensive obituary of my father from a prominent national newspaper, which could easily be verified via Google, thus proving that he is no longer with us.  And I have an email referring to the actual amount the bequest is worth.  It is of course possible to falsify an email.  And even if they check and
timstjohnsmyth@hicksvillesolicitors.com confirms it is accurate, it proves nothing – the small-town lawyers could be part of the Xinjiang terrorist financing conspiracy.

So I scan the will and email it and copies of the obituary and email to Colic.  She – I can predict with full confidence – will call back and say this is not good enough, and they need a full, itemized, notarized, authenticated, certified, official Deceased’s Dough Disbursement Document sent by registered mail from thousands of miles away, not stapled, folded or mutilated.  And with company chop. 

Storm clouds gather on the horizon.  I mentally compose a scathing, vitriolic letter to newspaper editors and HSBC directors that starts off – “I realize I am probably the first person in the entire history of Hong Kong to be left money by a relative outside the territory, but…”
MEANWHILE, ON a brighter note, I find not one but two satire/humour publications yapping at my feet demanding attention.  Not The South China Morning Post’s third issue sprang forth a couple of days ago, while something called Funworld (not to be confused, I presume, with the famous US amusement park industry journal) will be launched in Hong Kong on Thursday.  Not being privy to the content of either edition, I am in no position to judge their relative worth, but the NTSCMP’s new competitor does modestly promise to be “the world’s most outrageously funny political-satire magazine.”  This can only mean one thing – page after page of exciting Nury Vittachi columns from start to finish.
Wed, 22 Oct
In the heart of the central business district of Asia’s leading international finance, trade, hi-tech, cruise and Islamic wine hub, an unmistakable tremor reverberates through S-Meg Tower.  Are they building a new Mass Transit Railway line down there under the streets and buildings?  Is it the echoes of an earthquake that has just obliterated some luckless town in Taiwan or the Philippines?  Or could it be that devastating, blood-gushing, end-of-civilization economic tsunami that Financial Secretary John Tsang keeps ranting about?
In the morning meeting, it all becomes clear.  The Big Boss is having a major case of the jitters.  In full of view of his dynamic senior management team, our Chairman points his fleshy finger at Number-One Son, who is trying not to be noticed at the far end of the table.  “Yes or no, boy!  Have you tried to be clever by committing S-Meg Holdings to buying billions of dollars worth of foreign currency at ridiculously over-inflated rates for years to come as part of a hedging deal that would have saved us a tiny fraction of that at best?”

His heir blinks, starts but fails to say something, jerks his head a bit and blinks some more.  Eventually, it comes out.  “I… I… don’t think so,” he stutters.  His father can be forgiven for being worried.  CITIC Pacific’s share price fell 55% yesterday when the company belatedly revealed rather unfortunate forex deals that had apparently taken place while Chairman Larry Yung’s daughter was trying out various senior-sounding finance-related job titles to see which one suited her.
In the last year or so, Number-One Son has been given a flashy office, a superficially important rank in the corporate hierarchy and public speaking lessons.  He has sat in on some momentous meetings, albeit under strict instructions not to fidget, laugh suddenly for no obvious reason, or indeed say anything.  Top Hong Kong Government officials’ shoes are being assiduously shined as part of a campaign to have the scion made a Justice of the Peace.  He now ‘serves the public’ by sitting on the Harmony and Social Inclusion Strategy Advisory Committee – the first cronyist pat on the head for being an obedient member of Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s United ‘Us Versus Them’ Front.  Blessed with DNA of an eminence and quality that 99.9% of Hongkongers hopelessly fail to match, the Big Boss’s offspring is destined, in the fullness of time, to bloom into one of the Big Lychee’s great and good.  But first, he has to be groomed.  Wide-eyed, he stares nervously around the table.

Our venerable Deputy Managing Director Mr Chan turns to whisper to me.  “He’s much better than he was.  Ten years ago, when I used to have to do his homework for him, he was always walking into doors and things.  Haven’t seen him do that for ages.”

The Big Boss barks at Mr Chan to tell everyone.

“Um, I was just saying that there’s absolutely nothing to worry about.  We don’t even let him anywhere near the petty cash box.”

The Big Boss mutters “thank God,” and his son breaks into a witless grin.

Thurs, 23 Oct
As the sun rises over Exchange Square, wild American friend Odell sits outside the IFC Mall branch of Pacific Coffee, takes a sip of his organic goji berry and sagebrush latte and shows me the back covers of
Forbes and the Economist.  Two ads for Dell laptops.  “Notice anyhting strange about them?” he asks.
Two things strike me.  One is that both ads show blurred figures passing in the vicinity of the female model displaying the product.  To some people in Hong Kong these would suggest ghosts, and thus a big reason not to buy these computers.  If the ads appeared in more down-market publications, rumours would be flying around about how these mysterious apparitions were not seen at the photo shoot and appeared in the pictures only after the negatives were developed.  One of them would be someone who committed suicide after buying Lehman minibonds. 

But the ad agency’s cultural faux pas is not what has caught my nasty, sordid little ex-Mormon friend’s attention.  His eyes latched instantly onto the legs, skirts, busts and – finally – faces of the two women in the ads.  His unsophisticated, teenage throwback of a mind would have been expecting a stereotype buxom blonde bim straight out of a late-1970s Playboy centerfold or a scrawny, simpering, Asian cutiepie with Hello Kitty fingernail polish. 

“OK,” I tell him.  “It’s the women.  They look… well, normal.”

He chokes on his drink.  “Normal!?  What you talking about?  They’re freakin’ ugly!  They’re dogs!”

“Well,” I reply, “let’s say they have a bit of personality about them.”  The Asian one looks more than a little like Ms Fang the hunter-killer secretary in one of her less malignant moods.

I try to explain the subliminal message in the ads.  “These are homely, plain women with no chance of, say, sleeping their way through the glass ceilings in their companies.  But their corporate careers are thriving because they use this excellent brand of computer that boosts your productivity and sharpens your executive decision-making.”  He looks at the magazines again and cringes.

I too have brought an interesting ad with me.
It is a creepy and frankly distressing thing that appeared in the SCMP a few days ago.   Disturbingly Italian-looking members of the Swarthy Perverts in Caps Club are leaving their headquarters after having committed unspeakable, unnatural and repulsive acts on a pair of Doberman pinchers.  How this sells ice cream – or whatever Dolce & Gabbana make – I hate to think.  As to what Odell will make of it…  I let it pass and show him something more wholesome.

“What sort of subliminal message do you get from this?” I ask, tossing a copy of the Hong Kong Government’s riveting consultation document on the proposed Healthy Information for Healthy Minds Law, which will ban all pictures of human sexual organs from the entire Internet using simple and practical technology without interfering with freedom of speech in any way at all.  “What websites are these three young and impressionable members of the community looking at?”
Odell looks for a few seconds.  “Well the cute one on the left, she’s Googling recipes so she can cook chicken broth to take to her grandmother who’s terminally ill.  And that dork on the right, I reckon he’s writing a blog about the meaningful environmentally friendly voluntary work he does every week to nurture a harmonious society.  And that girl in the middle.  Wow – I’ve seen that look before.  No doubt about it.  She’s looking at some guy’s dick on a webcam!”

They can’t bring this new law in fast enough.

Fri, 24 Oct
Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang
remarks that the recent financial calamities are far greater than those of 1929 but we shouldn’t get too gloomy about it…
In the three years 1930-32, US GDP contracted 9.4%, 8.5% and 13.4% respectively, and unemployment rose from 3.2% to 23.6%.  Many Western countries saw higher rates of rickets, anemia and other diseases related to malnutrition.  Worldwide farm prices collapsed.  Fascist and militarist regimes came to power in Germany and Japan.  The world finally pulled out of recession only as a result of massive state deficit spending in preparation for a war that killed over 50 million people.  So either 1) this is not worse than the Great Depression, or 2) we should get very gloomy indeed. 

But Donald is on a natural high.  Harder economic times provide him with perfect excuses to indulge his most basic self-gratifying instincts.  Erect new bureaucracies to encourage, guide and nurture small and medium enterprises, creative industries and other flavour-of-the-month causes.  Bring forward gargantuan infrastructure projects to ‘create jobs’ (for Pakistani and Nepalese migrants at least, and to push up competition for expensive construction materials for private-sector companies wanting to build things we actually need).  And bring about “much greater co-operation and collaboration between Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guangdong to develop a much more integrated and complementary economic superzone in the Pearl River Delta that will incorporate a population in excess of 50 million.”  Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, eat your heart out.

We must savour these moments.  In a few short years, Sir Bow-Tie will be a memory, just as Tung Chee-hwa is today – terribly missed deep down by those of us nostalgic for a particular style of breath-taking incompetence.  Donald’s ineptitude is more stolid and unflappable, but it is all the more entertaining because, unlike the hapless crop-haired one, he genuinely believes he has what it takes, and he will get increasingly frustrated as fate and events refuse, with a vengeance, to confirm it.  As we all know, the biggest tantrums come in the smallest packages.
MEANWHILE, A message from HSBC informs me that the cheque that caused such alarm a few days ago has been sent on its way to payment-settling land, a long journey across continents through various grubby fingers demanding the occasional handling fee.  At some stage the cash represented by the piece of paper will be conjured into being in electronic form, at which point it will be transferred in the direction of my bank account in Hong Kong at that astonishing one-mile-an-hour speed at which electrons travel through copper wire and fibre-optic cable when someone else is making interest out of them.  In short, the people at HSBC who have to keep an eye out for money laundering have looked at my mish-mash of ‘relevant documentation’ and exercised their powers of discretion flexibly, humanely and promptly.  I was expecting a major clash between the innocent and wronged David-like me and the officious, uncompromising, unfeeling forces of banking evil.  All right – looking forward to it.  The bastards have ruined my day.