Hemlock's Diary
22-28 June, 2008
Mon, 23 Jun
Hopes that Hong Kong’s great tourist infestation will ease off are raised by the
continuing closure of the Ngong Ping 360 Death Ride on Lantau Island.  What better way to welcome, encourage and reassure visitors than to tell them the ‘attraction’ they wasted hours to reach is out of operation “to enable repairs to be made to one of its rescue cars.” 

For a glimpse of what a mindless obsession with tourism can do to a community, we need look no further than Macau, possibly the most warped non-oil economy in the world, which I inspected over the weekend.  Specifically, I spent some time wandering around the Venetian – the third biggest building in the Solar System and the second tackiest (nothing can ever hope to touch the Grand Emperor Hotel up the road for sheer, must-see putridity).
With no windows, the main complex on the lower floors feels like an artificial planet where no-one ever goes to the surface – a giant spaceship complete with a mock-Venice shopping mall, sprawling casino and 15,000-seat arena, connected by endless, road-size, carpeted quasi-renaissance corridors.  Most of the action is in the gambling hall (big enough to park six 747s in, or something) where thousands of poorly dressed, elderly and middle aged Mainlanders fritter away HK$500 bills.  Whose money it is, how it came into these wrinkled and calloused hands and why they are tossing it away – you don’t ask.  What we do know is that their numbers have declined lately, as the Guangdong authorities are restricting exit permits for Macau to two a month.  It is as if someone has asked why, with thousands suffering in Sichuan, people are flooding over the border to stuff cash into these American casino owners’ pockets.

Upstairs, meanwhile, there is a St Mark’s Square and a canal, where the gondoliers sing in their native Italian and chat to passengers in Mandarin.  The sky painted on the ceiling is disconcertingly semi-convincing in a
Truman Show sort of way.  Under the surface, it’s all the same Zara, Bulgari, Coach, Body Shop, etc, etc, etc as in every other mall in the 21st Century world, plus a shop selling nothing but Manchester United items.  As always, I could see nothing outside of the food court that I would actually want, and I did not seem to be the only one.

The signs use simplified characters.  Macau people don’t object – they accept the fact that their otherwise worthless, corrupt, ex-Portuguese city-hovel has been prostituted to the gambling-tourism industry – but the reply would be that this simply follows the signage policy of the Venetian in Las Vegas.  To accentuate the weirdness of the surroundings to visitors from Hong Kong, there are occasional flashes of something familiar.  It takes a while to work out what it is, and then it dawns on you – the Pakistani and Nepalese security guards, brought across the Pearl River Delta to work under the supervision of managers lured away from the Hong Kong police.  That and the chattering of Tagalog among the restaurant waitresses.

The place does have exits, beyond which the surrealism continues.  It doesn’t seem that long ago that a narrow causeway was all that linked Taipa and Coloane, but it is now a series of huge construction sites, with a bridge to the Mainland leading off to the west.  They say 20 more hotels will be built here.  Cirque du Soleil are setting up.  Macau will either be one of the globe’s most garish successes or it will end in a massive exploding bubble.  The Venetian, when finished, will need 30,000 staff.  Its relative, the Sands, near the ferry terminal, has 10,000.  Together, that’s approaching 10 percent of Macau’s whole population.  Stanley Ho’s current and planned casinos combined must exceed them.  In Macau, only idiots go to college these days – croupiers earn far more than graduates.  Embarrassed by its share of the spoils, the Government is giving every resident a cash handout this year, largely to shut up the older poor, left out of the gambling boom and stuck in their flood-prone shanty slums up near the border.  The middle class now hire Vietnamese girls as maids (via Taiwan, so they come with a bit of Mandarin).  How much more distorted can an economy be when the Filipinos won’t do housework anymore?
Tue, 24 Jun
Right-thinking people’s hearts sink as they hear the news that the Ngong Ping 360 Hindenburg Disaster Re-creation Show may be back in service today.  Wisely, the management refuses to confirm anything on its website, but the riveting 24-hour broadcast, which I am planning to watch all day, shows the Dangling Coffins
wending their way merrily up and down the hill – in eerie silence, the webcam being too far away to detect the screams of the petrified children plunging to their doom. 

The system’s origins lie back in the early 2000s, when the idea of the Lantau Cable Car Themed Exciting Tourist Facility Project first gripped the minds of Hong Kong’s panicking policymakers, convinced that an influx of 20 million Mainland tourists a day was the Big Lychee’s only hope of staving off famine.  A few years later, an outraged citizenry rose up and left the Crop-Haired One on the end of a meat hook hanging from a lamppost, and the miracle of hillside engineering become one of the most menacing manifestations of the Revenge of Tung. 

Will anything break the sinister cycle of embarrassing closures and re-openings?  What will it take for the whole system either to collapse into a tangled heap of metal and wire once and for all, or just operate flawlessly and safely, like the one at Ocean Park.  According to legend, there is only one way to break the curse, and that is for RTHK English-language newsreaders to learn how to pronounce the ‘Ngong’ in ‘Ngong Ping’ correctly.  It seems safe to predict that the tormented spirit of Tofu-for-Brains will be wreaking its vengeance on hapless victims trapped and suspended halfway between Tung Chung and the Buddha’s statue for generations to come.
Wed, 25 Jun
The street outside Perpetual Opulence Mansions is impassable this morning after severe tropical storm Fengshen leaves a large Number 8 tropical cyclone signal, a bulky Red rainstorm signal, a huge thunderstorm warning, a knee-high landslip warning, a special flooding announcement and a low UV radiation intensity report strewn across the road.  While most of Hong Kong treats the weather as an excuse to stay in bed, the two Filipino elves report for duty as usual, snorting with derision at this feeble excuse for weather.  In the Philippines, this same typhoon swept villages away, sank ships and left hundreds dead, yet in Hong Kong life comes to a standstill because of some collapsed scaffolding and a fallen tree.  Homesick for dwellings, people and livestock buried in mud, they soon leave in the hope of finding some serious damage to enjoy over towards Sheung Wan – usually the best place in the area for Third World disaster zone nostalgists to catch a few swamped shops and submerged cars.
WHAT WOULD the Big Lychee’s central business district be like if a merciful extraterrestrial fleet of spacecraft beamed up all hard-working Hongkongers for transportation to a distant paradisical star system and left all the tourists behind?  I find out late this morning just before the Number 3 signal is raised.  Bedraggled Japanese girls giggle and take photos of one another, while middle-aged Westerners stride purposefully along in their sweaty plastic ponchos, manfully grasping their sodden maps – all oblivious to the swift and heavy incoming tide of well-rested office fodder about to pour into the area and sweep them away.  We must do this more often.
Thurs, 26 Jun
Shamefully Hackneyed Flash Graphics Intro of the Month Award goes to the
HK Mercantile Exchange website, the on-line presence of Hong Kong’s newest state-controlled financial services business.  The site is still only semi-functional, though the groveling puff-piece ‘interviews’ are working fine (hosted on a PR company’s server).  A little work, and the design should be as zippy as those of fellow quasi-government entities, the Stock Exchange and the Mortgage Corporation. 

Meanwhile, decent people everywhere are sparing a sympathetic thought for poor
Fred Ma.  After six years working under Tung Chee-hwa and then Donald Tsang, who wouldn’t have brain lesions?  The chubby Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development and ex-banker will be missed in some, but not all, quarters for not being defensive, arrogant, deaf, insecure and out of his depth like the colonial-trained civil servants who comprise most of the executive branch. 

Who will replace him?  In theory, newly appointed Undersecretary Greg So is being paid HK$224,000 a month for being the man to step into the Bureau head’s shoes if necessary.  However, while not actually saying that the lapsed Canadian pro-Beijing patriot lawyer is unfit for the job, senior officials are all but confirming that he won’t be getting it.  A Fred-type experienced pair of hands from the private sector then?  But they are so hard to find – conveniently.  As several years of appointments to public bodies and political offices have shown, Sir Bow-Tie has a compulsion to surround himself with cronies and yes-men who not only will never question his decisions but couldn’t even if they were forced to.  In the Main Wing up on Government Hill, the Xerox machines have more independence of mind than the HK$130,000-per-month Political Assistants who operate them.  A seasoned bureaucrat of the old Donald School it will be.
Fred Ma’s post reports to Financial Secretary John Tsang, a Donald protégé whose degree in architecture and decades as a pen-pushing civil servant have left him with far greater knowledge than any private-sector professionals, managers or investors of how Hong Kong’s economy should develop.  He is like North Korea’s late Great Leader Kim Il Sung, strolling through wheat fields showing peasants how to boost their yields, then touring a factory, explaining to the workers how to double tractor production.  Hence the visionary nationalised stock exchange falling over itself to sell stocks to the Mainland, attract Kazakhstan IPOs and cut regulatory corners to boost business.  Hence the imaginative and original calls for Hong Kong to become a hub for wine trading, Islamic finance and now oil speculation.  Hence the incisive and inspiring begging to Beijing for privileges and free rides.  There is nothing wrong with our services sector that frenzied micro-managing by a hyperactive Financial Secretary can’t fix.

Fred never seemed to share his boss’s and boss’s boss’s focus on big, economic planning, market-guiding, interventionist policies.  With a civil servant in his place, the odds improve for an even bigger herd of brilliant white elephant initiatives to rampage through the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau’s portfolio of trade promotion, tourism and IT.  Only Administrative Officers can save Hong Kong from the decline that awaits us if we leave decisions to undisciplined free enterprise and a private sector that stubbornly refuses to recognize opportunities when it sees them.

Fri, 27 June
“We must focus on the economy.”  Memories.  Those heady days when the good people of Hong Kong were skewering their leaders and sovereign with demands for better governance, and the holders of power squirmed and pleaded with the population to change the subject and stop discussing the issue.  “We must focus on the economy” was the mantra recited by visiting officials from Beijing, by an array of patriotic politicians, by legions of aging tycoons eager to please and, not least, by Tung Chee-hwa himself.  When King Canute ordered the rising tide to retreat he knew the sea would not obey – he was, legend tells us, proving the limits of his powers to sycophants.  But Tofu-for-Brains and the rest seemed to believe that if they repeated the same line over and over it would eventually convince everyone to shut up about politics.  Instead, in their most magnificent achievement since the invention of a half-tea, half-coffee drink, the people of Hong Kong toppled Tung.  And then shut up.

“We should dedicate all our energies to the things that are important to the people of Hong Kong, especially the livelihood issues.” Coming from a congenital bureaucrat, it does not have quite the same ring to it, but the tone and the sentiment are unmistakable.  Sir Bow-Tie has seen his precious popularity ratings fall since the appointment of the quarter-million-a-month wunderkinder.  As pro-democrats mischievously demand that Greg So be promoted to Fred Ma’s position, it becomes more apparent that the gold-plated appointees are not up to being deputized to act in their bosses’ absence because they were chosen more with a view to snubbing others than anything else.  The polls give a bigger thumbs-down to Donald.  He drags his entire ministerial team into the Legislative Council, as if they have nothing else to do on a Wednesday afternoon, and pronounces the magic words that will make everyone drop this tiresome affair and look at something else.  He calls for the appointment dispute to stop. This is the first time he has exercised his right to stroll into the chamber and address it during routine business – like his unprecedented TV appeal to the people on the eve of the vote on political reform in late 2005.  Unaccustomed to being thwarted or proved wrong, he got frustrated then and exploded into a venomous, foot-stamping little ball of temper tantrum.  It was a shocking display to behold.  More please.
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