Hemlock's Diary
23-29 November, 2008
Mon, 24 Nov
The mood on the Mid-Levels Escalator this morning is one of mildly hungover resignation to the dawn of another week of spiritual emptiness for Hong Kong’s industrious and ill-used middle class.  A florid-faced 50-something Westerner excitedly describes his Sunday to a slightly younger companion.  “His ball was stuck between two trees!” he exclaims.  “Absolutely thrilling three-way playoff!  McIlroy hit a five under par 65 to secure a play-off place on 15 under!”  The junior of the two commuters raises his eyebrows in mock surprise and nods.  “Wilson stood at 13 under par 197 for a one-shot lead over Lin!” the bore continues, “who tapped in a one-foot birdie putt on the second extra hole to knock off McIlroy!”  More appreciative nodding.  “His ball was stuck between two trees!”  The nodder – perhaps a junior colleague – has an unmistakable ‘what the hell are you blathering on about?’ look on his face.  I can’t resist tapping him on the shoulder to help him out.

“I think he’s talking about something called the Hong Kong Open,” I explain.  “A group of men wearing slightly silly clothes were hitting little white balls around a field somewhere in the New Territories yesterday.  I think their clothes were chosen by their wives.  And they all come from places that don’t really exist, like Taiwan, Northern Ireland, Hollywood.  I don’t understand the intricacies, but it’s extremely important.  Forget crashing markets, global economic depression or contaminated food – people hitting little balls with sticks is the only thing that matters.”

Eyes bulging, the golf fan has turned a deeper red and is railing at some alarmed schoolchildren about the ball stuck between two trees.
Most commuters gliding down the hill towards Central have their minds on more parochial matters, notably the absorption of the Frontier – pro-universal suffrage politician Emily Lau’s home for lost causes – into the larger, duller and older but no less irrelevant Democratic Party.  The screeching Cassandra will no doubt spice up the unremittingly grey and depressing Democrats, greeting every pronouncement on every subject by every official with ear-shattering outrage and indignation, and pro-democracy candidates might indulge in a little less cannibalization in elections.  But otherwise, the merger is simply a reminder of the movement’s futility. 

This is a union of two of the pro-Beijing forces’ best allies.  For the best part of two decades, the Emily Lau-Martin Lee pro-democracy camp has dedicated itself to demanding that Beijing stick to its promise of universal suffrage for Hong Kong.  And their efforts have produced no results at all.  Zilch.  Indeed, since 1997 in particular, the evidence has become overwhelming that China’s promise was a lie.  After the initial shock, acceptance of this simple fact is liberating.  China is run by a Communist Party.  One-party systems do not – indeed, cannot – have democratic elections.  Our dashing Chief Executive Donald Tsang
all but spelt it out a few days ago.  The two are incompatible.  Suddenly, everything else makes sense.
But the pro-democrats self-indulgently carry on bleating for the unattainable, lost in their legalistic fantasy that the sovereign power of the CCP can be subordinated to half-forgotten, ambiguous declarations on faded paper.  These people are a godsend for defenders of the status quo.  Every day the pro-democrats spend whining or ranting about their true and only cause is another day not spent haranguing Hong Kong’s self-appointed elite about the high land-price policy, the tolerance of cartels, the transfer of public wealth to a small clutch of families, the squandering of resources on pointless works projects and the selfish priorities of an arrogant bureaucracy.  With an opposition like that, who needs friends?  Those of us who profit from the Big Lychee’s dismal governance should nominate them for Gold Bauhinia Medals.

It would be a magnificent gesture for the pro-democrats to publicly announce that they are throwing in the towel and will no longer press for universal suffrage because Beijing so obviously has no intention of allowing it.  Not least, they would for the first time put the CCP and its local supporters seriously on the defensive and actually increase the pressure for reform.  But they enjoy their abstract, self-pitying hand-wringing too much for that.  A ball hit by a stick and stuck between two trees is of little less consequence, and more soothing on the senses.
Tue, 25 Nov
Hot on the heels of her triumph in persuading Hopewell Holdings to reduce the size of the Mega Tower that dare not speak its name in Wanchai from 93 to a mere 55 storeys, Secretary for Development and Concrete Carrie Lam prods the Urban Renewal Authority into
scaling down its planned Staunton Street project.  Instead of being a ‘redevelopment with preservation elements’, it will now be a ‘conservation-led redevelopment’ – or, in plain English, the neighbourhood will be crushed under buildings that are 350% rather than 500% too big.

Will the local activists buy it?  The moaning old-school expats and their banana-wives of Kennedy Road are probably exhausted, naïve or spineless enough to fall for the Mega Tower compromise.  After years of fighting Sir Gordon Wu’s vision of mountain-sized hotels looming over them and hundreds of tourist buses clogging up their leafy idyll, they are frail, bewildered and graying, sitting in their huge gloomy apartments with high ceilings and waiting to collect their pensions.
The trendy and energetic young inhabitants of Lower Mid-Levels, Soho and Sheung Wan, on the other hand, are urban pioneers.  Sweeping into the area on the famous Mid-Levels Escalator in the last 10 years, they have taken a wilderness of old print shops, mom and pop groceries and dusty porcelain stores and carved out a new world of renovated studio walk-ups, art galleries and coffee shops with poetry readings.  They haven’t spent years gently easing out the crotchety old aboriginal inhabitants only to have the Hong Kong Government put high-rises full of loud, nouveau-rich, brand-obsessed Canto-yuppies into their midst. 

In an appeal to their conscience, Carrie is hoping the new settlers of Soho will join her in sobbing with grief at the plight of the unemployed.  The link between cramming tower blocks and podiums into the narrow streets of old Hong Kong and easing the plight of laid-off bank and shop staff is rarely questioned.  Just in case it is, Ms Lam might be interested to learn that Soho-ites are probably the only people in Hong Kong who would sympathize with the poor migrant Nepalese and Pakistani construction workers who will in fact benefit from the Government’s ‘concrete’ measures to create jobs.  She could get the cool and hip internationalist homesteaders onside after all!

Just as we are in danger of succumbing to some sort of logic, lawmakers break out in a blind panic that power consumption might – horror of horrors – fall.  Officials hastily assure the anxious legislators that the Government is
doing all it can to boost electricity use.  We can rest easy.

Wed, 26 Nov
Maybe it is the ‘techno’, ‘house’ or whatever electronic version of
O Little Town of Bethlehem is playing in the elevators in S-Meg Tower, but the Big Boss starts the day in an ebullient mood.  This is partially explained by his opening words in the morning meeting.  “Donald called me,” he tells his assembled senior management team, who are long hardened to wanton name-dropping.  Hong Kong’s boyish Chief Executive is asking for a favour.

“He’s pleading with everyone not to lay off any staff.  I told him S-Meg Holdings certainly has no plans to do so, and I reminded him that not since my father started the company have we ever fired large numbers of people when times were hard.  We take our, um… you know – duties – very seriously.”

Human Resources Manager Ms Doris Pang puts her knuckle duster down and raises her hand.  “Corporate social responsibility,” she mutters. Yes, that’s it, the Big Boss nods.

Up on the wall, captured for eternity in an elegantly framed black-and-white photograph, the conglomerate’s founder gazes down on his son from the confines of his iron lung.  He often seems to be scowling, but today I perceive a slight smile of satisfaction.  Like all good Chinese, family-run firms, S-Meg offers an iron rice bowl to its lumpen workforce.  In return for subservience, obedience and good attendance, they can be assured of both meager pay and workload – hence the ranks of magazine-reading, tea-sipping, gossiping women knitting baby clothes in floor after floor of pricy, central business district commercial real estate.
This unwritten, quasi-Confucian social contract between state, business and peasantry is just part of free-market Hong Kong’s underlying corporatist system, and it is this, rather than getting a bit of telephonic face from Sir Bow-Tie, that is making the Big Boss smile.  The Legislative Council will, without so much as a second thought, give the go-ahead to HK$100 billion worth of public spending on construction projects.  Many of these were budgeted for ages ago, but it still represents a big extra outlay on infrastructure – much of it fated never to produce an economic return, and quite a bit of it bound to damage the environment.  And S-Meg Holdings, with its interests in certain obscure and comfortably cartelized parts of the construction materials supply chain, is guaranteed a slice.  Not a big slice, but hey… that’s 11 zeros.
Good news for Nepalese and Pakistani migrant labour agencies.  And it is only to be expected that empire-building, contract-dispensing bureaucrats are rubbing their hands in anticipation.  What beggars belief is the attitude of the people’s representatives.  Dumbly swallowing the lie that this is about job creation – which in the post-1997 Big Lychee is universally accepted as a Government responsibility – almost the whole spectrum of chattering politicians and activists jump up and down with glee at this gargantuan free lunch for tycoons.

Pro-democracy populist firebrand Emily Lau expresses
mild concern that some of the employment opportunities will benefit that curious breed of slightly earthy but well-paid Westerners who describe themselves as quantity surveyors or engineers and keep a hard hat next to their briefcase.  But that’s as far as it goes.  Opponents and critics who would usually be alert to Government collusion with local plutocrats are actually clamouring for this multi-billion handout.  Some pro-labour figures are even denouncing officials for not doing more faster – sweet music to the ears of Carrie Lam, and to the household names of the local business world who own the privately held, little-known suppliers and sub-sub-sub-contractors that will rig the bids and rake in so much lovely taxpayers’ money from all this.

The wealth could be used to clean the air, reduce hospital waiting lists or relieve some 80-year-olds of the need to rummage through garbage for a living.  But no – our valiant fighters for universal suffrage take a break from demanding democracy from communists to demand that it be diverted into billionaires’ pockets.  Oh, and guarantee their managers’ year-end bonuses.  What can I say?  Thanks, Emily.  Keeping some cheap but unproductive office fodder on the payroll is the least we can do.
Thurs, 27 Nov
The Hong Kong Government’s
advice against unnecessary travel to Bangkok leaves me in a dilemma.  Like many right-minded citizens, I regard it as a point of honour to do the opposite every time the Big Lychee Nanny issues another Singapore-style lobotomy-edict.  I studiously ignore hillside slopes – except during heavy rain, when I defiantly stand beneath them.  I joyously rub my fingers all over the handrail on escalators and don’t wash them for days afterwards.  Next week, I am planning to use medicinal products from dubious sources, abstain from washing vegetables and not take any care at all of my belongings.  So a pointless trip to the Thai capital seems an excellent idea.  But it turns about to be almost impossible, as the airport down there is closed.

To the casual observer, the anti-government
protestors who have shut down flights at Suvarnabhumi might seem a decent enough group of people, at least by the standards of mobs who take over public buildings.  I don’t know how assiduously the Thai authorities mount condescending publicity campaigns demanding the switching off of engines, the proper use of electrical appliances or the creation of social harmony, but I suspect the yellow-clad People’s Alliance for Democracy would greet such messages with the healthy contempt they deserve.  Certainly, few would argue with their hostility to grubby former Premier Thaksin. 

But the crowds of bright eyed, middle-class urbanites pleading loyalty to the king are not all they seem.  Pulling strings in the background are self-styled elites who have traditionally hogged most of the Kingdom’s economic opportunities but seen their influence wane in recent times.  They complain about vote-buying populism that brought Thaksin and the current regime to power – measures that gave the rural poor cheap health care and farmers’ loans.  They say the population (the rest of it) are too uneducated to vote.  They want Parliament to be half-elected and half-appointed by superior people like themselves who understand what’s best for the nation.  Looking on from Hong Kong, it all sounds rather familiar.  In fact, now I think about it – where
is former Liberal Party boss James Tien these days?  They can keep the airport shut, anyway.

Fri, 28 Nov
The mystery about the whereabouts of former Liberal Party boss James Tien thickens.  My hunch yesterday was that he would feel right at home in the Land of Sleaze, spurring on yellow-shirted royalists bent on government by reactionary privileged incompetents instead of the current peasant-elected privileged incompetents.  But I was wide of the mark.  According to the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s finest public policy intellect has been in India, where it seems he checked out of the Taj Hotel in Bombay just hours before it and other tourist spots were attacked by the local branch of the Murderous Mohammedan Mouth-frothing Mujahideen Maniacs.  Showing great originality, the fanatics were reportedly going after Americans, British and Jews, though the 119-and-counting death toll suggests more of a shotgun approach.  Tien, anyway, was presumably not involved.
My mind drifts back around 15 years or so, when I too was checking out of the Taj.  The old wing, of course.  On my arrival a few days earlier, one of the hotel employees told me that every room was decorated differently, under the direction of the wife of someone important (the owner?).  My main memory was the Edwardian outdoor swimming pool with its eardrum-crushing 12-foot deep end, and the phone calls from hookers who paid airline staff for the contact details of supposedly well-heeled solo male visitors.  Other recollections of the place were swamped by the immense, vivid, repulsive and absurd assault on the senses that we are now invited to call Mumbai, with crumbling buildings, millions sleeping on the sidewalks, hundreds practicing cricket in the park, painted men sitting in trances, mutants with deformed kids tapping on the car window and the cows wandering the streets – the latter put there, I suspect, by India’s equivalent of Tourism Board Supremo James Tien on the assumption that tourists expect to see them.

On my last day, I felt a bit sweaty, and as I checked out at 4am, I felt decidedly feverish.  At the airport – a vast, crowded and dilapidated version of some of Morocco’s lower-class bus stations I had passed through years before – I barely had time to make it to a row of concrete squat toilets before whatever it was I had digested unleashed its torrential revenge.  In the (cue nostalgic sobbing) First Class cabin of the Cathay Pacific TriStar, I found myself sitting next to a kindly Iraqi-born Brit called Doctor Bunny, who was recruiting hospital staff for the Saudis.  He prescribed plain black tea with a big dash of brandy and no solids, which got me back to Hong Kong alive.  I shook the bug off, along with 8lb, within a few more days. 

Missing grenade-throwing Islamist psychopaths by the skin of his teeth, plus – perhaps – a dose of amoebic Bombay belly-flushing plague.  If Tien looks a bit haggard when he surfaces in Kabul, Somalia or whatever hot spot is next on his Visit the Big Lychee campaign tour, we will know why.