Hemlock's Diary
25-31 January, 2009
Wed, 28 Jan
The Year of the Ox gets off to a suitably bovine start when I encounter a herd of members of the Hong Kong Association of Gwailos Married to Southeast Asian Women of Humble Origins chewing the cud and staring morosely into space in the pub in Lan Kwai Fong.  They are recovering from an extremely good weekend, which was largely spent in Wanchai.  How enjoyable a time they had can be gauged from two incontrovertible facts – not one of them can recall anything about it, and they have in their possession a HK$5,762 bill from one the classier establishments they passed through.

There is some uncertainty about when they were there.  “I think that was Saturday night after we were at Laguna’s,” says Jack, trying to calm the shakes by clasping his tattooed hand round his glass of San Miguel.  “Nah,” says Ken, “that was late Sunday, before we went to… where did we go then?” I am more intrigued by some of the items on the lengthy cash register printout.  The snowballs, kamikazes and Malibus were, they assure me, bought as offerings to some of the many refined and discerning women who occupy the district.  But who ordered ‘nothing’ and paid HK$69 for it?

This, it transpires was none other than wild American friend Odell, who fell asleep at the bar from 2am to 5am at HK$20 an hour and was then seen stealing a bottle of Heinz tomato ketchup – nine bucks – as he staggered out into the dawn.  “That’s the one thing I remember from the whole weekend,” says Jack.

Super Happy Hour has just begun, and the Association decide to decamp to the notorious bar zone.  In the interests of anthropology, I agree to go too, and after a 10-minute taxi ride find myself in a place that is crowded, noisy, smoky and, above all, dark.  As the eyes adjust, the true gruesomeness becomes apparent.  You would not want lighting in here.

A genetic engineering experiment that went wrong sits in a gloomy corner, shoveling ketchup-drenched Cornish pasty and chips into his mouth with bare, bulging fingers.  At the next table, a fat middle-aged Filipino woman with a slightly fetching mother-of-three demeanour nuzzles up to a dozing man who could be her father except he’s white.  At the bar sit a pair of very large and exuberant African prostitutes, a young guy who – according to Ken as he points him out and I turn to stare – attacks people if he thinks they are looking at him, and a menopausal divorcee school librarian who I am told sometimes livens things up by falling off her stool.

At the other end, a small mob of Southeast Asian women – charitable average age 30-something – dance while being pawed by surprisingly sprightly, flabby white men who are well past groping, not to say retirement, age.  What did the inventor of Viagra think he was doing?

(Except where otherwise specified, all the above are British.  But does that need to be said?)

The ketchup mutant, plate emptied, wipes his slimy digits with a tissue, swigs from his pint of beer, leans back and rubs his distended belly.

Various questions come to mind.  Why don’t tour guides include this on Mainland visitors’ itineraries?  It is no less memorable than the view from the Peak.  And where on earth were the Immigration officers when all these people turned up here in our fair and fragrant harbour?   Those that had been born, at least.
Thurs, 29 Jan
Maybe US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner was playing to the gallery in his Senate confirmation hearings when he accused China of manipulating its currency.  Maybe he was saber-rattling to remind Beijing who gets hurt more if it comes down to a clash between the Mainland’s sweatshop-based export growth model and serious, heavenly mandate-busting American trade protectionism.  Maybe, like all right-minded people, he simply derives pleasure from provoking predictable squeals of protest from over-sensitive authoritarians accustomed to getting their own way.  After all the ranting and mouth-frothing about accumulation of reserves, however, there is one quick way of telling just how much the Renminbi is artificially valued.
Once upon a time, back in the days of Foreign Exchange Certificates, it was possible when visiting Guangzhou to buy RMB2 worth of goods for HK$1, even though the official rate was one-for-one.  Today, the official rate is again roughly one-for-one, but slightly in favour of the Mainland currency.  However, Shenzhen shopkeepers nowadays happen to agree with the Bank of China that this is the true value of the Renminbi, so they actually prefer not to take Hong Kong Dollars.  Meanwhile – utterly unthinkable though it was a couple of decades ago – most vendors in the Big Lychee are happy to accept the Renminbi in lieu of the local unit.  And, crucially, Mainlanders are happy to offer it at that rate of one-to-one.  There is, in other words, no black market, which suggests that the Renminbi’s official value is broadly realistic.  Maybe I should mention this to both the US and Chinese leaders and spread a little peace and joy throughout the world.
Think-tank boss Christine Loh, in her column in today’s South China Morning Post, is looking beyond the Mainland sweatshop era, when the Pearl River Delta churned out millions of containers every day, and the Big Lychee made easy money by skimming a bit off every one by so painstakingly adding value.  Why, she asks, doesn’t Financial Secretary John Tsang do the same in his forthcoming budget, and boost job opportunities for our legions of semi-employable youths in the new knowledge economy – specifically by encouraging local digital archiving activities?  It is time, she more or less says, to put the tired old construction-tourism-logistics sunset industries behind us.

What charming naivety – to expect the Hong Kong Government to choose which industries to support by asking whether they have a future!  The only question officials need to ask is whether Li Ka-shing and the other property tycoons have any interests in the digital archiving sector.  And they don’t.  So construction-tourism-logistics it is.  And at HK$2 to RMB1, if Geithner has his way, why shouldn’t Shenzhen be outsourcing all this and more down here for years to come?

Fri, 30 Jan
The three lead stories on RTHK3 this morning are 1) the Governor of Illinois has been kicked out of office, 2) the US President has signed an equal-pay bill, and 3) the same President has criticized Wall Street for paying bonuses last year.  Perhaps on National Public Radio’s
Morning Edition today all the news will be about Hong Kong. 

There are times when it suits our senior officials to have the Big Lychee’s media outlets emphasize overseas affairs.  Chapter One of Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s well-thumbed copy of
Every Big Boy’s Book of Political Tricks deals with the humdrum task of burying bad news.  Typically, the Government announces the latest screw-up on a Saturday afternoon or when everyone’s attention is on something else.  Thus the Hong Kong Monetary Authority reported that it had lost billions of our reserves at the same time Barack Obama was being inaugurated.  Nice try.  But in Chinese-speaking Hong Kong, at least, the ruse was of only limited success – local money being far more important than that black guy thousands of miles away.
Chapter Two of the book – subtitled Machiavelli Made Simple for Six Year Olds – deals with the relatively complex art of managing expectations.  And it is this section that Financial Secretary John Tsang has been re-reading ahead of the annual Budget Speech next month. 

A political assistant calls up Government-friendly newspapers.  Send us a spotty, economically illiterate, HK$9,000-a-month, guileless teenage reporter, she tells each one, so we can give them a special briefing.  During the off-the-record gathering, an important official with no name waves some freshly chopped onion under his eyes and delivers the tearful message that the coffers are bare and tragically there will be few, if any, fiscal handouts this year.  The pliable press dutifully conveys these
sad words to the public, who, with heavy hearts, reconcile themselves to eating bitterness.  No sacrifice is too great, they tell themselves, if it means their glorious city can avoid deficit spending.  Imagine their delight then, when the Financial Secretary stands up on budget day and declares that thanks to great effort and genius, our wise and generous leaders have been able to find a few crusts here and there, which they will distribute to their usual friends – and even to some ordinary, little people.  Joyous citizens dance in the street, Sir Bow-Tie’s approval ratings shoot past Obama’s and social harmony reigns.

What a pity there are no other chapters in the book.
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