Hemlock's Diary
The ravings of Hong Kong's most obnoxious expat
27 February-5 March 2005

Sun, 27 Feb
Could anyone devise a more ignoble and undignified end for the world’s
rarest bottle of whisky than being put on sale in the duty free section of Hong Kong International Airport?  The answer is of course ‘yes’.  It could be in the duty free section of the border crossing between Hong Kong and Shenzhen.  Or you could just hand it over to wild American friend Odell, who I find ensconced in the pub in Lan Kwai Fong this afternoon, nursing not only his fourth pint of beer but, I notice after sitting down, a cut on the cheek and a badly bruised eye. 

With an embarrassed laugh he tells me what happened last night.  He ended up somewhere.  Probably Wanchai.  In one of the infamous disco dungeons thereabouts he sunk his ninth or so pint of the evening and saw a scoundrel make off with his bag.  He chased the felon, grappled with him on the street and retrieved his property.  “Except it wasn’t mine,” he relates, rubbing his sore cheek.  “It was his.  It looked like one I used to have.”  The falsely accused gentleman, a young, testosterone-charged citizen of Manchester, England, took umbrage.  And, I ask, when did this happen?  “Well, my watch stopped at three in the morning,” he replies, displaying the lifeless timepiece on his wrist.  Things got worse.  After somehow getting back home, he decided that he needed to make amends to his Thai wife Mee, who had cooked dinner for him at 9.00 and waited patiently for ages before giving up.  His drunken attempt at expressing his affection for her as she slept was for some reason rebuffed.  “She hit me in the eye – second time in two hours!”  It couldn’t get worse, surely?  Yes it could.  He looks at me sheepishly.  “Then I threw up on her.”  His anguished eyes plead with me to assure him that these things could happen to anyone.

As I commiserate with Odell over his terrible luck and express my deep remorse at never having married, I notice huge, crop-haired white and black men in their early twenties parading down the street.  The US Navy is in town.  Many of them are carrying bags of laundry.  This puzzles me for a while until the truth dawns on me.  Knowing that the Big Lychee is crawling with Chinese spies, the US military has obviously decided to take this opportunity to lull the evil yellow menace into a false sense of security through a simple ruse – a contrived public display of incompetence.  The US Navy can’t even wash its personnel’s clothes, we are supposed to think, therefore they will be no match for the valiant People’s Liberation Army when Beijing exercises its lawful and historic claim to sovereignty over Taiwan, Okinawa, Hawaii and so on.  Won’t the communist hordes  be in for a shock?

Mon, 28 Feb
Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa is appointed to the National People’s Political Consultative Conference therefore he is
as good as retired.  Or is he?  It is so easy to believe what we wish to be true.  The Big Boss became a member of the CPPCC many years ago, but he remains the hyperactive Chairman of S-Meg Holdings, mishandling deals with vigour and verve.  Indeed, membership of this not-ceremonial-but-really-important assembly seems quite rejuvenating for him.  A trip to Beijing around now is just what he needs to start a new lunar year.  As I write, he is having his photo taken with a grim-looking man with died black hair in front of a vast, tacky wall drape showing the Great Wall.  Then it’s round to the penthouse of his porcine Mainland mistress for – I presume with revulsion and nausea – some obtuse-on-obese coupling.  It’s not as if the CPPCC is an elite club.  Any riffraff can get in if they shine – or simply step into – the right shoes.  Even the father of Jenny-the-girl-from-Beijing-but-she’s-got-an-American-passport is a member, and all he did was produce archaeological evidence that the Chinese invented the electric toothbrush and discovered Kansas in 9,000 BC. 

So Tofu-for-Brains is with us for another two years and four months.  The good news is that the sour-faced patriots like Xu Simin resent the crop-haired one’s new bauble with their usual miserable grumbling and seething, senile bitterness.  They are the true believers – the faithful who worshipped at the Communist Party temple at the cost of being outcasts from colonial society – not like the money-gobbling tycoon-whores who spread their legs for anyone in power, even barbarians.  They made the sacrifices for the motherland.  People like Tung get the rewards.  They were used, and now they drink venom.  Who can fail to have their heart warmed by such a cheerful thought this chilly day?
Tue, 1 Mar
Gliding down the Mid-Levels Escalator through darkest Soho, I see ex-Mormon friend Odell’s Thai wife Mee standing outside their apartment block.  I hop off the walkway to find her in a bad mood.  “He’s having breakfast,” she snaps at me, folding her arms.  To make small talk, I ask what he’s having.  “He has back ‘ed beans.”  I ponder this in silence.  Could she mean black-eyed peas?  “Heinz back ‘ed beans,” she confirms.  “On toast.  And quacker oats.”  Looking none the worse for this starchy sounding start to the day, the man himself emerges from the building.  Mee turns her back on him as he tries to give her a goodbye kiss.  Back on the electric ladder, I look at Odell’s face.  His seriously bruised eye and cut cheek have vanished.  An apparent miracle.  Not quite of Biblical proportions perhaps, but more astonishing than an apparition of the Virgin Mary in a pizza.  How on earth, I ask him, did that happen?  How did you do it?  With a sly smile, he produces a lady’s powder compact, complete with mirror and puff.  He is borrowing it from Mee.  It’s useful to have a woman in the house, he tells me with a perfectly straight, not to say unblemished, face.  And he smells lovely.

BYE-BYE Tung, you fat fool’, reads the headline in the Financial Times.  Inspired by the newspaper’s optimism, the Company Gwailo at S-Meg Holdings decides that, like Hong Kong, the Accounts Department on the 12th floor needs a new beginning.  The bean counters will enter a period of enlightenment, free of atavistic superstition and savage ritual.  I enter the large, open-plan office at 8.30am, a good 20 minutes before the desk meat arrive, so I am free to forage for some supplies.  After helping myself to some highlighter pens, pads of yellow Post-It notes and an amusing rubber stamp that says ‘CONFIDENTIAL’ in English and Chinese, I proceed to the entrance to the pantry, where I successfully complete my mission by removing the ridiculous patch of feng-shui carpet, which mysteriously ends up behind a filing cabinet.  The Age of Reason begins today.
There are things that are known, and things that are unknown. In between there are doors.

William Blake
Wed, 2 Mar
The new arrival with the puce tie joins me in the elevator in Perpetual Opulence Mansions again.  He introduces himself as Brian from Essex, England.  A stock analyst.  These people are such clowns, I can’t resist having a bit of fun as we pass the security guard and stroll into the crisp morning air.  “What do you think about HSBC?” I ask him.  He’s advising his clients to sell, he replies earnestly.  He sees the stock falling to HK$115 within six months.  “What will it be at in 20 years?” I suggest.  “Or more to the point, what will the dividends be like in 20 years?”  He looks rather bemused.  The first lesson about the local stock market – you don’t sell HSBC.  As he gets into his taxi, I decide Brian will be a useful source of market tips for me.  I will do the opposite of whatever he suggests.
TUNG’S OUT.  It’s in all the papers, so it must be true.  But members of Hong Kong’s industrious, disenfranchised and overtaxed middle class are not so sure as they glide down the Mid-Levels Escalator for another day’s wealth-creation in the central business district of Asia’s international business centre.  My neighbour the banker can’t believe Beijing would lose face by admitting that our avuncular Chief Executive has been a disaster.  It would mainly be former president Jiang Zemin’s face, he admits, but still...  I recall voluptuous Administrative Officer Winky Ip telling me that poor old CH had offered to quit ‘for health reasons’ in 2003 – but his northern masters forbade him after the mass protest that July, lest they appeared to be bowing to the people’s will.  “If he does go,” says the marketing manager in the leather skirt and ermine earmuffs, “do you think the stock market will zoom up?”  This provokes much excited chatter.  Given the close ties between the Tung family and tycoons like Li Ka-shing, companies like Cheung Kong might go down.  Tung’s less-cronyistic replacement might give us a competition law to trim the cartels’ margins.  He might stop handing public wealth to the tycoons in the form of land for ‘hubs’ or contracts for vast, unnecessary infrastructure projects.  He might arrange for a flock of pigs to soar into the sky over Central, swooping gracefully between the skyscrapers and gliding into the smog over Victoria Harbour. 

“He’s not going to stand down – forget it,” I declare to my fellow commuters as we trundle down towards Queens Road.  “He might take a back seat.  So maybe we’ll have just seven and a half wasted years instead of the full ten.  But he’ll remain Chief Executive.”  I am putting God in a quandary.  If He keeps Tung in office, He makes me into a gifted and insightful forecaster.  If He dumps Tung, He dumps Tung!  Either way, life couldn’t be better.
Thurs, 3 Mar
The congee at Yuet Yuen restaurant is especially hot this morning, and shapely Administrative Officer Winky Ip is especially radiant. The curvaceous civil servant glows with a deep, inner joy as she cradles her little cup of jasmine tea in her hands.  “So what’s this delay all about?” I ask her.  “Are Jiang Zemin’s people bickering with Hu’s people over the wording of the ‘
bye-bye Tung’ press release?”  She smiles as she gives me a disinterested shrug.  Who cares?  She hasn’t a clue.  I will miss poor old Tofu-for-Brains in a strange way, but for Winky, everything is perfect.  “It’s funny,” I tell her.  “We still have coins with the Queen’s head on them.  And now we’re going to be run by one of her knights, Sir Donald Tsang.  All we need to do is get all these Mainland tourists out of town, pull the red flags down and bingo – it’s like the good old days again.”  She nods, but she’s not paying much attention.  She’s in a state of euphoria. 

“The most important thing,” I go on, “is that we’re not going to be run by a tycoon anymore.”  Winky’s ears prick up.  Absolutely right, she agrees with a broad smile.  “Putting a tycoon in charge of Hong Kong is like giving a timid seven-year-old kid the keys to a candy store,” I explain. “Within minutes, his ‘friends’ are rushing in, opening all the jars and stuffing their faces.”  Winky is listening harder now and nodding and grinning.  As I dab some chili sauce onto my
mein with my orange plastic chopsticks, the awful truth dawns on me.  Now, our dedicated public servants will have the keys to the candy store.  No wonder Winky looks so smug.  At least when the private sector is ravaging our common fortune you can buy stock and get a slice of the action in dividends.  But you can’t buy shares in the civil service.  You’re cut out.  All you can do is…  Marry one?  A spicy bit of bean shoot goes down the wrong way and I splutter half-chewed noodle in the direction of the well-formed bureaucrat.  She is too lost in serene bliss to notice.
Fri, 4 Mar
To pass the time while we are waiting for Beijing to officially announce Tung’s fate, Hong Kong asks how long his successor would serve after being installed as Chief Executive.  The Basic Law unambiguously stipulates five years.  But with Donald Tsang looking likely to be anointed, this isn’t to everyone’s taste.  Vinegary patriots bristle at the idea that their advice is not required and the motherland’s leadership has already decided to pick the British-infected Chief Secretary.  The slimy invertebrates of the Liberal Party resent the idea that Financial Secretary Henry Tang, the defender of inherited wealth, cartels and plutocracy, is being passed over.  Members of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong share other leftists’ dismay and humiliation at having their loyalty and toadying rewarded by being left out of the loop.  So they clamour for bow-tie man to serve only the remaining two years of the crop-haired one’s term, even if another Basic Law interpretation is needed to affirm that the drafters’ original intent in writing ‘five’ was ‘two’.  Even the democrats are
in confusion, fantasizing that postponing election reform from 2007 to 2010 will make a difference to something somewhere. 

THE BIG Boss arrived back in the Big Lychee last night for a brief break from the orgy of shoe-shining taking place in Beijing.  In the morning meeting, he admits complete ignorance about what is happening.  Executive Council members are asking reporters for inside information.  What a way to run a country.  He asks each of us in turn for our thoughts.  I try to keep it lighthearted.  “It’s interesting,” I say.  “Beijing tells the people of Hong Kong they can’t elect their leader.  Now they cast the leftists and pro-Government parties to one side, and appoint as Chief Executive the man the people would vote for if they could.”  The Chairman of S-Meg Holdings mutters brief agreement, sensing that I am about to deliver my ‘Beijing despises sycophants deep down’ homily, which he takes personally.  The great man turns to the spotty accountant, who has a more rational take on things.

“Something strange has happened,” reports the chief beancounter.  “Sometime between Monday evening and Tuesday, the mat that keeps bad forces from spreading into the main office on the 12th floor went missing.”  Everyone turns to listen to this startling development.  “On Tuesday, my secretary’s son finally passed his driving test.  On Wednesday, the papers announced that Mr Tung was standing down, and three of my staff won 20,000 dollars at the horse races.  And yesterday, the independent auditors signed off on our 2004 accounts with no problem at all.”  And on Friday, the Big Boss was off to the airport by 10, leaving the company gweilo with a very early start to the weekend.