Hemlock's Diary
30 October-5 November 2005
Sun, 30 Oct
To Causeway Bay, in search of a large wooden chopping board on which to discipline the parsley in Perpetual Opulence Mansions.  IKEA, to no great surprise, does not offer what I want – theirs are cheap and nasty.  But I find the Swedish emporium is, as ever, a superlative spot for people watching.  With glee, I observe self-conscious young couples walking around with tape measures choosing the contents of their very first shared apartment.  They have gone beyond the stage of leaving toothbrushes in each other’s homes and are moving in together.  The Scandinavian-designed furniture is surely a metaphor for their relationships – a bit awkward to put together, almost instantly disappointing personally and increasingly embarrassing to friends, and eventually dismantled with difficulty and looked back on as a learning experience, at best.
Mon, 31 October
Gliding down the Mid-Levels Escalator this morning, Hong Kong’s uncomplaining and disenfranchised tax-payers stop off at Soho’s vegetarian restaurant Life for a bite of flat bread and
zaatar to go.  “First time in Hong Kong,” according to Bobsy, the extremely hairy proprietor, flipping the thin discs of unleavened dough over the hot plate on the sidewalk outside his trendy café.  Boris the burly assistant ladles the classic Middle Eastern mixture onto the hot wholemeal, rolls it up and serves it in greaseproof paper for HK$10.  For those of us who have had it before, it’s a unique blend of flavours that brings back old memories of Araby.  Three parts dried thyme, three parts sumac, one part sesame seeds – is there any recipe harder to get wrong?  Rub it onto chicken before cooking, or mix it with olive oil to make a marinade or, as in the lower Mid-Levels as of today, a spread.  It’s the sumac that provides the crowning sensory glory. 

As I resume my journey down the hill chewing the organic fare, it occurs to me that not everyone is clamouring to try this exotic delicacy.  The Westerners and other overseas-born or -educated among us are carrying the wraps away as fast as the hirsute cook can produce them.  But a pair of older and less worldly fellow-commuters view my breakfast with the combination of curiosity and suspicion traditional Cantonese folk have for foreign cuisine.  The bread appears tough and the topping looks like dirt.  It’s food, Ah-Ching, but not as we know it.
FOREIGN DIRECT investment transfers technology, creates employment and boosts tax revenue, which is why pathetic backwaters with no hope for the future go to absurd lengths to attract it, and see fit to announce a public holiday and dancing in the streets to celebrate even the tiniest infusion of private capital into their economy.  Big, grown-up places like Hong Kong take it in their stride.  Indeed, we export so much more capital than we bring in that we own an array of selected, lucrative chunks of the rest of the planet.  That trendy Shanghai entertainment district, Panama Canal ports, London department stores – our, ours, ours.  We’d never have to work again were it not for all the public-sector slackers we have to support.  Leeches who waste our tax dollars churning out press releases with headlines like InvestHK Rescues Big Lychee’s Economy by Getting in the Face of Mainland Steamed Bun Vendors Setting Up Shop in Causeway Bay.  

Have they no sense of dignity?  Or is this part of the ongoing Revenge of Tung – a rearguard attempt by diehard Tofu-for-Brains loyalists seeking to prevent a recovery of morale among the populace by subliminally suggesting that Hong Kong is so pathetic and desperate that it must lay out the red carpet for a dumpling seller?  Either way, it is a far cry from the good old days when the Fragrant Harbour exuded laissez-faire confidence and ‘pro-active’ meant remembering to put the gin in the fridge and make some ice cubes out of tonic water.

Tue, 1 Nov
On a poster displayed in the lobby at Perpetual Opulence Mansions, I find comforting evidence of the high standard of education and sophistication in Central and Western District.  Only in this neighbourhood would our officials take the trouble to adopt a clever ‘medium-is-the-message’ approach when locating a civic exhibition.  If the bureaucrats had contrived to mount a display on quality of life ‘underneath the flyover’ in any other part of town, their subtlety would have gone to waste.
A close look reveals the crossed-out word to be ‘problems’.  Why has the Chinese been left intact?  My non-native reader's eye detects a less pointed meaning, but maybe they just don’t want to alarm excitable gwailos, some of whom are known to apply the ‘P’ word to such municipal features as air pollution and traffic congestion, when all right-thinking people know that these things are in fact ‘challenges’, ‘issues’ or ‘irrelevant so long as we pay 16 percent salaries tax’.

EMAILS SPEW forth from the various orifices of my PC, demanding to know the whereabouts of Shek Tong Tsui, the mysterious neighbourhood that hosted Central and Western’s exhibition on quality of life ‘under the flyover’.  Although it is firmly in the little-visited ‘Western’ part of God’s own District, I am able to pinpoint the place.  Up the hill in that corner of Hong Kong Island, we have Sai Ying Pun, where the trees sway lazily in the breeze coming off the Lamma Channel, and scholars and academics stroll deep in thought around the peaceful quadrangles and ivy-clad courtyards of Hong Kong University.  Further down near the harbour front, we have Kennedy Town, where ragged lepers, flea-ridden beggars and deranged itinerants crawl among the pig carcasses in the shadows of the noisome waste incinerator and Mr Li Ka-shing’s highly profitable cement plant.  Between the two is a buffer zone, accommodating scummy businesses like walk-in stock brokerages and seafood restaurants with decade-old chewing gum stains in the carpet.   Welcome to Shek Tong Tsui, gateway to the West
Wed, 2 Nov
The working day starts in the Big Boss’s office, where I prep the great man ahead of a meeting later today.   As a favour to his relatively new ‘old friend’, our dashing Chief Executive Donald Tsang, he is leaning on supposedly moderate, potentially flexible pro-democracy legislators, trying to persuade them to vote for the Government’s proposed constitutional reforms.  He has a list of six potential waverers, whose votes would give the administration the two-thirds majority it needs to get a constitutional bill through the circus.  Some of them should be easy – like Mandy Tam, representative of the Accounting Functional Constituency, probably as malleable as a big lump of dough.  “Remind her that she only got 30 percent of her constituents’ votes,” I suggest.  “Ask if she has a mandate to reject this package.”  However, some of the half-dozen, such as the one he will be seeing this afternoon, are made of sterner stuff.

To make things interesting, someone in Beijing has decided that now would be a good time to switch on the Mouth-Frothing Anti-Democrat Diatribe Machine – albeit at a low setting.  The manufacturer claims it will divide and isolate democrats, but in practice it seems to draw them tighter together and remind 70 percent of the Hong Kong public why they voted for them. 
A timetable for universal suffrage would be illegal, it hisses.  Sifting through the mendacity and half-logic the device has spat out, I find a desperate but vaguely sensible point – that a timetable for universal suffrage could be too long as well as too short – and a cheering pat on the head in conclusion…
The apprehension that ‘universal suffrage would be forever delayed’ is by no means warranted.
The writer refers to the Fifth Report on Constitutional Development as “actually the implementation of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee’s April 26 decision.” That’ll be news to the Hong Kong Government, which thinks it’s the result of extensive consultation with the people of the Big Lychee (for whom it won’t be news). 

The Big Boss doesn’t think it’s funny.  He is worried that the pan-democratic camp might turn tough and muster enough brainpower to recall that China originally guaranteed Hong Kong autonomy over political reform after the first 10 years of reunion with the glorious motherland.  That’s why Annexes I and II of the Basic Law read the way they do.  It’s what Beijing’s Lu Ping spelt out in 1993.  A mealy-mouthed British report last year
buried it in paragraph 56, but otherwise it all goes unspoken in polite society.  “What if they look us in the face and come out with that?” the visionary tycoon wonders.  “What do we say?”  I think about it for a few seconds.

“Simple,” I reply.  “Beijing’s broken its promise.  What’re you going to do about it?”

Thurs, 3 Nov
Over a steaming cup of avocado and jojoba latte in the IFC Mall branch of Pacific Coffee, I peruse an anguished email from a restaurant on Soho’s picturesque Elgin Street…
Dear Hemlock
Re your
article on "enoteca on elgin" it was reading well until the weak last paragraph about acetone and poison. Sadly you fail yet again to win prizes. Any one with half a brain knows that enoteca simply means wine bar in italian. Do you know what "hemlock" is? I wonder!
I check your site often with musing interest but do try to keep your fine cinisism a tad interlectual
Keep up the shite work.
Rob Cooper
PS Love you to come down and try the food and wine...no seabass though sorry but at least we may be able to stimulate your grey matter.
Knowing hundreds of people with just half a brain, I resolve to test this claim. 

“It’s ‘acetone’ backwards,” declares wild American friend Odell.  I send him off to ask the creepy looking girl who sits there every morning reading the Bible in Chinese and making notes.  “She wants to know what ‘Italian’ is,” he reports back.  A passing waitress thinks about it for a while and says she thinks it’s a place in Soho.  A search on Google reveals that, however incomprehensible ‘enoteca’ might be to Hongkongers, it is the generic name of choice for trendy wine bars across the English-speaking world – New York, San Francisco, Washington, Sydney, London, Dublin, Tuscon…  It’s good to see we’re keeping up with Tuscon.  An on-line dictionary defines it as a feminine noun meaning ‘stock of vintage wines’.  I ask Odell if he thinks the word could be etymologically related to ‘oenophile’.  He frowns.  He’s from Utah.  He’s got half a brain.  It was a pointless question. 

“That was a rude email – you gonna put the Curse of Hemlock on them?” asks my grinning ex-Mormon friend.  It’s tempting.  But running a restaurant in Hong Kong is a curse unto itself.  Sea bass came off the menu when a customer died of botulism.  The chef picks his nose before he disciplines the parsley.  The waitresses are here on tourist visas.  They’re playing Kenny G in the background without paying any public performance royalties.  There’s a cockroach-strewn heap of dead rats obstructing the fire exit in the vomitorium.  Then you find the name is ‘acetone’ backwards.  I wouldn’t wish it on the hit man from IKEA who’s following me around everywhere.
Fri, 4 Nov
An email from wild American friend Odell.  “Do you want to really piss off some taxi drivers?” he asks.  “If so,
click here and answer the first three questions ‘no’, ‘yes’ and ‘3A, 3B, 2, 1’ and send it in.  Repeat all day.”  It’s a Government opinion survey on semi-pedestrianizing part of Nathan Road.  

But I have nothing against these chivalrous chauffeurs – latter-day knights steering their red Toyota chariots along the Big Lychee’s highways with cheerful, freedom-loving flair.  I have never, in all my time, had any memorable problems with them.  Indeed, all I recall in hundreds of cab rides over the years are countless courtesies, amusing repartee, respectful requests for permission to play Wagner (granted) and tactful avoidance of eye contact while being molested on the back seat by determined Southeast Asian women.  Odell, on the other hand, has a long list of verbal and written warnings from a firm but friendly Scotsman in a dark uniform at Western Police Station to his name, following unfortunate mishaps with taxi drivers involving communication problems and the loss of mobile phones, money, temper, stomach contents, etc. 

“PS,” he adds, “it’ll piss off drivers of vans, SUVs, Mercedes and Volvos too.” 

That’s different.  Consider it done.

THOUGHT FOR the weekend…  As a devout Catholic, Chief Executive Donald Tsang must believe in free will, reject  predestination as a heresy, but believe in miracles.
“Now we are finally masters of our own house.”

Tung Chee-hwa, 1997
“Far be it from the minds of the faithful to say that there is such a thing as fate.”

Pope St. Gregory I, ca 590
“We are not masters of our fate.”

Donald Tsang, last week, 2005