Hemlock's Diary
2-8 October 2005
Mon, 3 Oct
It suddenly occurs to me why
Newsweek has the word ‘news’ in the title – the magazine is packed with information previously unknown to me.  In just one sentence at the top of an exclusive and shocking story revealing to the world that Mainland companies are listing on the Hong Kong stock market, I learn two fascinating things.  First, Hong Kong is an ‘enclave’.  Second, there is a race between Hong Kong and Shanghai to become the ‘de facto’ (as opposed to what?) national stock market of China.  The writer can disclose that Hong Kong is winning this race. 

It sounds exciting.  But then – what if there is in fact no such race?  What if “the [conventional wisdom] that Shanghai is preordained to rise as a financial hub to rival Tokyo, London or New York,” is neither conventional nor wisdom but simply a fallacy swallowed by
Newsweek reporters easily impressed by skyscrapers and unaware of the role of freely convertible currencies, open financial systems, free flows of information, and Anglo-Saxon traditions of law, accounting and corporate governance? 

However, this leaves us with that initial stunning eye-opener, namely that the Big Lychee is an ‘enclave’.  The word was last used in this region to describe pre-handover Macau, as it was easier than writing out ‘shabby, dilapidated Portuguese dump’.   It means a country surrounded by another, like San Marino or Monaco, or part of a country in the same position, like the old West Berlin, Spain’s Ceuta and Melilla on the Moroccan coast, or East Timor’s exciting Oecussi-Ambeno.  Either way, this is a major scoop for
BALI MOURNS a terrorist attack, almost three years to the day after a bigger one wrecked its tourism industry.  Why do people rush to cancel their bookings after an incident like this?  There is surely no better time to visit the island.  Hotel rates will be slashed.  Security will presumably be tight.  It will be a chance to see a bit of history taking place, or at least being cleaned up.  And it won’t be infested with other visitors. 

Perhaps travellers abandoning Kuta will go to Hong Kong Disneyland instead.  Assuming they can find it.  Unlike the smoke left by Islamist suicide bombers, the Penny’s Bay haze seems to linger.  To help out, the Hong Kong Observatory is training a
webcam on the resort from Peng Chau, and thoughtfully identifying the murky, pale, pee-pee-tinted blobs in the lower left part of the scene as the Magic Kingdom, nestling in the warm, golden-hued air.  What could be more enticing to Asia’s nervous holidaymakers?
Tue, 4 Oct
Breakfast of congee and noodles at the Foreign Correspondents Club with voluptuous Administrative Officer Winky Ip.  She is moody and possibly about to get snappy, so we eat in silence.  I look through the papers and see that the recent agreement between Hong Kong’s two English dailies to divide the news between them seems to be working well, judging by the almost complete absence of any wasteful overlapping today. 

South China Morning Post concentrates on the dirt.  A Cathay Pacific cabin attendant is murdered by his ex-crew girlfriend, who then leaps to her death.  Is the airline getting a bit rusty?  It used to do an excellent job of covering up all its cabin crew suicides.  Former High Court judge Miles Henry Jackson-Lipkin and his wife are charged with welfare fraud.  The SCMP is showing its amateurishness here, just reporting the dry court proceedings.  The Chinese press dredged up the juice on all this last May, regaling readers with tales of HK$7,000 CSSA a month for three years, a place in the spacious China Coast Home for Aging Gwailo Gentlefolk in Kowloon Tong, rental income from overseas property, etc, etc.  (Can you dredge juice?  Never mind.)  The paper does little better with the ever-popular Roderick Murray, suspended barrister, simply stating that he has been remanded to the psychiatric ward at Siu Lam Prison after jumping bail on assault charges.  Why don’t they mention anything about the hordes of lonely Western women who have been riding the ferry to Mui Wo on the flimsiest of excuses in the hope – sometimes fulfilled – that the maverick lawyer will introduce himself and display his renowned charm and wit?  Lastly, the Post reviews Nana Mouskouri’s farewell tour – “the perfect toast to a lifetime of gentle glories.”  Pass the air motion discomfort receptacle.
“Is it, um, that time of the month?” I ask Winky in my best, sensitive tone of voice.  She nods, looking uncharacteristically sorry for herself.  Every four weeks, our dashing Chief Executive Donald Tsang makes a calculated concession to public opinion.   After announcing an utterly ludicrous plan and insisting it will go ahead, he makes a compromise, winning grudging popular approval for the 80 percent-ludicrous policy he wanted all along.  The civil servants know the expectations-management game, but they find it a bit humiliating, having their tough public stance reversed by Sir Bowtie, the all-ears, oh-so-reasonable, man-of-the-people.  The Standard, which now focuses entirely on the boring political news, reveals the cause of Winky’s grumpiness – ‘Government to squander slightly less public wealth, trash slightly less harbourfront, in response to public demand’.  “Never mind,” I tell her, “You’ve still got the Tamar Mega-Government Skyscraper to be completely inflexible about.”  She perks up and pulls a ‘Serving The Community’ folder from her bag.   Finally smiling at the thought of her Ferragamo heel grinding popular resistance into the dust of the harbour reclamation, she waves a glossy artist’s impression of the planned tower in my face.
Wed, 5 Oct
What is that muffled, abrasive sound echoing along the length of the Mid-Levels Escalator this morning?  Is it the dandruff that has fallen through the walkway’s cracks being ground up by the machine’s inner workings?  Is it the schoolchildren on the street below, scuffing their hands and knees on the pavement as they drag themselves up the hill, weighed down by the 40 pounds of books in their Hello Kitty backpacks?  No.  It is merely Hong Kong’s clean-living, disenfranchised, tax-paying middle class scratching their heads and asking, “Wong
The great experiment in government-by-people-Beijing-can-trust-no-matter-how-inept continues to wind down.  It’s not the first time we’ve heard that Secretary for Justice Elsie Leung is standing down, but it finally rings true.  For most of the 1997-2005 period, everyone’s favourite patriotic spinster aunt had the same forlorn look in her weary eyes as then-Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa.  The look that said, “Help, I’m out of my depth in an incompetent administration!”  Under our new system of government-by-colonial-running dogs-who-might-have-a-clue, merciful release is at hand.  The Standard passes on the word from the Government’s hard-working leak machine that a hitherto unheard-of barrister called Wong Yan-lung will be taking the befuddled bluestocking’s place.  (The South China Morning Post also mentions one Patrick Fung Pak-tung as a possible replacement, but the newspaper should be taken with a pinch of salt when it strays from its popular culture and human interest remit.)
My fellow commuters gliding down the hill towards Central shrug and shake their heads.  Who on earth is YL Wong?  Mr Chiu the lawyer recalls that when Elsie announced the appointment of four new Senior Counsel in 2002, YL Wong’s was the briefest description.  “It was nothing personal,” he tells us.  “There just wasn’t much to say.”  He struggles to think of something to add.  “He got God in a big way at Cambridge.”  What can we say?  He can’t be any worse than all the other Attorneys-General the Big Lychee has had since the 1840s.  There is something endearingly inconsequential about his establishment connections.  He went to university on a scholarship scheme founded by Bank of East Asia boss and aspiring Executive Council member David Li.  He trained under Andrew (cousin of David) Li, now Chief Justice.  He and his wife helped proofread the memoirs of colonial-era Exco stalwart Sir SY Chung.  And, um, that’s it.

Thurs, 6 Oct
Another exciting morning in S-Meg Tower.  I have precisely 10 minutes before the Big Boss drags me off to a mystery meeting at which I will play my favourite role – the factotum who proves how cosmopolitan S-Meg Holdings is by silently being white.  Just enough time for a quick flick through the paper.
Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food York Chow, discussing the subject of bird flu, delivers a chirpy ‘perhaps the whole world will collapse’ speech.   It is typical of this hangover from the Tung regime to dwell on the gloomy side of things when he could be boosting our spirits with the best-case scenario…  Avian flu breaks out in Hong Kong.  Millions of our people don masks, gargle with boiling vinegar and drive their infectious Indonesian maids out of their homes at knifepoint.  For the first time since the last great pestilence swept the city, the Big Lychee finds itself the centre of the planet’s attention.  The hordes of visitors that normally clog up the place and breath what little oxygen we have suddenly vanish.   The parasitic tourism industry disintegrates.  Tacky hotels become crumbling, desolate ruins.  Vendors of skin-whitening products, herbal medicine and tasteless jewellery go bankrupt, many of them having to sell their children into slavery.  While the productive part of the economy is brought to its knees for a month or so, panic-stricken fund managers sell their holdings at a fraction of net asset value per share, enabling those of us sitting on piles of opportunity-hungry cash to accumulate the wealth that is our due as the only sane and cool-headed people in town.  They keep on talking about bird flu – now let’s get on with it.

Fri, 7 Oct
As dawn breaks over the deserted concrete plaza of Exchange Square, wild American friend Odell sits at a table just outside IFC Mall and watches me approach.  “I’m through with Pacific Coffee,” he tells me as I sit down.  “I’ve tried everything – blueberry and jojoba latte, rosehip and cardamom yoghurt, mint-mango-tea tree oil slurpy.  There’s nothing new left.   So I’ve got this.”  He pours a dark purple liquid with small green lumps out of a small bottle into a plastic cup.  “It’s netsuke,” he announces.  “From that weird shop on Hollywood Road.”  I know the place – I walk past it every day.  I’ve often wondered what it actually sells.  Odell takes a sip, puts the cup down and picks up a smallish cardboard Star Company box in both hands.  He shakes it slightly.  Small hard objects – pebbles, perhaps – rattle around inside.  He puts it down, flips the lid open and invites me to take one of the shiny, slightly yellow, roughly cuboid items.  “Hippo teeth!  Try one – they’re great.”  I place one on my tongue and bite down.  It’s hard, but eventually the smooth shell gives way, revealing a soft, meaty flavoured filling.  “They’re not cheap,” admits the ex-Mormon as he pops one between his lips.  “But they’re worth it.  Just try not to think that they were originally in someone else’s mouth.” 

He tells me about his latest project.  “I’ve decided to start writing a blog.  I know most of them are really boring, but what the heck – could be fun.”  I assure him that I, for one, will read it avidly.  “Well,” he goes on, “I’ve decided to have a character in this blog, a glamorous female civil servant, if you can imagine such a thing.  I’ve thought up a great name for her.  I’m going to call her Lolly Chiu.”  He looks at me with a proud grin.  “Isn’t that a great name?”

I shake my head.  “No, you can’t do that,” I say.  “You can’t call her that.  Seriously, there’s already a senior civil servant called Lolly Chiu.  Ms Lolly Chiu, JP,
Deputy Secretary for Home Affairs.”  He bursts out laughing and chortles something about how I’m full of bullshit.  “No really,” I insist, “she’s in charge of culture and sport.”  More cackling.  “She’s a trustee of the Society for Panda Conservation.”  He slaps the table in mirth and demands, through a mouth full of half-chewed hippo molars, how I think this stuff up.

WAITING FOR me in the in-tray in my office at the top of S-Meg Tower – the first corporate desk calendar of the season.  Normally, I give tacky free promotional items away to the Filipino elves, to whom they are a valuable commodity to be cherished for generations.  But this one, with its year-round views of our new Disneyland, is so charming it demands to be kept for a year.