Hemlock's Diary
The ravings of Hong Kong's most obnoxious expat
3-9 April 2005

Sun, 3 Apr
RIP Karol Jozef Wojtlya.  Born: 18 May 1920.  Died: 2 April 2005.
Pope’s body lies in state for private viewing, it says.  I thought ‘in state’ meant anyone could turn up, stand in line and wait their turn to give the corpse a good look – maybe even a gentle prod.  Yup, he’s dead.  Stone cold.  Ahead of the curve as usual, I wrote my eulogy back on 3 February.  Now he’s finally gone, I recall that we must ‘speak not ill of the dead’.  So…  He helped bring down communism in Poland.  Well done.  Jolly good.  What else?  In his refusal to indulge in Anglican-style compromise, he forced us to recognize moral benchmarks, and to hell with being ‘out of touch’.  Abortion is forbidden – end of story.  Euthanasia is forbidden – end of story.  Cultivation of organs from foetuses’ stem cells is forbidden – end of story.  We need these footholds, so we can sense how far science and individualism are letting us stray.  But then, priests getting married is forbidden – end of story.  They can’t even masturbate.  Why not castrate the poor wretches?  And he was a sucker for the cult surrounding the sadistic Mother Theresa of Calcutta.  He was the first Pope to have a website – which isn’t surprising, given that no-one had a website 26 years ago.  And that was well after I was an altar boy, ringing a bell to mark the transubstantiation of bread and wine into Christ’s flesh and blood, while guiltily glancing around and thinking, “Oh, come on – this is ridiculous.”  Enough.  As devout Catholic Marshall McLuhan said, “Moral indignation is a technique used to endow the idiot with dignity.”
Mon, 4 Apr
On the 20th Floor of S-Meg Tower, in the heart of Asia’s financial hub, fearsome Human Resources Manager Ms Leung Yuk-mei creeps stealthily into the Company Gwailo’s office without knocking on the door.  “What on earth are you listening to?” she demands.  Taken by surprise, I look up and see her looking disdainfully at my computer loudspeakers.  What can I say?  How would the head of Hong Kong’s most Neanderthal personnel department understand?  Why, Ms Leung, I could reply, surely you must have heard
The Talking Asshole recited by Frank Zappa?  Instead, I hastily cut the sound and mention that it is from a book called Naked Lunch by William S Burroughs.  She blinks uncomprehendingly.  A change of subject is in order.
“So how can I help you,” I ask, putting on my most ingratiating smile.  She sits down and hands me a bundle of papers.  Applications from students wanting summer internships with our dynamic, thrusting company.  None of them are any use to her, she explains, but the Big Boss wonders if I could use a free assistant.  I sift through the resumes, with their little photographs of spotty, keen-eyed, bespectacled scholars hopeful for some valuable vacation work experience.  David Poon (accounting, Moose Jaw U), William Chow (law, Oxford), Marc Johnson (computer studies, Sydney), Danny Lau (business studies, Hong Kong Baptist U)…  “Well, no,” I say, turning my nose up and shaking my head slowly.  “I don’t think I’d need…”  I reach the bottom of the pile.  Priscilla Tse (English, Wellesley, pink bow in hair, slightly provocative – nay, come-to-bed – grin).  I put the papers down and lean forward.  “Tell you what,” I say to Ms Leung, sensing that she would like to report the acquisition of unpaid labour to our parsimonious Chairman, “let me look through them all in detail, and I’ll get back to you.”  She’s happy – I’m happy.
NOT EVERYONE is in a good mood.  ‘Shoe-shining loser has tantrum about imperialist running dog Donald Tsang’, says the headline.  The traditional pro-Beijing camp have been seething ever since Sir Bow-tie’s anointment.  Unlike the tycoons, who will polish the footwear of anyone in power instantly with gusto and relish, the diehard royalists have principles – and are naïve enough to imagine that the Chinese Communist Party leaders do too.  Choy So-yuk of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong whines on radio that it is all down to luck.  If Tung Chee-hwa had gone a year earlier, she thinks, Henry Tang would have been chosen.  One year later, York Chow or Arthur Li would have shaped up.  What’s Cantonese for ‘cognitive dissonance’?
“China forgives and forgets … previous impossibilities become possibilities … paradoxes reign supreme … now … loyalty and deference are secondary to competence and performance.  Deng Xiaoping said ‘black or white, a cat that catches mice is a good cat’.  Now China [says], ‘be it British or Chinese, as long as it works’ … Donald was a staunch supporter of British rule … There seems a cultural gap and emotional distance between him and the patriotic forces.”
Make that ‘between 90 percent of us and the patriotic forces’.
Tue, 5 April
Helicopters fly over Victoria Harbour, carrying huge bags of water to the islands and New Territories to put out the fires started by people
celebrating Ching Ming.  There is something atavistic about burning offerings to ancestors – but if it’s absolutely necessary, can’t it be done over the Internet or something?  Watching the gas-guzzling Government Flying Service aircraft zip back and forth, their expensive fire retardant piloted by valiant crew on full pensions, I ask myself how many of the 17 people in Hong Kong who actually pay any tax were out there today, tending graves by leaving smouldering joss sticks to set fire to acres of hillside?  A stupid question. 
Not as stupid as my answer – ‘yes’ – to wild American friend Odell’s invitation to attend a party in his apartment this afternoon.  The other guests are gwailo males of limited earning power and their Southeast Asian wives.  Odell’s Thai wife Mee, usually a paragon of sobriety, has been hitting the Mekong whisky with a vengeance since morning and turns on a pair of Filipino ladies for helping themselves to miniature Snickers bars from a bowl without being asked.  “Get out, you bitch!” she screams, threatening the hapless women with an open tube of Pringles potato chips, which discharges its contents all over the living room.  I take advantage of the mayhem and burrow my way under the Ikea carpet.  After worming my way through the darkness, I emerge near the front door, which is being opened by people hurling insults at one another in unfathomable working-class accents from several continents.  Unobserved, I squirm out into the corridor and around the corner, where it is safe to lift myself from the floor and push the button for an elevator.
Wed, 6 Apr
Over breakfast at the Foreign Correspondents Club, I tell well-formed Administrative Officer Winky Ip about poor Choy So-yuk’s struggle to come to terms with Beijing’s apparent belief that ‘loyalty and deference are secondary to competence and performance’.  “She actually said that?” wonders the civil servant with a grin.  Still, I remind her, before we get competence and performance from our new, alpha bureaucrat Chief Executive, Sir Bow-tie needs to be officially installed.  She nods and taps the table while I pour her jasmine tea.  “It’s in the bag,” she replies.  “The Basic Law interpretation will be in three weeks.  I think we’ve done a pretty good job of distracting public opinion – don’t you agree?”

I grudgingly accept that it’s true.  Apart from a few dry, dense and lifeless lawyers, everyone is asking the wrong questions.  The press and the better informed agonize over whether there should be an interpretation or not.  The rabble debate the merits of a two-year term or a five-year term for the new boss as if it’s some sort of civic lifestyle choice.  The real question is – what’s the point of having a constitution if its meaning is hidden and may bear no relationship to its wording?  What sort of guarantees can such a
ground-breaking masterpiece provide?  Winky, the master manipulator of the public mood, deftly diverts my attention to other matters.  “I ordered dim sum and they’ve given me congee,” she says, looking at the tray that has just appeared before her.  “And you asked for noodles, and they’ve given you toast.”

We call over Gloria the winsome waitress and point out the problem.  With a smile, she pulls out the menu and explains it to us.  “What the chef actually intended to mean here by ‘dim sum’,” she explains, “is Cantonese morning meals in general – so obviously that includes congee.  And of course toast is simply a form of noodles, both being made from flour.”  Winky expresses full agreement, and apologizes to the girl for my habit of always making trouble.
Thurs, 7 Apr
Unmitigated, oily unctuousness brings fitting rewards.  The Big Boss is in self-important form in the morning meeting, as he proudly passes round the Government’s ‘Line-to-take’ on the
Great Basic Law Interpretation Massacre of 2005. “Only real insiders get sent these things,” he remarks casually as the senior management team of S-Meg Holdings take it in turns to peer in awe at the sheet of paper stamped ‘SECRET’ at top and bottom in red letters.  “Hemlock – summarize it for me, will you?” he asks as I glance down the half-dozen bullet points.  Do I detect a hint of Hermès Poivre Samarcande?  Yes, this has the fragrant and delectable fingerprints of Winky Ip all over it.
The decision of the SARG is correct and I support it wholeheartedly,’ it begins.  ‘There is no choice but to seek interpretation of Article 53(2) of the Basic Law.  This decision is legal and constitutional and does not undermine One Country Two Systems or the rule of law...’  There follows some blather about the terrible quandary we are all in, and then a warning of the nightmarish hell that awaits us without an interpretation.  ‘…failure to elect a new CE lawfully and on time … adversely affect the formulation of major government policies and normal operation of the government…’  Is that a threat or a promise?  ‘…might even precipitate a constitutional crisis …  might cast doubts on the determination and ability of the SAR to implement the Basic Law…’  I collapse into a coughing fit as the Big Boss rises to leave and slides an unopened pack of sensitive background material across the table.  It has ‘Chuck me in the bin’ written all over it.  ‘…could damage the financial markets and investor confidence … serious threat to international confidence … wrecking our stability and prosperity … red fire ants, chicken flu, dengue fever, killer bees…’   Is it any wonder Winky has 87 days’ leave outstanding?  The Big Boss looks at me expectantly from the door.  He wants his synopsis.  “Tina,” I tell him.  He gives me a bemused frown.  “There is no alternative.”

Fri, 8 Apr
The Pope is still dead.  Apart from that, there is little in the news today.  And my desk is the
Rub al-Khali of S-Meg Tower, a workload void, leaving me with little to do but peruse the resume of an aspiring intern.  After some sighing, eye-rolling, gentle head shaking and a few exasperated expletives, I conclude that Priscilla Tse is dauntingly, maybe repellently, perfect.  She is almost a caricature of the Hong Kong middle class’s dream daughter. 

Elite Catholic primary school in the Mid-Levels, followed by expensive boarding school in England.  Straight As in everything – arts and sciences.  Head of student debating team and editor of school newspaper.  Won competitions in music, art, dance and poetry.  Speaks English, Cantonese, Mandarin, French and some Japanese.  “(There are only two grades – pass and fail – in this test)”, she stresses, lest we think her somehow retarded for scoring the lowly-sounding but successful grade in a French competency certificate.  Acquired first music theory qualification at age six.  Plays piano and cello, some violin.  Can use computer operating systems I’ve never heard of.  Organized a student volunteer group to teach immigrant women and children to read.  Amateur dramatics, cinema (“especially European”), chess, swimming, creative writing, ikebana, traveling (various fashionable and up-market destinations listed).  Wants to be an investigative journalist – presumably dashing mummy and daddy’s hopes of rearing an accountant, lawyer or doctor.  And should we doubt any of it, we can indulge some understated name-dropping and contact carefully chosen people of standing in the community – a legislator, a cleric, an academic and a minor tycoon – who will vouch for her superhuman abilities.

Could I tolerate having this hyperactive overachiever hanging around for six weeks over summer, constantly nagging me for projects to do?  There are only so many times a day I could send her out for noodles.  She’d probably correct my English, silently disapprove of my choice of music, inwardly pity me for my sloth and disorganization – probably attributing them to my age.  No.  I hold up the resume by the corner and turn round in my seat.  Better to hurl her in the bin now, than out of the window come August.