Hemlock's Diary
4-10 September 2005
Sun, 4 Sep
What would J Grant Swank Jr make of all the rain God sent us today?  Perhaps he would say “
divine judgment has come upon a metropolis that was bent on making its environs open to hell’s demons.”  But that’s New Orleans, which the floods unleashed by Hurricane Katrina have left looking like Haiti, only with more bloated corpses and armed gangs and less effective government.  All we’ve had by late afternoon is an inch or two of precipitation, reflecting the fact that Hong Kong isn’t a city of drunken springbreak orgyfests and voodoo witchcraft.  Or at least most of it isn’t.  Still, if the Almighty is going through a truculent spell at the moment, I will steer clear from Wanchai this evening to be safe. 

Why does J Grant Swank Jr say “hell’s demons”?  Do they have such entities in heaven too?  In cages, perhaps?  Do not feed.  And how does J Grant Swank Jr feel about his father cursing him with a name that – to put it in a charitable and Christian way – seems to have been stolen from a Mel Brooks screenplay?  These questions are nagging away at me.  Wanchai beckons after all.

Mon, 5 Sep
The US Government finally delivers large-scale aid to New Orleans, lavishing the city’s people with free bus tours of eastern Texas, airlifts of catfish and okra po-boys – the whole 8.7 metres, as the
South China Morning Post would put it.  Reading the news in my office on the 20th floor of S-Meg Tower, I am reminded how lucky we are to live in Hong Kong, where self-reliance has been eradicated and the world’s most arrogant, overmanned and overpaid civil service not only provides its serfs with homes, schools and health care but offers them constant advice on how to behave and even think.  Where else on Earth is there an administration so caring and considerate for its child-like subjects that it requires all mooncakes to carry warning labels ordering consumers to chew before swallowing and not to eat the products while standing beneath slopes during storms.  Nonetheless, I am anxious that they may be neglecting some essentials.  For example, the Fragrant Harbour has been an open port since only 1842 – just 162 quick years.  Isn’t there a chance that some of its people might not know that free trade is a good thing?  I have been losing sleep over this for some time now, so it comes as a great relief to learn from the dedicated and loyal servants of the public at RTHK3 that the public broadcaster has received the following script for one of its highly popular and instructive Announcements in the Public Interest…
Man: What are we having for dinner tonight, honey? Oranges?

Lady: What do you expect with such a small shopping budget?

Man: Come on, we've got such a wide variety of inexpensive foods in Hong Kong. You can buy these oranges, for example, at a lower price here than in most parts of the world.

Lady: Really?

Man: Yes, because the goods enter Hong Kong without tariffs. If they didn't, our shopping bill would be higher.

Lady: All right.


Voice over:
Free Trade. Lower prices. The WTO conference to promote free trade is here in December. Let's all support it.
As ever, it is a wondrous privilege to pay taxes to these people.

AM I alone in finding the above drama curiously disturbing?  It’s the plaintive “All right” uttered by Lady at the end of the scene.  She seems to be accepting her fate – marriage to a man who is her intellectual inferior and who cannot provide for her. But there is a sinister edge to her apparent acquiescence.  This is not an “All right” of agreement or submission, although that is doubtless how she wants Man to interpret it, as indeed we can be sure he does.  This is an “All right” that says “There is no point in arguing with someone who believes that the absence of tariffs somehow makes oranges an adequate evening meal.”  We know she is not going to let the matter rest.  But what will she do?  The chorus taunts her by repeating her husband’s fatuous claim that free trade offers her ‘lower’ prices, when she knows full well that Hong Kong has never taxed imports in the first place.  With the Nancy Kissel trial still fresh in our minds, the unanswered question of how Lady deals with her torments can only send a chill down our spines – a remarkable achievement for such a short piece of theatre.

Tue, 6 Sep
Brian the British stock analyst enters the elevator on the 12th floor of Perpetual Opulence Mansions, looping his puce tie around his collar.  I break the distressing news that the heart-rending radio play
Oranges Are Not The Only Tariff-Free Good is to be bowdlerized, with philistine RTHK Radio 3 staff excising Man’s enthusiasm in the opening scene for a dinner of citrus fruit.  After six months in Hong Kong, Brian is settling in.  He has mastered the knack of strolling serenely through the city’s crowds in an invisible but impervious bubble.  He has acquired a taste for squid-pineapple-mayo pizza followed by tea-flavoured ice cream.  He has emerged unscathed from a series of dates with pout-prone Canto-princesses who like shopping for watches.  But he still doesn’t get the Government radio announcements.  “I mean, what exactly are they trying to tell us – ‘let’s all support the WTO’?” he asks.  “What’s it mean?  Why don’t they just get Henry Tang or someone to come on and say ‘We all know the WTO meeting will be a pain, with traffic disruptions and everything, but it’s for a good cause, so thanks for your patience’ – and leave it at that?” 

As we leave the lift and cross the lobby towards the street, I shake my head.  “You don’t understand,” I tell him.  “The message is purely subliminal.  The message is – ‘We are the Government.  You are mentally retarded five-year-olds.  We know better than you about everything’.  It’s all about conditioning.” 

He nods slowly.  “Ah, I see.  It’s supposed to brainwash us into subservience – make us think we need big government, no democracy, all that.”

“Wrong,” I contradict him.  “It’s about conditioning the young civil servants early on in their careers.  By making them all go through a year of drafting Announcements in the Public Interest, the system inculcates them with that intensely irritating, patronizing air of superiority that makes them such unbearable company.  It’s designed to make them lose all their friends.  It’s a sort of team building.”  He hails a taxi and climbs in with a slight frown on his face.  It takes more than half a year to learn how this city works.

Wed, 7 Sep
Ever since he got the job as Chief Guest Behavior Management Artist, wild American friend Odell has been muttering concerns about terrible overcrowding at the new Disneyland.  This morning I find him slumped over a table at the IFC Mall branch of Pacific Coffee.  Too weak to brush the dust and grime off his body armour and uniform, he mumbles about how he hasn’t slept for three days and all seven of his team of dwarfs have handed in their badges and fled.  The
full horror of the recent rehearsal days is leaking out.  Survivors talk of looters on the rampage on Main Street USA, bodies left to rot in the sun outside Sleeping Beauty Castle, piles of excrement in the Snow White Grotto and desperate looters and rapists shooting at rescue workers in the Fantasy Gardens Presented by Kodak.  And – as befits one of the many time bombs left by Tung Chee-hwa – no-one seems to be in charge.
Meanwhile, The Standard gives us more proof, as if it were needed, that our dashing Chief Executive Donald Tsang is blessed with Solomonic levels of wisdom.  He has had it up to here with odious and slimy idiot savant James Tien for the Liberal Party leader’s constant whining and bleating for a seat on the Executive Council.  Tien’s idea of policy-making is so infantile that it would be like having a three-year-old sitting in the corner making mud pies.  His Grand Plan to boost GDP (last seen growing at 6 percent) is to open a casino, as if a single tourist facility attracting loan sharks, money launderers and hookers will make a visible difference in a developed economy of 7 million people.  His main contribution to the budget two years ago was to oppose a tax on expensive cars on the grounds that it would harm the Big Lychee’s image to have fewer of them clogging up the streets.  One of his Liberal colleagues, Miriam Lau, demands that it be legal for minibus drivers to run red lights.  Another, the luscious Selina Chow, wants our entire city to prostitute itself to teeming hordes of malodorous, down-market Mainland tourists – as if we are some no-hope ex-Latino backwater like Macau.  With such cretins trying his patience, is it any wonder Sir Bow Tie needs a HK$27 million fish pond at home to calm his nerves?
Thurs, 8 Sep
The Big Boss mentions the phrase ‘corporate governance’ in the morning meeting.  I bite my tongue – it never fails.  “One of our directors has complained that he has never been issued with a board members’ handbook,” he tells us sternly.  The conference room is silent.  None of the S-Meg Holdings senior management team – the visionary Chairman included – has any idea what a board members’ handbook might be.  “Ms Lu!” he demands.  “Why is this?”  The cunicular Company Secretary pops her head up, smiles a bit and manages an ‘um’ before he waves her aside.  “Well, get it done quickly.”  I look away, knowing exactly what will come next.  “Ask Hemlock to help you.”

Minutes later, the buck-toothed Ms Lu, in her strange purple and yellow outfit, is sitting in the Company Gwailo’s lair, amused by the Ming dynasty cherry wood liquor cabinet, the stuffed aardvark on the filing cabinet, the pale blue Fender Telecaster leaning against a bookcase and other signs that she is now in free-thinking territory, where Human Resources Department rules no longer apply.  She turns to the window and surveys Hong Kong’s majestic harbour nestling in the drifting sulphur dioxide mist.  “On a clear day,” I tell her, “you can see the respirable suspended particulates.”

I get to the point.  “The object of this handbook is to make the Big Boss think we have a handbook.”  I give her a list of things to get.  Loose-leaf binders with tacky gold embossed lettering on the front.  A glowing biography of our noble Chairman, complete with photos of him with various heads of state.  And a two-page report from each department or subsidiary describing what they do.  She looks relieved that it will be so simple and someone else is making the decisions.  “Now if you don’t mind,” I tell her, “I’m very busy this morning.”  She happily scuttles off and I attend to a far more pressing matter concerning the development of modern Western culture –
The Influence of Rupert the Bear on T-Rex Founder Marc Bolan.
Fri, 9 Sep
Hong Kong ends the week by celebrating its continued global pre-eminence.  The Cato Institute, a think tank dedicated to limited government, declares the Big Lychee to be the
freest economy in the world, with a score of 8.7.  How would we rate if our taxes were slashed – which they could easily be if our civil service was brought into line with our needs and reduced in headcount by a third and in remuneration by half (I’m in a good mood today)?  In second place comes Singapore, a socialist tyranny where the state forcibly takes a large chunk of workers’ wealth and invests 90 percent of it in money-losing industries and 10 percent in public relations programmes aimed at gullible non-profit research institutes in Washington DC.  The other top 10 countries are New Zealand, the US, the UK, Canada, Ireland, Australia, the United Arab Emirates and – extra pats on the back for never having been run by the British – Estonia,  Switzerland and plucky little Luxembourg. 

Not content with beating the rest of the planet in being allowed to do as we damn well please, the Fragrant Harbour retains its title of the only major conurbation on Earth to have more suicides than road deaths.  This week’s tally includes the first high school student with poor grades of the new academic year, plus an estranged couple, who happened to be teachers – but not at the same school.  All leapt from tall buildings.  Was the mysterious ‘wandering woman’ who was found
naked at the edge of the old Kai Tak runway planning on taking an early exit?   She is stony silent, leaving the police mystified as to her ethnic origins.  They describe her as ‘non-caucasian’ – ‘caucasian’ to them meaning blond-haired, blue-eyed and pale-skinned – and venture that she might be Indian or Pakistani.  My money would be on Turkish if it weren’t statistically improbable.  Maybe Arab – perhaps from the UAE, in shock on hearing the Cato Institute’s announcement.  Our valiant sleuths are more certain about her age.  They say’35 to 45’, by which they mean ’40, but if we say that and she turns out to be 39 and a half she’ll raise hell– wherever in the world she’s from’.