|The ravings of Hong Kong's most obnoxious expat
5-11 June 2005
|Sun, 5 June
A lazy afternoon in the pub with wild American friend Odell. The conversation turns to the subject of a lowlife British acquaintance. “Do you know what John likes doing when he’s having sex with his girlfriend?” the ex-Mormon asks. I scratch my head and think about it. Oddly enough, this particular piece of information is missing from my extensive store of knowledge of the world. Do I really want to know? “I’ll tell you,” he declares. With nothing better to do, I lean forward in anxious anticipation. “He sticks a bat up her backside.” With a deep breath, I sit back in stunned horror. Even as a confirmed non-animal lover, I am speechless about this abhorrence. And the worst part is… I must know more. Is the bat wrapped up in something? Odell doesn’t think so. It’s not very hygienic, is it, I point out? Odell shrugs. He’s heard of worse things. One more question before I radically change the subject – is the bat dead? Odell looks at me in bewilderment. “No, no, you don’t get it” he replies, waving his hands. “It’s a baseball bat!” The mundane truth sinks in, and my friend looks slightly disgusted. ”Hey – you think he’s some kind of pervert?”
Kevin the Australian barman personally delivers two beers. “On the house,” he announces. This is a first in the history of the pub outside of Christmas and Chinese New Year. Kevin looks a bit embarrassed. “Prices are going up,” he admits. “By quite a lot.” It transpires that the evil bloodsucking scumbag bastard landlord is raising the rent in a few months, and the future of this venerable watering hole is in doubt. Club 64, the haunt of bohemians and pro-democrats, was driven out of the area by a rent hike a couple of months back. Tai Cheung Bakery, nearby egg tart purveyors to the gentry, suffered the same fate a few weeks ago. “Dublin Jack’s closing.” Kevin informs us. “The landlord wants 280,000 bucks a month – that’s 10,000 a day just for the rent. Can’t be done. It’ll be another skin-whitening products place.” He glances out of the door at a group of Mainland tourists strolling past, and his nostrils flare. He steps forward towards the entrance. “Will you people fuck off!” he shouts at them. The cluster of middle-aged, nylon-clad matrons and their chain-smoking, ill-coiffeured husbands look up in alarm at the bulky, red-faced foreigner shaking his finger at them. Kevin marches out onto the street. “Fuck off and take your fucking cosmetics stores with you!” he screams, as they hurriedly move on to the next delightful sight Hong Kong has to offer.
|Mon, 6 June
Today it is 27 degrees Celsius, or around 80 Fahrenheit – pleasantly warm by Hong Kong’s torrid summer standards. That’s outdoors. In the gwailo’s lair on the 20th floor of S-Meg Tower, it is chilly. So much so, that at mid-morning I switch on my little electric heater to counteract the air-conditioning. The heater came from a branch of Fortress electronics, owned by Li Ka-shing. The electricity to run both it and the building’s air conditioning comes from HK Electric, owned by Li Ka-shing. The vitamin C pills Ms Fang the fur-clad hunter-killer secretary hopes will relieve her sniffle come from Watson’s Your Personal Store, owned by Li Ka-shing. The vacuous comments about cutting power consumption come from Environment and Transport Secretary Sarah Liao, a member of the Hong Kong Government, owned by… Suddenly, as the warm air rises from the little unit on the floor, I am struck by a revelation. A flash of genius that could gain me free beer for life. I will offer Kevin the Australian barman the secret to saving the pub in Lan Kwai Fong from closure. The secret to boosting shareholders’ profits. The secret to slashing the electricity bill. The secret to reducing the number of customers who die of hypothermia. Turn the thermostat up, you blubbery, under-achieving, oafish moron.
Tue, 7 June
Many parts of Hong Kong are at a standstill this morning as residents cower indoors in fear of the troops of deranged, mutant, B-virus-infected monkeys swarming through the streets, mutilating and devouring everything in their path. Meanwhile, on the placid, simian-free Mid-Levels Escalator, Hong Kong’s curious-minded and intelligent middle class bombards me with questions about Dublin Jack’s, the gwailo haunt whose premises are apparently worth 280,000 dollars a month. “It’s an Irish pub,” I explain. “That means the staff say ‘bless you madam, may all your sons be bishops’, as they serve customers potatoes, baked beans and boiled mutton. Mostly, people go there to read books by Edna O’Brien and drink Guinness.” This brings knowing nods. For generations before the invention of Viagra, working-class Chinese men throughout Britain’s Asian empire swore by the magically restorative powers of the syrupy black beer.
|But that’s all of little interest to my neighbours. The rent – that’s the thing. The owner of the building can eject this seedy establishment and its obese, alcoholic Western clientele and ask for over a quarter of a million per calendar month! A quarter of a million for doing what? Absolutely nothing whatsoever! From the street below us, we hear Hibernian-accented howls of anguish – “May the curse of Mary Malone and her nine blind illegitimate children pursue you over the hills of damnation, so far that the sweet Lord Jesus himself can't see you from heaven!” Like a pack of rabid macaques in heat, Hong Kong’s landlords are back on the rampage. By contrast, the absentee English gentry who evicted the sons of Erin from their smallholdings in the 19th Century were amateurs. Systematically, by the square foot, they gouge every shred of wealth out of a profitable business and toss the hollow corporate husk aside before moving on to the next victim foolish enough to sign a tenancy agreement. My fellow commuters and I marvel at their good fortune. So much easy money, and nothing to do to earn it, unless you find it hard to struggle with your conscience about rousing the undying hatred of failed entrepreneurs. Which, wiping the saliva from our chins, we don’t.
Wed, 8 Jun
As the elevator in Perpetual Opulence Mansions slows to a halt on the 12th floor. I make two predictions. Brian the British stock analyst will walk in. And he will mention the trial of Nancy Kissel, who is charged with bludgeoning her Merrill Lynch investment banker husband Robert to death, in time-honoured, crazed-expat-housewife style. And I am right. “Everyone’s talking about it in the office,” he tells me as he adjusts his puce tie in the mirror. “What do you think?” I can’t help but shrug. I am following it as much as I would any other alleged killing of a man by his wife in Hong Kong – as an instructive example of the dangers of marriage. The fact that the key players have white skin means relatively little to me, I admit to Brian. I didn’t know them. As we leave the elevator and stroll through the lobby out onto the street, I sense he is disappointed with my response. I think of two noteworthy points about the case that go beyond standard gwailo tittle-tattle.
“First of all,” I say, “the prosecutor suggests Nancy Kissel was a traitor to her social class, discarding her successful, high-earning spouse in favour of a bit of ‘rough’ – a horny handed, blue-collared TV repairman. Normally in Hong Kong it would be the Filipino driver, or a trainee hairdresser called Andre. You can see how this strikes fear in the heart of every high-flying career man’s sense of self-worth, can’t you?” Brian nods attentively. “Did you ever read Lady Chatterley’s Lover?” I ask him. It appears not. “Second,” I continue, “there is something extremely mysterious about the way they say she drugged him. Something that raises all sorts of murky questions about what was really going on, deep down under the surface.” Brian waves a slowing taxi away and looks at me in anticipation. “Think about it,” I urge him. “What sort of grown man drinks milkshake?”
|Thurs, 9 Jun
As the sun rises over Exchange Square’s outdoor seating area in the heart of Asia’s world city, wild American friend Odell emerges from the IFC Mall branch of Pacific Coffee clutching his rosehip, cranberry and jojoba latte. “The spectre of civil war hangs over crisis-riddled Bolivia,” he announces. “Financial Times says so.” I take a sip of my guava juice and savour the ‘distant place of which we know little and care even less’ moment. “Tell me everything you know about Bolivia,” the ex-Mormon challenges me. The alternative is being steered back to the subject of how Odell would have disposed of Robert Kissel’s body – a detailed tale of a bathtub, a hacksaw, plastic bags and multiple taxi rides to the Peak, which I can do without at this time of the morning.
“OK,” I start. “Named after Simon Bolivar, revolutionary hero. Landlocked, still wants Pacific coastal region back from Peru. Produces cocaine. The women wear bowler hats and colourful but thick and unflattering rugs. Or maybe they’re really fat.” Odell seems genuinely interested, but I am reaching the stage where I have to make educated guesses. “Has some Inca ruins… Including, um, a temple where they sacrificed virgins by tearing their hearts out. To appease the Potato God. They also ate ants and chocolate.” The ‘true facts’ part of my brain is waving excitedly. “Oh yes – the capital’s La Paz. Highest altitude capital city in the world. The air is so thin that the most expensive housing is at the bottom of the hills, where there’s more oxygen. The poorest people live at the top. Exactly the opposite of…” Damn. Odell slams his drink down.
“Oh yeah – like I was saying. So on each trip with the limbs, the innards, the torso and the head, you get dropped off at the Peak Tram, then double back a few hundred yards to a really small path leading down into the woods…”
|Fri, 10 Jun
As a somewhat self-appointed but apparently appreciated advisor to our Chief Executive Presumptive, the hard-campaigning Donald Tsang, the Big Boss is starting to take statistics seriously. “This is amazing,” he says to me before the morning meeting, showing me one of those Government-issued documents marked ‘CONFIDENTIAL’ to make people on the circulation list feel important. He has underlined a sentence in red. Middle management in Hong Kong is currently paid 46 times more than in the rest of the Pearl River Data. After puzzling over it for a few moments, the truth dawns on me. These are the minutes from a talking shop, and the person taking notes obviously misheard the speaker – a well-respected academic. The visionary Chairman of S-Meg Holdings is satisfied with my explanation.
“Did you all know,” he asks everyone, “that Hong Kong middle management salaries are four to six times higher than the average in the rest of the Pearl River Delta?” Everyone looks around at each other, as if to ask ‘but we’re not middle management, are we?’ The Big Boss asks his senior team for their thoughts. “I’ll be discussing this with Donald,” he remarks nonchalantly.
The spotty accountant sees opportunities. “The processes we’ve outsourced to Shenzhen so far are just the tip of the iceberg. We could halve our personnel costs.” He scribbles on a pad of paper. “Very conservative estimate – a one-off, permanent 15 or 20 percent increase on last year’s net profit. Probably more.”
Human Resources Manager Ms Leung Yuk-mei is less sure. “Mainland junior managers take three-hour lunch breaks. They are risk-averse. And weak decision-makers, though of course they are...” she glances briefly in my direction and fingers the knuckle duster in her jacket pocket, “…obedient.”
Mainland fixer Freddy Mao sees the other side of the coin. “Don’t forget that costs across the border are likely to rise relative to ours – whether there’s a currency revaluation or not.”
Accustomed to the Big Boss’s habit of leaving the best until last, the company gwailo is taken by surprise at having the imperial finger pointed in his direction. I recall my trip to Shenzhen at New Year, to inspect the apartment bought by Jenny-the-girl-from-Beijing-but-she’s-got-an-American-passport. New. Well-located in a leafy neighbourhood. Two storeys plus a roof. Air conditioners that heated as well as cooled. All for less than the price of a 400 square-foot shoebox in a soul-destroying, concrete-slabbed suburb of Shatin. “Salaries in Hong Kong in the 15,000 to 40,000 dollar range are going to come down,” I muse. “Those people are the backbone of the residential property market…”
The Chief Economist takes my ramblings to their sacrilegious conclusion. “Yes. Hong Kong’s property prices are simply not sustainable. Population growth is low. The population of skilled locals and expats has fallen in the last 10 years or so. Unskilled Mainlanders and other poor Asians now each account for around 5 percent of the population.” The Big Boss is listening intently. Go on, he mutters.
“Every time the Government tries to make people feel good by pushing property prices up,“ continues our economist-heretic, “it squeezes entrepreneurship out of the economy and puts the middle class off having kids. Someone should tell Donald Tsang that the high land price policy has to go.”
It’s not an original idea, nor new. Morgan Stanley’s Andy Xie – my colleague’s source of inspiration this morning, I suspect – is but the latest to warn that We’re All Doomed. The Big Lychee’s land and demographic policies are insane and suicidal. On the other hand, maybe our Gestapo HR Manager is right. It’s to do with productivity, not price competitiveness – our scrawny, acne-ridden, comic-reading desk meat is worth four to six times as much as yours, so there. The Big Boss is staring ahead, trying to imagine himself suggesting loathsome abomination and perversity to Sir Bow Tie. He blinks, shudders slightly and looks down at his notes.
“Um…right…” He looks up at us all. “Next thing – this dragon boat team the company is sponsoring in tomorrow’s races. How’s it doing?”