Hemlock's Diary
The ravings of Hong Kong's most obnoxious expat
6-12 March 2005

Sun, 6 Mar
An afternoon barbecue at the Peak residence of fragrant socialite and art gallery owner Rosabelle Lam.  We laugh about an exhibition of soft porn by Mainland portraitist
Zhang da zhong.  Sultry, doe-eyed babes in Red Guard uniforms.  Zhang is subtle enough not to give us a peek of black silk bra strap, but still, it’s cynical pandering to stupid foreigners who don’t know artless renderings of Middle Kingdom imagery when they see it.  “Behave yourself,” warns Rosabelle.  “There are some Party officials here from Beijing.  You know what happened last time you had too much to drink.”

So I mingle cautiously on the sunny lawn.  The chatter is about the still-unannounced departure of Hong Kong’s Churchillian leader Tung Chee-hwa.  By the time I have had my fourth glass of champagne, there is a consensus that Tung has been dumped by the Central People’s Government to bring the property developers and other tycoons under control.  This, Beijing calculates, will reduce the clamour for democracy.  As the effect of the Bollinger sets in, I make a reference to Taiwan as a ‘country’.  A severe-looking man in a suit taps my arm and beckons me to one side.  “Taiwan is not a country!” he hisses to me.  “There can never be two Chinas!  There must only be one China!”

Remembering Rosabelle’s admonition, I nod furiously in agreement.  “You’re absolutely right,” I assure him.  “In fact, I’d go even further.  There shouldn’t be
any Chinas at all.”  He gives me a strange look as I pat him on the shoulder and wander off in search of a refill.
Mon, 7 Mar
We don’t know whether the Chief Executive of Hong Kong is to remain in office.  If he is to go, we don’t know why.  And – despite the existence of a written constitution – we have no idea whether his successor will serve a full term.  In contrast, the view of smoggy Victoria Harbour from my office this morning is perfectly clear.  As is my desk.  So it’s a lazy day, today.  The number of people advising me to ‘get a life’ has surged recently, so I reluctantly decide to step out of my usual on-line ‘comfort zone’ and explore new and unfamiliar parts of the Internet.  And I am glad I did.  My first exciting discovery is the
Technicolor Web of Sound, a 24-hour stream of mid-to-late 60s psychedelic and other music, some of it downright obscure, interspersed with contemporary radio ads for Coke, concerts and army recruitment.  Leaning out of the door, I note a very unusual look on the face of Ms Fang the hunter-killer secretary.  It slowly occurs to me that she is smiling.   I can only conclude that the sound of the Electric Prunes lends a positive ambience to the 20th floor of S-Meg Tower.  I also find something I have long sought – a genuinely creepy website.  The Hospital.  A site that does for the Internet what David Lynch’s Eraserhead did for cinema, Edgar Alan Poe did for the short story, and CY Leung does for the Executive Council.
Tue, 8 Mar
“Dude, where’s my high degree of autonomy?”  Wild American friend Odell, sunning himself outside the IFC Mall branch of Pacific Coffee, puts down his newspaper as I approach.  He takes a sip of his vanilla and jojoba latte.  “Seriously,” he says, “what the hell’s going on?  We’re run directly by Beijing now, is that it?”  I shrug and shake my head as I sit down and survey the scene outside Exchange Square.  Eager, cheerful children in their smart uniforms chew their breakfast buns as they set off for school.  Office fodder coming off the MTR, buses and ferries parade by – confident secretaries with their black shiny hair and black shiny stockings, mild-mannered accountants in their dark blue suits.  Life is going on.  The number of people in this city who know what’s happening can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

I give Odell my best guess.  Either this is a well-planned, carefully orchestrated ‘gradual and orderly’ coup d’etat.  Or it’s a panicky, hastily patched-together ‘gradual and orderly’ coup d’etat.  The week-long official silence, the
bizarre ‘election for two-years’ formula, and the fact that hardly anyone – not even senior officials – is in the picture all suggest the latter.  This does not have ‘smooth, meticulously arranged succession’ written all over it.  It’s more along the lines of ‘Damn – we need someone fast, and we can’t trust any of these idiots.  Let’s put the one with the bow tie in for a couple of years – screw their silly little constitution – and watch him closely in case he’s a British or Vatican agent’.  But the bottom line is – no-one knows.

And that’s a real humiliation for the tycoons and the pro-Beijing politicians.  A real loss of face.  All these people usually strutting around talking down to us because they’re patriotic insiders, members of the elite – they’re just as much in the dark as everyone else.  Odell nods.  “Yeah, that bit’s cool,” he agrees.  We watch the middle managers, the shop assistants and the early morning tai-chi enthusiasts strolling happily to work.  Do people even have a slight spring in their step today?  The amateurish, cronyist Government-business coterie has been toppled.  A Beijing-Civil Service nexus assumes command.  Is this the end of the nightmare?
NOTHING CAUSES me more anguish than suddenly being reminded of an unpaid debt.  In this case, I owe a bowl of dandan noodles to Daisann Mclane, author of the best ever article on the Mid-Levels Escalator and a brave attempt to make sense of Hong Kong’s last election.  Writing the latter, she encountered the man who has since become the only member of the Legislative Council who can stand up and begin, “As the only person here who lives in public housing…” or “When I was in prison…”  The result being that Longhair is also the only Legco member likely to be the subject of a New York Times Magazine feature anytime soon.  Reading which brings to mind my bothersome noodles liability.  The good news – Daisann’s in the Falkland Islands!

Wed, 9 Mar
I am late into the office after jostling my way through the crowds of
PLA intelligence agents flooding into Central in search of whoever leaked the announcement – due by the weekend – that Chief Executive Tofu-for-Brains is to stand down.  The grim-faced, jackbooted sleuths sport leather coats, dark glasses and fedoras and mutter into their watches, lending an exotic ambience to our streets.  And just as well.  Without the sinister Mainland security men, it would be easy to believe that Hong Kong is slipping back to the late 1980s or early 1990s – a time when grey bureaucrats like Rafael Hui steered the city to glory with their pompous, patronizing effortlessness.  We, the insignificant and ignorant people, were not worthy to be ruled so brilliantly from on high by this, the world’s most condescending and arrogant civil service.  Now, vindicated by the collapse of the fragrant harbour during its experiment in government by nice-but-dim shipping magnate, they’re back, as colourless and disdainful as ever, but even more unimaginative, more dismissive of their seven million childlike subjects and more ridiculously paid (after taking inflation into account).  Unbelievers – prepare to be humbled!  The Canto-technocrats have returned.  The Big Lychee will blossom again.

Thurs, 10 Mar
Compared with the usual coal mine explosions and buses tumbling down canyons, Asia’s disaster
du jour is noteworthy.  But then it comes from the Philippines – in many ways the hardest country on Earth to take seriously.  A place where everything, including mayhem, is absurd.  Cake shops have armed guards.  Women give birth to fish.  Senior officials seek to solve the budget deficit by finding a mythical stash of buried gold.  And 30 or so children die after eating badly prepared cassava. 

The word takes me back to my days in a convent school.  Specifically, geography class – where we learned how tall, handsome African women would pound the poisonous juice from the manioc before drying it and making it into flour.  After class, the sadistic nuns would drag us into a hall and force us to eat food that, in today’s enlightened times, it would be illegal to give to pigs.  As we chewed and somehow swallowed bovine gristle in rancid gravy and boiled-to-death cabbage, a holy sister would read out the least interesting part of the New Testament she could find, to drown out the screams coming from the flogging room in the basement.  Then we were given pudding.  A lifeless, insipid, slightly sweet, white slop known as tapioca.  The more gifted among us – those with an innate sense of self-preservation – would go to considerable lengths to avoid putting it in our mouths.  It was almost as if a sixth sense was warning us that the substance came from the very same deadly tropical tuber we had just been studying.  Or maybe that drivel about guardian angels was true after all.

AN EMAIL from Hong Kong’s
favourite corporate governance activist corrects me.  Longhair, he points out, is not the only member of LegCo who can say “when I was in prison…”  There is also the esteemed representative of our selfless stockbrokers, the Honourable Chim Pui Chung.  This means one in 30 of our lawmakers has done time in the slammer.  So much for the USA’s claim to have the world’s highest incarceration rate, with a measly one in 37.
Fri, 11 Mar
There isn’t a dry eye on the Mid-Levels Escalator this morning, as Hong Kong’s decent and charitable middle class feel the pain Tung Chee-hwa endured before deteriorating health forced him to resign.  “If he was feeling poorly he should have said so earlier,” says an elderly woman dabbing her tears away with a pack of Nice Day tissues.  “His face looked so puffy at
yesterday’s press conference.”  I nod and gently squeeze her arm.  I feel rotten.  How many times over the years did I say horrible things about the crop-haired one when all along, deaf to his doctors’ pleas, he was gobbling handfuls of Dexedrine and pulling 72-hour days so the rest of us could revel in our post-colonial spiritual pollution and bourgeois decadence?  So many.

But then, how was I to know?  Life must go on.

All eyes now turn to the youthful, fresh-faced Sir Donald Tsang.  He will want to return the fragrant harbour to the state of prosperity and grace it enjoyed before the suave and competent British-led civil service was cast aside.  He will try to make it look easy.   And he will have to do it in a spirit of devotion to the motherland and allegiance to the Communist Party. 
And with a straight face – give or take an occasional smirk, which will be duly noted by the malevolent patriots watching his every move.  They are seething with resentment that the emperor whose boots they have so assiduously shone for many years has kicked them away with an exasperated sigh, concluded that the people of Hong Kong have probably been right all along, and anointed Bow-Tie Man as Tung’s successor.  What little face they have left is burning.  There is entertainment ahead.

© 10 Mar 2005, The Rt Rev Hugh Janus DD