Hemlock's Diary
8-14 January 2006
Sun, 8 Jan
Another relaxing weekend in the City of the Name of God, where the dry season has pushed the
salinity of the tap water to 630mg a litre.  While it doesn’t taste quite like the sea and is fine for tooth-brushing, it has a definite metallic taste that ruins coffee or jasmine tea.   Five-litre bottles of distilled water have sold out.  Old people, according to local opinion, are especially at risk of being driven into extreme indigestion and insanity by the high mineral content, so residents are diluting domestic supplies with the bottled variety for cooking purposes.  Jenny the girl from Beijing-but-she’s-got-an-American-passport and I shower in Perrier, but for most residents there’s no alternative to washing in the stuff, and suffering itchy skin and hair as a result – something of a passion killer, which perhaps counteracts the supposedly libido-enhancing qualities the Cantonese attach to ‘saltiness’.  To help their precious Macau compatriots, the citizens of Zhuhai over the border are sacrificing fresher H2O and putting up with 800mg-a-litre stuff.  

We investigate Fishermans Wharf, the astoundingly tacky tourist attraction next to the ferry terminal.  It is tempting to say that the place is so cretinous it’s surprising that the Hong Kong Tourism Board didn’t think of it.  But I have to go even further.  It’s so amazingly stupid, fake and devoid of irony that it’s compelling.  Concrete pastiches of Roman, Medieval, 17th Century Dutch, 18th Century French, Art Deco, Arab, Tibetan and other architecture house boutiques, ice cream parlours and children’s rides.  Mainland couples have their photo taken in front of a weak replica of a Portuguese church – while the real thing is half a mile away.  Pakistani security guards stand on every corner, and eager young ambassadors force maps on helpless visitors.  European street performers scare the kids with their inimitable, depressing avant-garde acts, though someone should be fired for not providing mimes to make the tedium complete.  Lest anyone feel disoriented, several areas are declared out of bounds by loudly incongruous, authoritarian barrier tape.  It goes without saying that there is a volcano managing to look nothing like a volcano, but perhaps inspired by the droppings of a giant beast that has drunk too much of the local water.  It is so astoundingly, wretchedly dire, grotesque and plain bad, I will be back.
Mon, 9 Jan
Starved of news about the city after a two-day absence, the first thing I do on returning to potable, mineral-balanced Hong Kong is to fall upon a copy of
The Standard and devour it with relish.  Two developments stand out.  First, a merciful end may be in sight to the ever-rising flood of tourists who not only infest the Big Lychee with their chattering, picture-posing malodorousness, but distort our retail market, driving stores catering to residents’ needs out of business and replacing them with endless streets of outlets selling skin-whitening cream, women’s fashions, cosmetics, skin-whitening cream, golfing accessories and more skin-whitening cream.  Could it be that Beijing is slowly realizing that its policy of punishing Hong Kong for its pro-democratic leanings by sending more and more visitors is not working, and possibly backfiring?

(On a related subject, in the premises formerly occupied by the Dublin Jack, a 7-Eleven has opened, offering 24-hour cheap beer, magazines, chewing gum, instant noodles and ladies’ sanitary products – none of which items the faux-Irish pub ever carried.)

The second big story is that, after wobbling a bit in mid-2005 after the dashing Donald Tsang took over as Chief Executive, the Hong Kong Government is starting to find its feet again and adopting its traditional stance that public opinion is to be opposed and vanquished at all times and at all costs.  The people are the enemy and policies like the West Kowloon
luxury residential developers’ giveaway and cultural white elephant is the weapon.  Or one of the weapons.  Another is the planned relocation, for no obvious reason, of our State Peace and Development Council’s headquarters to Tamar.  This is all a great relief – like most citizens of the Big Lychee, I found Sir Bow-Tie’s initial promise to heed the popular will and follow the public interest confusing and disturbing.

Tue, 10 Jan
The IFC Mall branch of Pacific Coffee is a hotbed of adultery.  Sipping our hot, brown, water-flavoured beverages, wild American friend Odell and I monitor the morning comings and goings.  The tall middle-aged gwailo in a grey suit enters alone, buys a latte and sits in a partially hidden easy chair.  Ten minutes later, right on schedule, the 30-something Chinese woman in Burberry joins him.  “They are married, yes – but not to each other,” I tell my ex-Mormon friend.  “They have too much to talk about.”  Odell nods and says he could tell they were looking forward to seeing each other.  I glance around at the creepy looking girl reading the Bible.  With the obvious exception of myself, she is surely the only person in here with a vestige of moral purity.  Certainly, Odell doesn’t count.  His Thai wife Mee is visiting her family of jungle-dwelling hunter-gatherers a few hundred miles north of Bangkok, and he lapsed in no uncertain manner over the weekend.  Memories of the Wanchai-sourced, Indonesian-tainted debauchery are hazy, but a major clean-up operation is required if he is to survive his suspicious wife’s post-homecoming apartment inspection.  A single black hair in the shower, a shred of a condom wrapper in the garbage, a half-inch of her hair conditioner vanished – and it will be castration time. 

To take his mind off it, Odell asks me a simple but profound question.  “Koreans…
What the fuck?”  I give him the country’s history in a nutshell.  First, it was repeatedly invaded by the Japanese, then it was repeatedly invaded by the Mongols, then it was repeatedly invaded by the Chinese, then it was repeatedly invaded by the Manchus, then it got one big, maybe-they’ll-get-the-message-this-time invasion from the Japanese again, and in 1950 it invaded itself.  This experience, I explain, has made these people the proud and noble mouth-frothing xenophobes we all know and love today, threatening to send hordes of vicious peasant warriors to Hong Kong if our Government does not honour their birthright as sons of the Hermit Kingdom, namely immunity from laws against assaulting policewomen with bamboo poles.  Odell thinks about it.  “Maybe it’s the other way around,” he suggests.  “Maybe they kept on getting invaded because they’re assholes.” 

Make that ‘a hotbed of adultery and historical revisionism’.

Wed, 11 Jan
In today’s
Hoping to boost staff morale, the Hospital Authority has chosen an Australian … as its chief executive.
It’s an interesting approach.  Worth a shot.  The world’s greatest management gurus and human relations specialists have never discovered a dependable way to raise depressed employees’ spirits.  And now, tantalizingly, Hong Kong’s main public health care provider might just have found that holy grail of corporate culture.  How can any nurse or doctor fail to be cheered as their new boss Bruce drags his Vegemite-polished surfboard through the wards, sipping Swan lager from a little bottle and greeting patients with a friendly ‘ello mate’?  How they will laugh as he breaks the ice with newly arrived bed-ridden invalids with the heart-warming welcome ‘I see you came in here to die’.
But do we really want to make public-sector workers happier?  When pensions for life, kids’ education allowances, housing subsidies, air-conditioning allowances and bloated pay scales are all factored in, these people are paid between two and three times what their private-sector counterparts receive.  Unless found guilty of arson to Her Majesty’s dockyards, they are impossible to dislodge from the payroll.  And there are far too many of them.  Might it not be better to make these leeches as miserable as possible, in the hope that some of them will go away?  This is the approach taken by Education Secretary Fanny Law, who countered accusations from teachers that the suicides of two of their number were due to school reforms by asking, “So how come the rest of you haven’t jumped off tall buildings yet?”  The precious pedagogues crumble in the face of such simple truths.  The shores of the Fragrant Harbour echo with wails and rants at press conferences, tearful blubbing on radio phone-ins and the overall clamour of hysterical, infantile civil servants wetting themselves.
HK General Chamber of Commerce
Thurs, 12 Jan
Is there any mind less capable of original thought than that of the Hong Kong property developer?  In early December, the public-sector Housing Authority, after initially being beaten back by barely educated, 67-year-old public housing tenant Lo Siu Lan, finally managed to float its commercial properties through a real estate investment trust.  In the following weeks, Li Ka-shing’s Cheung Kong launched one, to cash in on our small-time retail investors’ own tendency to follow the herd and oversubscribe – in this case – to anything called a REIT.  Then GZI did the same, offering a bundle of Guangzhou buildings to an eager market. 

Now, Sun Hung Kai’s Kwok brothers and Henderson Land’s Lee Shau-kei
come dutifully plodding along, mouths hanging open and eyes blinking, to awkwardly announce that they too – surprise, surprise – are going to float REITs.  It seems simple enough.  Pick a couple of bright, shiny towers people have heard of, add a large handful of dilapidated, rat-infested, far-flung blocks full of spotty import-export folk and smelly drains, and float the thing for far more than it’s really worth.  Other, smaller players are waiting to join in, desperately hoping that they’re not too far behind the Li Ka-shing curve. 

The last time these people went through this embarrassing routine of doing-whatever-it-was-KS-just-did, the big mania was Web-Cyber-Net-Tech-E-Portal IPOs in 2000.  Who can ever forget cringing at the sight of these tycoons, who probably can’t program a rice cooker, sitting in front of shoddy, 1960s-futurist backdrops to launch their ridiculous
Sunevision and HendersonCyber?   At least this time, peddling property, they can comprehend why it’s overpriced junk.

Fri, 13 Jan
The Big Boss is in a spluttering, irritated mood in the morning meeting. “It’s the thin end of the wedge!” he thunders, throwing an especially dark look in the direction of the Company Gwailo.  The cause of his ire is our imaginative and progressive Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s
suggestion to consolidate back-office civil servants’ 44-hour working week into five days.  It makes sense.  It would cut Government electricity bills.  It would reduce traffic, and therefore pollution, on Saturdays.  (Given the degree of over-manning in some departments, they could probably keep many staff at home permanently.)  Most of all, the idea would probably spread into locally based companies like S-Meg Holdings, which insist, as a matter of principle, on their desk meat turning up and pretending to slave away on Saturday mornings.  Having a proper weekend to relax, the staff would surely be more productive.

Even if assured of no change to the quantity or quality of work performed by employees, the idea of a five-day week horrifies Hong Kong’s traditional bosses.  To their confucio-plutocratic way of thinking, it is a zero-sum calculation.  If an employee is out of the office and happy, the company by definition suffers a loss – albeit one that accountants can’t measure.  Conversely, by inconveniencing its staff by dragging them away from bed, home, family and leisure, the company gains greater, if intangible, value from them.
Suddenly, the first words I heard on waking this morning start to make sense – or, actually, they don’t, but I now realize what the interview on the radio was about.  The cretinous and slimy nematode James Tien, leader of the Liberal Party, was warning of the dangers of giving Hong Kong people two-day weekends.  They will spend their money in Shenzhen!  For the sake of the Hong Kong economy, the mental dwarf seemed to be arguing, we must continue to chain consumers to their desks on Saturday mornings, so they don’t have enough time to head across the border and escape the clutches of the Hong Kong cartels and their overpriced goods and services.  I had hoped, out of charity to my fellow man, that 2005 would be the year James Tien couldn’t get any more retarded.  Tragically, it was not to be.
WHILE RIGHT-MINDED Koreans wallow in shame at the behaviour of their rabid, anti-WTO peasant activists in Hong Kong last month, citizens of the capsicum-fragrant harbour ask why prosecutors have dropped charges against 11 of the 14 protestors arrested for rioting.  Could it be that pressure from Korean officials has led to a nudge from Beijing, which seeks Seoul’s goodwill in complex Northeast Asian geopolitical affairs?   Could it be that Hong Kong’s risk-averse bureaucrats have panicked, fearing that trendy do-gooders at Amnesty International will proclaim Asia’s World City to be a hellhole of door-kicking, fingernail-ripping, sole-beating Gestapo enforcers and assassination squads?  Or might it be that our multi-billion dollar criminal investigation apparatus, with its plentiful, highly trained manpower and extensive computer and communications systems, has had its attempts to identify felons thwarted by 11 ski masks? 

A phone call to my friend Morris, Glasgow’s gift to local law enforcement, is in order.  I catch him cooking up the last of his Hogmanay haggis.  “Och, the secret is tae fry it in a dry pan – no fat,” he tells me.  He is less forthcoming on the subject of WTO protestors, but he reminds me of the ’78.5 percent rule’.  “First thing any barrister does,” he says, “is look through the charges and play ‘spot the cock-up’.  Oh aye.  Find the mistake made by some overworked Billy.”  I wince at hearing, for the first time in ages, this expatriate police officers’ politically incorrect slang for their locally born junior ranks – apparently, there was a time when nearly all constables were, inexplicably, named Billy.  “And, och, ye know the rest,” Morris goes on.  “They get 78.5 percent of suspects off that way.”  Putting down the phone, I grab a calculator and punch in ’11  X  14  %’.  Amazing!

IS NORTH Korea’s engagingly coiffeured Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il hanging out at the
White Swan Hotel up the road in Guangzhou?  It’s hard to believe – but what about him isn’t?  My mind goes back to the last time I stayed at the place, on the more-or-less picturesque Shamian Island – the opium traders’ base in the days before the Big Lychee.  It was the chilly Christmas of 1989, and I switched on CNN to see Rumania’s dictator Nicolae Ceausescu dragged in front of a wall to receive the benefit of his citizens’ opinion of him.  (He wore his expensive, tailor-made suits once only, if I recall.)   Maybe, if they have a newly arrived guest from Pyongyang, the hotel could dig up an old tape of the event for his viewing pleasure.