Hemlock's Diary
The ravings of Hong Kong's most obnoxious expat
13-19 February 2005

Sun, 13 Feb
To Sai Kung with wild American friend Odell, his Thai wife Mee and Polly the lipstick lesbian, to inspect the new
nudist beach.  We eventually find ourselves on a deserted stretch of sandy shoreline, next to a wall of concrete, crumbling and grey.  The sand is grey.  The scrawny trees and shrubbery behind us are grey.  The sea and the sky are grey.  A damp, chilly breeze cuts through us.  I rub my hands and give my companions the sort of no-nonsense look Captain Scott must have given his men every morning before they set off southwards.  “So,” I announce, “I suppose we’d better take our clothes off.”  Mee throws an anxious glance at Odell, who looks perturbed about something.  Polly suggests that I go first.  “Sure,” I reply calmly.  This is a time for leadership.

I walk smartly round to the other side of the wall.  I take off my jacket, fold it and put it on a patch of clean sand.  Then I peel off my sweater.  The icy wind blows under my T-shirt.  I pull off my boots.  Then my cargo pants.  Shivering and clenching my teeth, I tug the T-shirt off, then my Y-fronts and finally my socks.  “Chrissssst!” I hiss.  “It’s freezing!”

“Are you OK?” asks a voice from over the wall.  In an attempt to minimize exposure of body surface area to the elements, I squat and hug myself.  I manage to mutter something about how it’s ‘bracing’.  Has my manhood, like that of Michelangelo’s David,
shrivelled beyond repair?  I jump up and pull my clothes back on.  After a decent interval, during which I partially thaw out, I stroll nonchalantly back round.  “Yes, indeed,” I say with a grimace, “quite bracing.”

Polly looks puzzled.  “Aren’t you supposed to walk around or something?” she asks in a slightly sarcastic tone.  As a self-proclaimed expert, she is shamed into going next.  After a minute behind the wall she calls out “Mee – bring me your umbrella.”  Seconds later, she is tiptoeing across the sand closely escorted by Mee, who pointedly looks away while preserving the lesbian naturist’s modesty with an unfurled 7-Eleven parasol pointed towards Odell and me.  After about 20 yards, the pair turn back.  

Emerging clothed from our al fresco changing room, Polly mumbles something to me about sand in her shoes.  Then we both stare at Odell and Mee.  “I can’t,” says Odell apologetically.  “I was brought up a Mormon.  I can’t.”  He glances at his wife.  “And she’s Thai,” he adds.  “They’re even worse.”  The wall, it seems, makes no difference.  There is no way this couple can indulge in public nudity.  “We’ve never even seen other naked,” Odell whispers to me.  I stare in disbelief.  This is the man who has woken up the length and breadth of Hong Kong with his trousers down.  But it’s a good excuse.  I wish I’d thought of it. 

On the bus back into town, I remind everyone of the words of Tom Paine – ‘Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence’.  This doesn’t make much of an impression.  Polly begs to differ.  “If we were supposed to go around naked,” she declares, “we’d have been born that way.”  Nods of agreement all round.

Mon, 14 Feb
Normally pristine, save for a few clumps of dandruff swirling in the morning breeze, the Mid-Levels Escalator is slick with vomit this morning, despite the valiant efforts of the cheerful Nepalese and Thai cleaning staff, with their mops and buckets of lemon-scented Chlorox.  It’s that day of the year again.  I always tell people not to let their eyes set upon the front page of the
Classified Post if they wish to keep their breakfast in their stomachs.  But they don’t listen.  The rotten scansion alone is enough to produce instant nausea…
Wiggly Piggly
I love you more each day
Will be with you forever I promise
I am your Tigger Forever
…not to mention the repellent attempts at simile, such as a subconscious allusion to Robbie Burns’s “Oh my luve’s like a red, red rose…”
Dear MHH,
My love is like a cabbage
divided into two
The leaves I give to others
The heart I give to you
Yours ever,
Safely in the office, I decide to detract the world’s attention from this annual descent into commercialized mawkish bad taste by officially launching the finest work of English literature to be published in Hong Kong so far in the Year of the Rooster.   The 17,000-word Lychee Tree in Butterfly Valley arrived anonymously in my email, like a baby in a basket on the doorstep.  Perhaps uniquely among Hong Kong novels, it was originally written as a submission to the Government as part of a consultation exercise that curbed the practice of imprisonment for contempt of court.  As well as offering valuable and moving insights into life as a guest of the Correctional Services Department, the author provides illustrations and a discursion of generous length into the work of scientist Nikola Tesla. And a reasonably happy ending.

Tue, 15 Feb
The Big Boss has an interview with a journalist from the United States, referred by the Government’s Information Services Department.  Although wincing slightly at the young lady’s unfortunate American-born Chinese accent, he charmingly recites the party line on Hong Kong’s wonderful future before asking which newspaper she is from.  It turns out to be a college campus magazine.  If it was Stanford, S-Meg Holdings’ Chairman would be seized by visions of an honorary doctorate.  But it is a little liberal arts place in the woods somewhere, so he hands the student reporter to the Company Gwailo.  It could be worse.  How often do the gullible, overpaid idiots at ISD send ‘journalists’ who turn out to be selling advertising?  This one has at least done some homework ahead of her visit to Hong Kong.  She points her little tape recorder in my direction.  What, she asks me, is the low-down on the Alex Ho affair?  Was he really caught with a prostitute in Dongguan?

“Well, yes – a honey trap,” I tell her.  “Oldest trick in the book when you’re dealing with people who aren’t very bright, which sums up our poor Democratic Party.”  She looks at me in what I take to be awe.  “They should know better,” I continue.  “Martin Lee’s hotel room was bugged back in the 1980s when they were drafting the Basic Law.  So now it’s in the open – Mainland officials will play dirty to influence elections here.  Actually, they’ve wasted this weapon on a nonentity like Alex Ho.  They should’ve kept their powder dry and targeted more influential Democrats at a more critical time in the future.  It’ll be harder to do that now.”

The amateur she-journo dutifully scribbles my words of wisdom in a notebook.  ISD briefed her on the Constitutional Development Task Force, she says.  What sort of political reform is likely in Hong Kong in 2007-08?

“The next Chief Executive will be appointed by Beijing,” I reply with an airy confidence she clearly finds gripping, “so changes to the Election Committee for 2007 are irrelevant.  It’s possible to open up the Legislative Council in 2008, by expanding functional constituency electorates.  But the current ‘owners’ of those constituencies will fight that tooth and nail.  However, unless those electorates are seriously broadened, the pro-democrats will probably veto any reform bill as pointless.  That scares the Government.”  I look at my watch and lean forward.  “Um... I have another appointment now,” I apologize, “but would you be free for lunch?” 

I have it all worked out.  Up the Mid-Levels Escalator to a Soho restaurant.  Then to Perpetual Opulence Mansions to see my etchings of Hakka villages.  But no.  She is booked to visit the Trade Development Council – a waste of space if ever there were one – before flying out today.  May the whole of ISD be stricken by meningitis, red fire ant bites, chicken flu and Japanese encephalitis simultaneously.  Can any government in the world be cursed with such a useless and ridiculous overseas media relations department?

Wed, 16 Feb
Breakfast of eggs benedict at the Mandarin coffee shop with my old friend Percy Ratbone of the venerable Swine Group.  After abandoning him for several years in Papua New Guinea, the great and ancient hong transferred him back to Hong Kong last year to a plum position in its wonderfully profitable airline, Cathay Pacific.  “Terrific fun,” he tells me, “except for the bloody pilots.”  Like all Swire managers, he has started to go gray before his time, and this looks likely to continue.  “Way back before I was posted to Port Morseby, we fired a few dozen cockpit crew – should’ve been a few hundred – for deliberately mucking up schedules.  Bastards delayed take-offs to miss landing slots at the other end.  Hundreds of passengers stuck in hotels overnight all over the place.  Pure vandalism.  So…”  He runs his finger across his neck.  “Chop!  Bugger off!”  He takes a swig of coffee.
“Years later, damn thing’s still going on.  Sob stories about their wives having to sell their bodies.”  He lowers his normally booming voice.  “Wouldn’t get much for them.  Ha!”  He takes a noisy bite of toast.  It’s good to see the graceful table manners acquired at his minor English boarding school have survived two decades of postings around Asia.  “Only worse thing,” he continues.  “Bloody passengers.  Pain in the neck.  Constant whining about meals and frequent flier miles, for God’s sake!”

I suggest that they stop misleading their customers in their advertising.  “You should spell it out,” I tell him.  “Air transport is just a commodity.  Don’t pretend your ‘service’ is better.  Airlines are all the same.  You pay a bit of money, sit down, shut up, and a few hours later you arrive.  It’s not a five-star hotel or a restaurant – it’s just a bus with some girls handing out peanuts.  Live with it.” 

He nods and mumbles something about having to be a premium brand.  “It’s those scum in the advertising company,” he mutters.  “Worse than the pilots.  Run rings round our marketing guys.  Rip us off completely.  Bastards.”  A beeping noise sounds within his jacket, and he pulls out a gizmo of some sort.  “Hmm,” he says, looking at the screen.  “A 747 accident at the airport.  Cockpit crew’s wallets caused the payload to shift.”
Thurs, 17 Feb
South China Morning Post columnist Frank Ching urges the pro-democrats to stop boycotting the Government’s constitutional development review and offer realistic proposals for a more democratic system in 2007-08.  He must know that whatever they propose will be taken as a starting point and whittled down to a bland ‘consensus’.  Not for nothing does Beijing approach international negotiations by asking for the impossible and refusing to budge.  By demanding full universal suffrage, the pro-democrats will force the Government to get off the fence.  It can offer meaningless reforms, which the pro-democrats will veto.  Or it can offer serious measures that loosen the civil service-tycoon cliques’ grip on power, which public opinion will convince the pro-democrats to support.  The pro-democrats’ cause has nothing to lose.  I am amazed that they are being this savvy – it is probably by accident rather than design.  But I am genuinely puzzled by Frank Ching’s poor judgement.  Is he under pressure from his pro-Beijing paymasters, perhaps?  Or just getting a bit stupid in his old age? 

A PHONE conversation with Morris, the greatest living Scotsman in the Hong Kong Police.  I ask him about the space-age
crowd control materiel Asia’s finest are acquiring ahead of the World Trade Organization’s ministerial conference next December.  “Oh aye,” he replies.  “We’re tooling up big time.  The first anti-globalization protestor to step over the line gets it – Pooof!”  So what’s the story behind the rubber bullets?  “Och – forget ‘rubber’.  We call them baton rounds.  They’re made of depleted uranium.  The first hairy European anarchist with an Arab scarf and a ‘save the whales’ T-shirt to stick his ugly head over the barricade – Zap!  Don’t mess with the HKP, Jimmy!  And we got tons of tear gas, too.”  I wonder aloud whether it might be better to give the protestors economics lessons.  Morris considers this.  “Erm…”  I hear him scratch his head.  “No,” he concludes.  “Tear gas.”  Fine.  We’re in capable hands.  There are times when it’s a privilege to pay tax in this town.

Fri, 18 Feb
The big story in the papers today is that a lobby group called the Family Relationship Development Network has applied to the Guinness Book of Records to have Hong Kong listed as the place with the most battered husbands living in shipping containers (11) and chicken farms (10).  As would be expected from an NGO indulging in a publicity stunt to protest the lack of a refuge for men with violent wives, they offer no evidence to support this claim.  I would have thought Russia, with its millions of burly babushkas hammering their helpless, vodka-drenched menfolk with rolling pins, would take these particular records with ease.  If I had the time, I would go round the Big Lychee’s containers and chicken farms and find these men, cowering in terror of the Hong Kong hatchet-holding harridans they so unwisely married, and inform them that a shelter for unfortunates like them
does exist.  But, alas, I am busy. 

For one thing, I must offer succor and reassurance to the Big Boss, who is worried about casino and property tycoon Stanley Ho’s
endorsement of Donald Tsang as the replacement for the visionary Tung Chee-hwa as Hong Kong’s Chief Executive.  Does Stanley know something other moguls do not?  The Chairman of S-Meg Holdings thinks the wily old Macanese is simply taking a gamble.  But if he wagers correctly!  Dr Ho will have been the first to shoeshine bowtie man – leaving his plutocrat peers feeling awkward, inadequate and in fear of being out of favour.  But what if he has backed the wrong horse?  Ho won’t dare show his Sino-Luso-Transylvanian features this side of the Pearl River Delta again.  That’s a deeply satisfying thought.  What’s Cantonese for ‘schadenfreude’?  The Big Boss starts to rub his hands with glee, but soon thinks better of it.  He is clearly in anguish.  “I think it really will be Donald,” he says.  He nervously fingers the ceramic three-legged toad before setting it back down on the table, carefully pointing it as directed by the feng-shui expert towards the north – the source of profit.