Hemlock's Diary
The ravings of Hong Kong's most obnoxious expat
17-23 July 2005

Sun, 17 Jul
Strolling through Wellcome Supermarket, I sense that I am being watched.  I turn round to see a wombok hurriedly averting its gaze.  I sidle towards it and nonchalantly peruse the vegetable section.  Tomatoes.  Genetically engineered to be totally devoid of tomato flavour.  Iceberg lettuce.  Pointless, water-flavoured cellulose.  A bunch of scallions appeals.  I toss them into my shopping basket.  Suddenly, I reach out with my left arm and grab the wombok by the throat.  It struggles, but I overpower it, and thrust it deep among my purchases.  It attempts to wriggle free from beneath heads of garlic, a lump of ginger and a pack of small chilies, the sort that score 100,000 on the
Scoville scale.  It tries to squirm between a jar of sesame oil, a bag of sea salt – suitable for pickling, as it has no iodine or other non-salt ingredients – and a bottle of nam pla, the fermented fish liquid that is a distant ancestor of Worcestershire sauce.  Exhausted, it abandons its cruciferous fight.  Today is kimchi-making day.
Back at Perpetual Opulence Mansions, I take a chopper to the wombok, viciously slicing it crosswise at one- to two-inch intervals and cutting its hard white heart into smaller shreds.  This goes into a large bowl and is covered in water, into which I stir a good handful or two of the salt.  I must now wait for six hours.  To pass the time, I meditate on a searching question.  What it is that possesses apparently able-bodied people to push a huge cart around the supermarket when they are buying only a few pounds of goods?  If not a cart, they use a little trolley that holds their basket.  I am the only person who seems to be capable of carrying a basket in my hands. By the time six hours have passed, I can only conclude that they want to be idle but are too stupid to know how.  Any intelligent lazy person knows that it is far easier to carry light items by hand than to trundle them around on a heavy and unwieldy set of wheels.  These are probably the same people who drag suitcases around behind them at airports.

Now the fun starts.  I peel and chop a whole head of garlic and the spring onions (green bits included).  Then I finely chop an inch cube of ginger and a dozen or so chillies (with seeds).  This all goes into a big mortar, along with a generous few dollops of
nam pla, a couple of teaspoons of sea salt and a few dashes of sesame oil.  I brutally mash them up into a paste, adding a bit of water to make it runny.  I drain the wombok, rinse it briefly in a strainer and shake it dry.  I then put some into a large, totally clean jar and spoon a bit of the paste onto it.  Stir a bit.  Then a bit more wombok, then a bit more paste.  And so on, being sure to use all the paste, until the jar is crammed full.  I then seal it tightly and put it in the refrigerator.  It will be ready in a week.  Sauerkraut for men.
Mon, 18 Jul
For the second week running, the mood among morning commuters on the Mid-Levels Escalator is uneasy.  Dark-skinned young men with backpacks attract nervous looks.  What better way for jihadist suicide bombers to bring Hong Kong to its knees than to wipe out its industrious, taxpaying and disenfranchised middle class on the city’s most critical piece of transport infrastructure?  And now, a new menace emerges – the two million-strong underclass of unwashed, unemployable and dispossessed northern New Territories inhabitants
about to rise up and kill us in our beds.  What can be done about these poor wretches’ social exclusion?  Would it help reduce the chances of unrest if pro-democracy legislator Ronny Tong took his guitar up there and sang old Simon and Garfunkel hits for them?  Or would that just exacerbate an already volatile situation? 

Mrs Suen the marketing manager has an idea.  “Maybe the Government should assign a couple of these families to each of us,” she suggests.  “And then we invite them to at least one dinner party a year.”  She sees her audience is unconvinced.  “Well, no – maybe they’d just sit in the corner and feel embarrassed.”  Before I have the chance to mention the obvious chopping-up and feeding-to-pigs solution, Mr Choi the banker makes a remark about the ‘skills mismatch’.  For whatever reason – probably loose morals in their previous lives – these people are too dim to get proper jobs and therefore too poor to live in Hong Kong.  The lateral thinking part of my brain whirs into action.

“I’ve got it,” I declare.  “Move the border south.”  A civil servant who overhears reminds us to call it a ‘boundary’, as this sounds less suggestive that the Big Lychee is not part of the glorious motherland.  The rest of us grab him by the arms and legs and bundle him over the side of the walkway, somewhere outside the soon-to-close Fetish Fashion.  “That way,” I continue, “they’re in Shenzhen.”  After discussing the idea further, we agree that a huge fence would be needed – like the one Israel has.  Suddenly we fall silent.  A girl wearing a Shalwar Kameez school uniform squeezes past us, a worryingly heavy Hello Kitty bag slung over her shoulder.

FORMER UK Prime Minister
Edward Heath has died.  We are not to speak ill of the dead, even when they were intolerably pompous and smug, lacked so much confidence in their country that they preferred to see it run by foreigners in Brussels, and spouted whatever treachery was necessary to be feted as a ‘Friend of China’ by devious, manipulative communist tyrants in Beijing.  So I won’t.

Tue, 19 Jul
As ever, the revenge of Tung Chee-hwa continues, with Hong Kong preparing for December’s Sixth Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation.  Of all the time bombs the crop-haired one left ticking, this has the greatest potential for good, old-fashioned mayhem.  Rabid Korean farmers will disembowel themselves in the streets to protest against the obscenity that is cheaper food for consumers.  Unkempt and malodorous Eurotrash in Nike shoes and Palestinian headscarves will deal the death blows to global capitalism by smashing McDonalds plate glass windows.  A ridiculous Frenchman smoking a pipe will strut around for the TV cameras, while Amazonian Indians with unpleasant-looking body adornments will camp out in the hills because they can’t afford to stay in The Peninsula.  Half of Wanchai will be
sealed off. .Or it might just be incredibly boring.   Either way, according to Tung’s logic, it will…
…underline the successful implementation of “One Country, Two Systems” and the autonomy Hong Kong enjoys in trade and economic matters under the Basic Law …  further reinforce our image and profile as bastion of free trade … raise Hong Kong's international profile and provide an excellent opportunity to showcase Hong Kong as “Asia’s World City” since MC6 will bound to be covered extensively by the international media [cut to the burning police van] … serve as a strong vote of confidence by the international community in Hong Kong as we recover from the SARS outbreak
All this for just HK$300 million in Government subsidies.  Why have slivers of bamboo thrust under your fingernails while being sodomized with a durian and kicked repeatedly in the teeth, when you can be a Hong Kong taxpayer getting a strong vote of confidence from the international community as we recover from the SARS outbreak?
EVIL GOVERNMENT officials found conducting large-scale, long-term experiment on innocent civilians to research effects of unnecessarily high building density and overuse of concrete.  Full details at ten. 

I have been asked to set the questions for the next Foreign Correspondents Club quiz.  Seeking inspiration, I peer out of the office window, through the torrid gloom to the expanse of the West Kowloon Reclamation.  Question – Seven million people send faxes to the Government asking it to
do something against the interests of Li Ka-shing.  How high would the pile of paper be, measured in storeys of a luxury residential apartment block?
Q  What is the main ingredient of concrete?
A  Cement.

Q  Under what industry self-regulatory system is cement sold in Hong Kong?
A  A cartel.

Q  Which company is Hong Kong’s biggest cement supplier?
A  Green Island Cement

Q  Who owns Green Island Cement?
A   Li Ka-shing.

Q  If you had a mob of New Territories residents and anti-globalization rioters, howling with anguish and bursting with rage at social exclusion and imperialism, where would be the funniest place to unleash them tomorrow?
Booth 2B26 and 2B28, Hall 2, Hong Kong Book Fair

Wed, 20 Jul
Electronically cooled grandeur awaits on the 20th floor of S-Meg Tower, where Ms Fang the hunter-killer secretary is pouting her way up and down the reception area, clutching a small, pink, furry hot water bottle to her abdomen.  It’s that time of the month – when even the Big Boss treads the lavish carpet of his wood-lined private office in fear.  I tiptoe into the gwailo’s lair, close the door and read the papers.  The
Standard’s worthy little gossip column mentions the story about Peter Woo hiring PR floozies Hill & Knowlton to help him in his embarrassing ambition to be Chief Executive of Hong Kong one day.  What they don’t mention is the cringe-making puff piece that appeared in last Sunday’s Morning Post under the byline of the Editor at Large…
Astute Peter Woo keeps them guessing
Despite his repeated denials, the possibility of a second attempt by tycoon Peter Woo Kwong-ching for the post of chief executive has never been lightly dismissed by pundits...
No – it has been soundly rejected as a complete impossibility (as Dorothy Parker might have said).  The idea of this throwback with his Neanderthal political views goose-stepping into Government House is a joke.  Woo’s campaign platform would be ‘I married Sir YK Pao’s daughter and inherited Wharf Holdings, so I’m in charge and you’re not’.  The other property developers detest him.  The Big Boss thinks he’s an idiot.  In fact, everyone hates him, including Hill & Knowlton. – otherwise, why would they be so unprofessional as to take his money, knowing that his vision of running Hong Kong is the sad fantasy of a rich dullard?   

This is not the first air motion discomfort-inducing column Chris ‘Hill & Knowlton’ Yeung has delivered to Woo.  But this one lays it on more thickly, referring to Woo’s ‘thousand-years-no-democracy’ stance as profound insight and concluding….
... By speaking his mind on universal suffrage, Mr Woo has shown he understands what the key issues are and is ready to confront and tackle them.
As a keen student of the fine art of shoe-shining, I look forward to more of this putrid toadying – it’s far and away the most entertaining thing in the SCMP.

Thurs, 21 Jul
An early morning stroll through the pleasure dome that is IFC Mall to stretch my legs.  Also, to amuse my mind by monitoring the perverse outcome of the scientific pursuit of rental income per square foot – row after row of shops designed by minimalist zombies, selling things that intelligent people wouldn’t want and most other people can’t afford.  The quasi-clinical cosmetics outlets.  What is the markup on that skin-whitening stuff, and how can I get a slice of it?   The faux-French soap and bath gel vendors.  Lavender shampoo if you must.  But olive?  What next – brie?  The endless designer-label shoe and handbag boutiques.  This must be something to do with money-laundering.  And those doll-faced shop assistants, hired at a ratio of one per item on display – what do they do all day to stay sane? 

Turning the corner, I encounter Desperately Dull Desmond, the space-wasting, time-serving relic of a bygone era, when British conglomerates appointed talentless and overpaid white ‘chaps’ to sit there and pretend to be managers.  The sort that haven’t read your email because Francy hasn’t printed it out yet.  He is pulling his pride and joy – a shiny leather golf caddy, made of an entire elephant’s foreskin.  There are only five of them in Hong Kong, and he’s the only gwailo with one.  He greets me as I approach and announces that he is off to China for the weekend, to play a few rounds.  “Can’t stop,” I say, looking at my watch, “but do you know what I like about golfers?”  His face brightens up at the mention of his passion in life.  “I like the fact that they’re 271 times more likely than the rest of us to be struck by lightning.”

Fri, 22 Jul
Do golf clubs conduct electricity well?  On Wednesday, lightning struck Hong Kong 10,000 times in a single hour, Tsing Yi was pummeled by hail, and
millions of toads fell from the sky in Discovery Bay.  In London, more bombs on public transport – but they didn’t go off properly.  It’s tough to find experienced suicide bombers.  Meanwhile, on the 20th floor of S-Meg Tower, in the heart of Asia’s tempest-tossed financial hub, the Big Boss pretends that he knew all along that China was about to change its currency peg and revalue the Renminbi by 2 percent.  He wonders how it will affect this dynamic, thrusting company of ours.  In particular, will it undermine our recent Mainland investment in a miraculous new product – silent nail clippers?  The spotty accountant is absent from the morning meeting today, lying outside the conference room with his entrails strewn across the carpet after failing to treat Ms Fang the hunter-killer secretary with due regard for her ovulatory cycle.   The chief economist was dragged away several days ago, shrieking and flaying, to perform mother-in-law visitation duties in Vancouver.  So it falls upon the company gwailo to provide penetrating analysis.

“Basically,” I tell the keen-eyed management team, “this is just a PR stunt by Beijing to shut the Americans up.  When US consumers pile into Walmarts to buy our silent nail clippers, they won’t see a difference – most of the inputs are priced in dollars.”  I step up to the whiteboard to illustrate…
                      Price Tag on Silent Nail Clipper

Before RMB revaluation    After RMB revaluation

Wages for factory girls       RMB0.828 (
US$0.1)       RMB0.828 (US$0.102)
Factory rent, local bribes    RMB3.312 (
US$0.4)       RMB3.312 (US$0.408)
Factory power bill            US$0.5                  US$0.5
Raw materials                 US$0.5                  US$0.5
S-Meg profit (booked in HK)   US$1                    US$1

Shipping, trucking            US$0.5                  US$0.5
Walmart overheads             US$2                    US$2
Walmart profit                US$5                    US$5

Total                         US$10                   US$10.01
“So,” I conclude, “the only things that go up in price in dollar terms are the wages for the nimble-fingered, doe-eyed peasant girls who work in the factory, plus land rent, banquets for local officials, and so on.  Everything else – even the factory’s power bill, which comes down to world oil prices – is priced in dollars.  So when the American end user buys our miracle, ten-buck silent nail clipper, the price tag will be just a penny higher.”  Satisfied nods from the assembled team of dedicated, high-flying executives.  “Plus sales tax.”