Hemlock's Diary
The ravings of Hong Kong's most obnoxious expat
22-28 May 2005

Monday, 23 May
This is the week when Hong Kong’s dashing Chef Secretary Donald Tsang will formally announce his candidacy in the election for the office of Chief Executive of the Big Lychee Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.  For Sir Bow Tie, this heralds the fulfillment of a lifetime’s ambition.  For the citizens of this city, it will be the beginning of a ritual charade in which the man Beijing has picked as our next leader pretends to be nominated by people who pretend to be taking part in an election.  But unlike last time, when Tung Chee-hwa was the chosen one, the imperial power has considered the opinions of Hong Kong’s permanent residents of 18 years or above – and is acceding to their wishes.  Buxom Administrative Officer Winky Ip spoons peanuts into her congee at Yuet Yuen restaurant and savours the prospect.  “The Election Committee is going to symbolically act out the will of the people,” she declares.  I mull over this profound thought.  The outcome in mid-June will probably be the closest the PRC has had to democracy in its often-pitiful history.
Trivia quiz time.  “At the time of the handover in 1997,” I ask Winky, “which person hated Donald Tsang the most?”  The highly intelligent civil servant ponders the question.  She recalls a group of private-sector economists who had spent months on a project for the Government’s Central Policy Unit.  Donald had dismissed their work out of hand in seconds.  They really hated him, she tells me.  Being patient, I give her a clue.  “I mean someone important – a leading official.”  She stops stirring her juk and frowns, deep in thought.  Eventually, she shrugs.  I lean forward to enlighten her.  “Li Peng,” I tell her.  She thinks it over for a few seconds.  Memories of the former Premier – the butcher of Beijing – have faded.  She starts to nod.  “How do you think he’ll feel on our make-believe election day?” I ask. Winky gives me her famous but all-too rare ‘smirk of the righteous’.
OUT OF the office early and back to Perpetual Opulence Mansions.  The dutiful Filipino elves have dug out my overhead locker-sized Cathay Pacific travel bag from wherever they store it.  I open it on my bed and throw in four pairs of underpants, four T-shirts, four pairs of socks, a couple of shirts, a pair of shorts and a pair of chinos.  Into a smaller, under-the-seat-in-front-sized backpack go a bottle of water, the latest Economist, the strongly recommended (by people not known for high literary tastes) Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, a bathroom bag, tissues, pens, camera, a notepad, a passport and an Air France return ticket from Hong Kong to Clochmerle-la-Merdaille via Paris.  In my wallet are a few hundred ugly Euros in tens and twenties.  Nothing more is needed.  Like people who put things they need in-flight in the overhead locker, anyone who takes more than three minutes to pack for a week’s trip – or who wants more items – needs psychiatric treatment.

Ostensibly, I am going to the quaint and remote French village to attend a family reunion at our crumbling little chateau.  It has served as the Hemlocks’ continental retreat since we fled Biarritz in the 1900s, when the town started to attract riffraff.  Shrewdly calculating that the English lower orders would sooner or later come to infest most other accessible parts of France, the family found a place in the mountains that time has forgotten.  The villagers believe we are British royalty.

My real reason for going is to see what I can do to help tip the balance in Sunday’s referendum on the European Union ‘constitution’, which could go either way.   Few can doubt that the horrendous structure that started off as the European Economic Community, somehow evolved into the European Community and then metamorphosed into the European Union will at some stage collapse, implode, wither away or simply be swept under the carpet.  But the sooner the better – and many insightful people believe that a Gallic ‘non’ vote will serve as a first stake in the heart of this
bureaucratic monster.

The ‘constitution’ defies summary.  It is a 50,000-page (times 31 languages) hairball of visionary, utopian Euro-waffle of the sort that makes any right-thinking person instinctively reach for their gun.  A
well-meaning British institute attempts to explain the treaty thus….
No longer are the common foreign and security policy (pillar II) and police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters (pillar III) so distinct from the central supranational pillar I. Instead, Pillar III activities will effectively be ‘communitarized’,
Does Chateau Hemlock have an Internet connection?  Is there one anywhere in Clochmerle-la-Merdaille?  I may initially record my heroic struggle against the Euro-beast on paper at times in the coming days.  And now – allons a l’aeroport.
Mardi, 24 Mai / Mercredi, 25 Mai / Jeudi, 26 Mai

On arrival in Paris, I remind myself to write to Air France to congratulate them on their exceptional attention to minority customer preferences in their in-flight cuisine.  How many other airlines would go to such lengths to cater to those who prefer their boeuf bourguignon to be made from nothing but gristle? 

After transfer and an hour-and-a-half flight, I am in Clochmerle-la-Merdaille, waiting to be collected.  The place is as cosmopolitan and forward-looking as ever.  Dipping a croissant in coffee in the village square, I ask a local peasant for news of the latest excitement.  Last February, he tells me, this entire region suffered from an onion famine.  For three weeks, there were no onions available in any street market, grocery store or supermarket for 200 kilometres around.  They were available everywhere else in France and across the border over the mountains.  I am surprised.  This is an important part of the local cuisine.  Didn't anyone think of trucking a few tons of the vegetable in?  They could have made a killing.  My question is met with bewilderment.
On the subject of the EU constitution, he is adamant.  "Non!  How can we compete with China?"  Even in this remote region, every little village has a zone industrielle, an apparently abandoned enclave of prefabricated units in which - were it not for the evil forces of globalization - hundreds of highly productive French workers on 50,000 Euros a year, 35-hour weeks and two months' annual paid holidays would churn out huge quantities of world-beating textiles and electronic goods, leaving Shenzhen's workshops in the manufacturing dust.
BACK AT the chateau, members of the Hemlock family are drifting in from around the onion-abundant planet.  "It's not a chateau," one of them advises me.  "Only a pretentious idiot would call it that."  In one corner of the big house, six-month old Louise Banshee, the youngest member of the clan, is being weaned onto solids.  Her mother, who married into the Hemlocks three years back, is acknowledged by all to be a 'strapping lass', 'fine breeding material' and a wonderful parent.  She cuts a slab of dark, braised cheval into tiny morsels, chews them for a few moments and spoons the tender meat gently from her mouth into the appreciative babe's. 

Out on the terrace, Pontius, the clan's token eccentric, is peering through a two-foot long telescope across the valley to the towering, wooded expanse opposite.  He has an excellent view of the waterfall, a torrent of melted snow that plummets over a hundred feet from a ledge mostly obscured by trees.  I take a look.  At 30 times magnification, it is hard to get a steady view.  What's more, when you raise the tube, everything you see goes down, and when you move it to the right, everything goes left.  "You see everything upside down with that telescope," he tells me, "so the waterfall looks like a fountain."

MONSIEUR LE Facteur gives me the benefit of his opinion on Sunday's vote.  "We oppose the constitution because it encourages capitalism, outsourcing and imperialism."  It does?  Tragically, it does no such thing, but I am happy to assure him that he is right.  If this constitution comes into effect, I warn him, Anglo-Saxon multinational conglomerates will buy all the land and businesses here, and they will use them efficiently to make profits for their shareholders.  "Never!" he spits in disgust.  "Over our dead bodies!"

A TRIP into the beautiful mountains.  In the middle of some stretches of highway there is a yellow line, which means No Overtaking.  On some other stretches, the yellow line has a white stripe on either side, which means Strictly No Overtaking.  And in some extremely winding, narrow sections, there is a red line, which means Definitely No Overtaking.  In places where it would be completely suicidal to overtake - and the resulting mess would block the way for other users - raised dividers in the middle of the road make it impossible.  Between 12.00 and 2.00, there are no police - or emergency services of any sort.  Or banks.  Or shops.  Or anything. 

In the hills, we are attacked by killer sheep, dyed blue. 
Samedi, 28 Mai
Approuvez-vous le projet de loi qui autorise la ratification du traité établissant une Constitution pour l'Europe ?

According to recent opinion polls, my efforts here over the last few days seem to be having the
desired effect, convincing the French that the answer to the question is 'no', eradicating their longstanding delusions about the European Union and bringing them into line with other right-minded peoples…
France    45% yes   55% no
source: CSA, 27 May

Netherlands   36% yes   52% no
source: TNS NIPO, 23 May

UK    2% yes   98% no
source: YouGov, 1 Feb
SEVERAL YOUTHFUL members of the Hemlock family want to watch a movie this evening in the nearest decent-sized city - a place of 70,000 people, plus a constant flow of numerous tourists.  However, the peculiar nature of the French economic lifestyle threatens to disrupt their plan to grab a few pizzas on the way back to the chateau.  The pizza place will be closed by 9.00pm.  Because it's a Saturday.  This is considered perfectly normal.  It would be somehow immoral to expect people to work at a time when everyone else is enjoying their weekend.  Meanwhile, unemployment is over 10 percent, and over 23 percent among the under-25s. 

Strolling around the village, I am soon reminded of another typically French bit of anti-competitive behaviour.  No shop infringes on any other's market.  The grocery store, and only the grocery store, sells soft drinks.  The pharmacy, and only the pharmacy, sells toothpaste.  The
tabac, and only the tabac, sells newspapers.  Any deranged entrepreneur opening a convenience store selling everything at customer-friendly hours would be boycotted by the suppliers' union, fire-bombed and lynched for depriving the idle local merchants of their liberty and rights to make a living.  It would be regarded as normal.

Our caretaker also considers it perfectly normal to have to make two trips to buy a simple component that will rectify a minor plumbing problem in one of the big house's seven bathrooms.  The first trip is to ask and pay for it.  The dealer then orders it from the supplier, who will deliver it to the dealer the next working day - Tuesday in this case, as Sunday, Monday and Wednesday are not working days.  The dealer doesn't carry much stock on the premises in order to keep gargantuan Value Added Tax payments off his books until he gets customers' cash. 

My suggestion that pizza places and plumbers' suppliers do what they would do in Hong Kong - or anywhere else on the planet - and deliver orders is met with howls of mirth.  Despite all the astounding scenery at this time of the year, my lasting memory of this trip will surely be the sight of this pleasant odd-job man rolling on the floor, laughing like a maniac, frothing at the mouth and banging his head against the wall at the idea that anyone in this country would do what the dreaded and evil '?market' wants.