Surfeit of ‘Belt and Road’ hysteria prompts exodus from HK

In the late 1940s, did creepy-looking national leaders spout endless praise for the Marshall Plan? Did international officials line up to regurgitate slogans on the magnificence of the vision? Did oily grovelers repeatedly and obsessively insist that it created innumerable ‘opportunities’ for everyone, everywhere?

No. By many/most accounts, the post-war effort to kick-start West European economies was relatively light on hype, save for what we would now see as some fear-mongering about the Communist threat. By the time of the Korean War in the early 50s, the US stimulus had done its job, and Europe’s economic miracle and 30 glorious years were underway.

The point is: if something is amazingly wonderful and beneficial, you don’t have to go around frantically demanding that other people know and believe it. The constant hard-sell is not convincing. It’s not cool. And it’s amazingly annoying.

And so I begin my two-week Filial Piety Tour, far away (hopefully) from incessant and overbearing Belt and Road blather.

One last task before leaving – hand over keys and sign final papers for the sale of the Soho apartment. The scummy redevelopment parasite purchasers Richfield conclude the deal by putting a tatty seal over the door. I would like to say that after 25 years, I leave the neighbourhood in better shape than I found it, but it has been (and still is) a textbook example of gentrification, and more lately touristification. As the few, mainly elderly, holdouts in my old building have gleefully noticed, the more phony and plastic and nouveau-trashy the area gets, the more the redevelopers pay to get you to move.

The big irony is that once the crappification process is complete, the locality becomes featureless. And at the same time, the Central Business District – whose proximity is the driving force behind the uplift in real-estate values – is also becoming hollowed out in terms of charm (or something).

More and more grey, stone-faced, indistinguishable Mainland mega-companies are buying and renting vast amounts of downtown office space, in which to conduct their indecipherable and unknowable Mandarin-speaking, simplified-character (maybe disreputable-character) commercial activities. And the hip and groovy foreign firms are transplanting their bright, fun-filled trendiness and jollity over to Quarry Bay. All that money, effort and time – just to create an expanse of soullessness.

The next two weeks or so will take place on the Twitter thing, if at all.

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101 Uses for a Dead Cruise Terminal

It is just over three years since I last made an Inspection Tour of the Kai Tak Themed Cruise Mega-Hub Terminal. It can’t be any more deserted today than it was then – apparently it hosts the occasional wedding banquet. But a recent Audit Commission report damned it, and everyone knows it’s just another white elephant.

What could you do with all that space? In 2014, I suggested people use it for then-trendy-fad ‘parkour’, a Homeless Squat Concept Zone, and – rather presciently – raves. You could easily fit half a dozen Hidden Agenda-type clubs into just one corner of the complex, being designed for thousands of oh-so precious tourists, the structure must meet all the fire-safety codes.

You could convert part of it into elderly homes, and another part (a decent distance away) could house thousands of columbarium niches. That would still leave room for artists’ studios, shelters for victims of spousal abuse, student dorms, half-way houses, and other facilities people don’t want in their neighbourhood. You could even have sanctuary kennels for the dog-worshipers to put their rescued hounds. Throw in some cheapo food courts and an outdoor market and the place would be buzzing.

The greatest irony: tourists would love it.

I declare the weekend open with some book news. Aging gwailos’ memoirs of our city are probably best avoided – but this looks like an exception: Syd Goldsmith’s Hong Kong on the Brink, about the (topical) 1967 riots. At least, the interview with the author was the first entire podcast I’ve sat through for months.

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Thought for the Day

However much of a sad, desperate and inadequate loser you might be, there is always someone worse off than you…

The really cosmic thing – this was spotted just near a place called Horse Shit Island.

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In a rush…

…with things to do as the days tick away until the Grand 2017 Filial Piety Tour of Appalachia and the West of England begins. It will include a once/twice-a-decade gathering of clan members from exceptionally far-flung parts of the English-speaking world like Melbourne and Maine.

Aside from family ties and linguistic heritage, it appears that we will all be able to rejoice in our shared access to cheap Starbucks. According to a big chart here, the world’s six main native-Anglophone countries happen to occupy the bottom six places in the list of Starbucks markets ranked by cost of the product…

The Netherlands – Europe’s honorary quasi-Anglo country – comes seventh from last, preceded by Japan (supposedly hyper-expensive, but also always weird) and Brazil (the place there’s an awful lot of coffee in).

Why do English-speaking countries have the cheapest Starbucks? Is this liberty-loving Anglo-Saxon free-market, low-tax philosophy in action? Or economies of scale owing to poor-taste, junk-food-addicted Anglos’ willingness to drink dregs, while civilized and sophisticated French, Austrians, Italians consume the decent pricey stuff?

In (unmentioned) Hong Kong, meanwhile…

Well wouldn’t you?

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Hong Kong’s cultural highlight: high rents

Yesterday’s South China Morning Post gave a big splash to a tycoon who runs a failing company with an outdated business model, saying Hong Kong’s next Chief Executive must put the city on the global map. (It was yet more One Belt One Road blather, bringing a swift and near-blasphemous riposte from Jake Van Der Kamp.)

Anyway, within hours Hong Kong was indeed on the global map of the cool, hip and trendy, after authorities busted underground night spot Hidden Agenda and some extremely groovy and with-it bands for immigration and other alleged infractions.

One is British band This Town Needs Guns. In recent years they have styled themselves TTNG, but the original full name is better and perhaps even aptly suggestive on this particular occasion. If you listen to the first half-minute of this you can make up your own mind. (Quiz question: what time signature is the song in?)

Officially, Hong Kong’s government supports the arts, culture, entertainment and creative industries. However, it does so on the understanding that they are important possible contributors to GDP, rather than having any other purpose in human existence. This means they need bureaucratic involvement, and this means big plans and budgets, which is why our major museum and performance-venues hub at West Kowloon is a real-estate project, largely devised as a tourism concept, and somehow unviable without luxury apartments.

As well as being a trough for the construction-developer interests, ‘culture’ accounts for a range of slots in the vast spectrum of Various Sectors, co-opted via public handouts and corporate Functional Constituency votes to be loyal to the Hong Kong government appointed by Beijing. Not only predictably ‘patriotic’ art forms like Chinese opera, but supposedly ‘edgy’ cultural groups and events subsist on public grants and venues, and are suitably grateful and not-too-controversial as a result.

So to official establishment Hong Kong, culture is about enriching our landlords rather than our lives. To the extent that it is something people do for themselves by way of self-expression or enjoyment, it is irrelevant. Unless, of course, they start making money.

Hidden Agenda’s crime is operating in an ‘industrial’ building. Ostensibly, the problem may be building safety-as-obstacle-to-work-visas, or a broader breach of zoning/premises-use rules. But these are excuses – other civilized cities manage to find affordable space in accordance with fire codes for gigs.

The real issue here is that Hidden Agenda aren’t paying the property tycoons any (or enough) rent for their venue. They’re not even supporting the landlords indirectly by attracting tourists.

This isn’t just about gigs but any economic activity that needs affordable space. Government lease conditions (which can be changed only through payment of an unaffordable ‘premium’) create an artificial shortage of usable premises, meaning a startup or entrepreneur must rent from a narrower choice of premises/landlords. And then the government wonders why we don’t have more entrepreneurs, startups, diverse businesses, etc.

Next Chief Executive Carrie Lam actually proposes a slight concession: allowing certain startups to operate legally in a small number of floors in ‘industrial’ buildings. It is a tacit admission that the government, through its zealous control over building-use, harms the economy and reduces local people’s opportunities – but benefits the property tycoons.

As if they knew this would happen, TTNG has called their new album Disappointment Island.

 

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Hong Kong’s other anniversary

If the touchy-feely PR spin-doctor geniuses at the Hong Kong United Front propaganda department know what’s best, they’ll nip this in the bud – veteran leftists demand exoneration for 1967 bomb-makers.

When we are just about to joyously celebrate the 20th anniversary of the handover from the UK to China, the last thing the Hong Kong government needs is the 50th anniversary of the 1967 riots to butt in. To refresh memories: pro-Beijing forces attempted to overthrow the colonial regime through violence, including the killing of innocent people, and the masses refused to join in (or ‘remained loyal to the British’ in the romanticized version). We don’t want to go there right now.

In the New York Times, Ching Cheong discusses the events, starting with the labour dispute that triggered the conflict…

Participants at yesterday’s gathering tried to distinguish between their ‘just’ cause – a struggle against labour exploitation and harsh social conditions – and contemporary Hong Kong’s anti-government protests. The circumstances are so different that any comparison is pointless. But so is it pointless for aging Communist loyalists to argue that it was OK for them to set off bombs, but not OK for the Umbrella Movement to set up barricades. Certainly, the Hong Kong establishment does not want a public debate on that right now.

However, there are bigger reasons to sweep 1967 under the carpet. Hong Kong workers in the mid-60s had legitimate, compelling reasons to fight for better conditions. But activists with Mainland connections were sucked into Mao’s Cultural Revolution insanity. In essence, they started setting off lethal bombs in Hong Kong for fear that Red Guard fanatics across the border would denounce them – maybe kill them – for not doing so.

For decades after, they were outcasts in Hong Kong and felt themselves to be victims. A consolatory post-handover medal to one of their leading figures met with public disgust. So is mid-2017 the right time to start trying to rehabilitate these old guys, and dig up Mao’s bloodthirsty lunacy and other Communist Party dirty laundry in the process? Probably not.

But wait! There’s more!

Ching Cheong goes on…

Do any of these things sound familiar? Government policies exacerbating gap between rich and poor? Check. Greater pressure on poor due to influx of Mainlanders? Check. Ideological clampdown by power-hungry dictator in Beijing? Check.

A Communist historical revisionist treatment of the 1967 riots? Not today, thanks.

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Asking nicely for warnings about rule-of-law-shredding

Any more polite and it would be wanton groveling. Hong Kong’s Law Society respectfully asks the Chinese government to take a more consultative approach when the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress is going to discusses an ‘interpretation’ of the Basic Law. The lawyers say the current procedure can seem ‘rushed’.

Training and instinct require lawyers to use bland and moderate language as a matter of course. And presumably the Law Society includes some openly ‘patriotic’ members who would want a joint statement to Beijing to be suitably courteous. But this deferential tone also typifies what Christine Loh once called the ‘pre-emptive cringe’ – the perceived need to flagrantly kowtow to the Almighty Panda in order to assure it of your ‘sincerity’. (And increasingly worldwide, to avoid hurting its precious feelings. Australia is the latest victim of gratuitous Panda-worship, hurriedly bowing to Mainland conference delegates’ tantrums over Taiwanese.)

In plain non-obsequious English, an ‘interpretation’ of the Basic Law is actually an amendment, usually a detailed expansion. It is not based on such legal niceties as framers’ original intent, but is purely a quick rule-of-man fix, to plug what the Communist regime sees as an unacceptable loophole in the wording. Although formally delivered by the Standing Committee of the NPC, it is decided by the same one-party state structure as everything else in Chinese government.

To put it more bluntly, a Basic Law ‘interpretation’ is simply a re-writing of the law to reverse or pre-empt a local court ruling Beijing doesn’t like. It is so crude an expedient to override Hong Kong’s rule of law to ensure that the dictatorship has full control, that Beijing has so far used it relatively sparingly. Still, in the spirit of creeping Mainlandization, when it was last used, to bar localist lawmakers last year, it tossed local legal process aside with unprecedented contempt.

Because of the possibility of ‘interpretation’, none of us can truly be sure what any part of the Basic Law really means – because Beijing can change the meaning on a whim. While the words of the Basic Law seem to protect our individual liberty, property rights and other freedoms, Beijing can decree that the words mean anything else it chooses.

It is a panic button the Communist system can use without warning to cut off rule of law and judicial independence in the city. The Law Society is asking: ‘Could you please think about giving us a bit of warning when you do this, so maybe we can discuss it down here’.

I declare the weekend open with a coffee – freshly arrived in a big bag from a Djibouti connection. Aficionados of Mainland ‘fake Starbucks’ logos will be overjoyed to see the art form has spread to Ethiopia. A cup of ‘Dreadbucks’…

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Meanwhile, any chance of a THAAD system?

In the foothills of northern Hong Kong Island, herds of Korean tourists are making their seasonal migration. The older ones move in large mixed packs, closely tailing their leaders; the younger ones, mostly female, sport bright lipstick and selfie-sticks, and travel in pairs.

If their numbers seem massive, it is partly because they are. But it is also because these visitors concentrate themselves into specific spots along specific routes. Only a few ever stray more than a street away from the designated track, and those who do look clueless and vulnerable, maybe even fearful, as they consult their guidebooks.

More than most incurious, unadventurous, non-exploring modern tourists, the Koreans seem to follow exact compulsory instructions on where to go, down the exact square foot of sidewalk. The classic example is the Tai Cheong Bakery, venerable purveyor of authentic ancient traditional hand-crafted secret-recipe custard tarts (stock code 573). The Koreans do not seem to mind (or notice?) that all the other customers dutifully standing in line outside are their fellow-countrymen…

The next item on the list: Place You Must Have Your Photograph Taken, Number 7 – a nondescript mural on a narrow street rising from Hollywood Road. Because every Korean must come here, it gets crowded…

While waiting for a space in this required selfie-taking location, a few Koreans are squeezed out into nearby lanes…

Nothing against the Land of Morning Calm, whose people also suffer (usually) from over-tourism. But two things are apparent. First, obviously they don’t have murals in Seoul, so even the rather feeble ones in Hong Kong are a magnet. Second, the imitation-trendy-hipsters who paint pseudy pictures on Soho’s walls don’t realize that they have found a way to entice Koreans, in the way (say) pots of honey would attract bears.

Business opportunity: Tai Cheong Bakery and local quasi-hipster muralists launch a joint venture, relocate to Korea, make millions, and provide widespread relief to the rest of us.

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Beijing still miffed, mystified at lack of love

Beijing sent the boys round to show Hong Kong some muscle over the last week. They barged in, kicked some furniture over, muttered threats about bad things that happen to those who don’t cooperate – and performed an unconvincing ‘nice-guy’ routine.

Official Wang Zhenmin told Hong Kong to forget about political reform for the next five or 10 years. He maintained that the 1997 handover was part of a revival of the Chinese race, and Hong Kong should respect and admire the Communist system when instead, he observed (getting rather miffed), they insult it more than anyone else in the world. He also warned that Beijing would scrap the ‘One Country Two Systems’ principle intended to insulate Hong Kong from Mainland Leninist malevolence if the city didn’t eagerly start submitting to Mainland Leninist malevolence.

Meanwhile, ‘expert’ Rao Geping advised that the Chinese government would intervene if the local political situation deteriorated like it does when the Chinese government intervenes. Wang then tried to reassure everyone that the Communist regime wasn’t trying to Mainlandize Hong Kong or anything.

Ronnie Tong, a former pro-democrat politician now trying to be friendly and constructive with Beijing, wrung his hands and wondered if we can’t all try to understand each other more. The problem is that Communist dictatorships don’t do ‘understanding’, and Hong Kong’s pluralistic people know that all too well.

Allen Lee, former pro-Beijing politician, is exasperated that Wang Zhenmin presumes to tell Hong Kong how and when it can address political reform. Less squeamish than most critics, Lee adds that post-1997 Mainland immigration levels have undermined the ‘One Country Two Systems’ idea from the start. (Like the swamping of Hong Kong with mass-market tourists, the inflow of low-skilled migrants is the crudest form of Mainlandization – but few dare to say it.)

The immediate cause of Beijing’s hyper-freaking-out locally over the last few years has been the rise of a Hong Kong independence movement. Or, to put it another way, the immediate cause of the ‘independence movement’ has been Beijing’s hyper-freaking-out.

There are several possible reasons why Chinese officials and local loyalists have built up this false threat. One is that they are paranoid and stupid. Another is that it is to do with bureaucratic rivalry or factional infighting. A third is that the campaign is supposed to send a message to someone (though mere mortals cannot discern what or who). What is clear is that the extreme reaction to the previously barely existent and essentially absurd concept of Hong Kong-nationhood is unsettling to many innocent bystanders, like investors, not to say the international media and public opinion. The rantings of Wang and Rao are part of this strange, apparently counter-productive, pattern.

Anyway – here comes the funny part. Someone in Beijing’s hierarchy has noticed that the Communist Party’s Special Exclusive Patent ‘mouth-frothing, ranting, insult-spitting, intimidation, with pat-on-head for shoe-shining tycoons’ Formula for Inspiring Love and Adoration® has not worked in Taiwan, especially among the young. Maybe they will notice that it didn’t work in Hong Kong either. We look forward to seeing their new approach.

 

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‘Might have to walk’ disaster looms

Hong Kong officials are worried that the city’s Central district is insufficiently crowded. Its tourism board has launched a campaign to cram yet more selfie-stick-waving transient-zombies onto the area’s narrow sidewalks on walking routes around what it calls ‘Old Town’ (because the equally inappropriate ‘Colonial Heritage’ sounds kind of icky). And planners want to redevelop the old Murray Road Multi-Storey Car Park into another gleaming high-rise office tower.

At this point, the bureaucrats’ mission to deplete the business core of any remaining space, light or oxygen runs into a contradiction. In order to pack more humans into offices in the district, they must ease off on jamming cars into parking garages.

Instant mouth-frothing ensues from millions of innocent people who will not have an easily accessible place in the middle of the world’s most expensive real estate to leave their Mercedes and Alphards…

How can we help these poor people? Some initial ideas…

  • Ban all public buses and trams from a five-mile radius of Central, freeing up road space suitable for accommodating parked private cars
  • Remove train services from MTR lines, and construct ramps connecting roads to the underground tunnels, which can be used for accommodating the precious parked private cars
  • Require pedestrians to move around the area above ground level, via rope-bridges connecting the office-tower rooftops, thus freeing up sidewalks for the very important private car owners to park their important cars on
  • Deploy newly imported female Cambodian migrant workers to push inconvenienced car owners around the district on special air-conditioned carts with plush upholstering and complimentary iced tea

I declare the long-weekend-with-extra-Buddha’s-birthday-bonus open, confident that the city’s collective geniuses can find other innovative ways to solve the plight of our cruelly treated car owners.

 

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