Looking at the hulking presence of New World’s Masterpiece on Google Earth brings back memories of the Minden Avenue/Mody Road/Hanoi Road area in days of yore – the mid-late 1980s. Minden had the vegetarian Indian restaurant Woodlands, known for its decent thali. I think it still exists somewhere. A few doors away was a pub called (perhaps) the Black Crow, or the Raven, or something similar. Dark and dingy. Across the way was a Filipino restaurant offering chop soy (with a bit too much liver) and kalamansi juice for 20 bucks. Hanoi Road had some sort of Swiss-German place with a beer garden and waitresses dressed improbably in dirndls. And then there was… The Ship.
The Ship had another name (the Bell? – and a namesake, or maybe sub-branch, in a basement on Wellington Street, Central, famed for its 1960s jukebox and ceiling graffiti). After pulling on the nautical steering-wheel door handle and coming in from the street around lunchtime, the occasional unwary tourist would look around for a few seconds as his eyes adjusted to the gloom and hurry back to the Black Crow or the German place, having realized they were not the appalling dives they first seemed.
The décor was dark brown with nicotine trim. The ambience was cramped, with seating for only a dozen or so, probably. The furnishings were scratched and chipped black-painted wood with imitation red leather. The proprietor behind the cramped bar was an aging, overweight Brit who would order customers curries from the neighbouring slop-to-go shop through a hatchway in the wall. An ill-looking woman of indeterminate Asian extraction, well past her prime, helped out. Presumably his wife. Up on a shelf near the hatch was a fish tank housing a vile, eel-like creature that spent the whole time sucking the glass. Along from it were some bottles of port with a picture of a cat on the faded labels. The cute face on such down-market product gave the stuff an almost menacing look.
Then, slumped around at safe distances from one another, were the clientele – probably left over from the night before. A horribly made-up mama-san, well beyond retirement age, off-duty from one of the older girlie places in the quiet street up from the Mariner’s Club; a chain-smoking, criminal-looking Indian filling in horse-racing slips; a comatose member of Her Majesty’s armed forces. Cheerless. But cheap.
What would Peter Lok, demon letter-writer to the South China Morning Post, have been doing in those days? He started off in air traffic control in the 1950s and over the years worked his way up until he became Director of Civil Aviation in 1990. So by the time the Ship (I’m now wondering whether it was called the Ship Inn…) was lapsing into terminal sleaze-dementia, he would have been a division head (negotiating air service agreements with other countries, in fact) and then Deputy Director of the whole department.
Having come up through the ranks during colonial times, he must have shined an awful lot of gwailo shoes. He would have taken a lot of snobbish and racist put-downs, and put up with unequal treatment, like housing allowances for whites. Even when he became the first local to be appointed to the top, he must have been aware that he had never really been accepted as ‘one of us’ by senior members of the soon-to-depart regime. Perhaps the consulting work he did with mainland aviation interests after retiring in 1996 made him feel better.
We can reasonably guess that he has a chip on his shoulder from the content of his frequent missives to the paper. He usually airily dismisses criticism of the political status quo with implicit claims of knowing what Beijing really thinks, and clearly takes delight in taunting pro-democrats.
His letter yesterday goes one step further and addresses the statement that Liu Xiaobo was not allowed to deliver to the court that sentenced him to 11 years in prison for proposing through words that China’s government obey its own constitution. (Hilariously, the SCMP puts this statement, of all its content, behind its paywall. There is a copy here: “…a must-read, simultaneously evocative of the gospel of Christ, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the poetry of Yeats,” no less.)
Liu’s pointed comments seem to have unnerved Lok. That’s why he begins by assuring the reader that he approves of their publication. “Now that is freedom of information.” Lok’s logic is: China’s leadership is second to none in the world; calling for it to submit to democratic process is no different from physically subverting it; thus the prison sentence is correct and Liu got what he deserved.
It is a mark of Lok’s letters that he uses arrogance and haughtiness rather than hard facts or reason to support his case. There is something self-indulgent, almost playful, about it; you have to wonder whether he really believes what he is saying or whether it is just a way of irritating people and sorting out some old frustrations. And thus it is here. China’s leadership is looking no less desperate than any other government in the world right now. It is jailing people who fight corruption and injustice. It is probably (look at property prices) misjudging its response to the world’s financial crisis. It is looking inexperienced and clumsy as it throws its new weight around on the world stage. It is petrified of its own people – even the harmless descendents of the Ship’s regulars all those years ago in Kowloon – and we all know that means a government that is not up to the job. The mainland businessmen buying our luxury apartments with hot money must sense it. I am pretty sure Peter Lok knows it too, but he is too busy avenging past slights to admit it.