Back to the usual routine, and I need to catch up with the big wide world out there. First, I find myself joining in the agonizing over the election system for the Legislative Council’s expanded District Council functional constituency. Some say the five new representatives should each come from one of the existing geographical constituencies; some say first-past-the-post; some – especially the government and its friends – have a hankering for a city-wide, at-large proportional representation system. On the radio this morning, an academic intoned that the latter model would allow smaller parties to participate. This is not true: smaller parties could participate under any other system; they would just have a lower chance of success. Our officials’ agenda is simply to discreetly minimize the number of pan-democrats winning seats – as if the opposition aren’t perfectly capable of doing that for themselves.
The other big issue is the minimum wage. Should it be HK$23 an hour or HK$33? To put this in perspective, let’s remind ourselves that no self-respecting Filipino elf will pick up a bachelor’s iron for less than HK$40 an hour, assuming she can help herself to refrigerator contents and use the washing machine for her own commercial purposes – otherwise it’s HK$50. Labour Secretary Matthew Cheung offers a clue when he says that the statutory pay floor is not intended to be a living wage. A social worker writing in the South China Morning Post recently calculated a living wage to be HK$32.6 an hour. So 27 bucks it is, presumably. Picky types wondering how people are supposed to survive on pay that is below a living wage should bear in mind that the beneficiaries here will be fast food, cleansing and security staff currently on HK$22 or so. Clearly, they manage somehow. Cheung’s point, if I read it correctly, is that rates of such evils as scurvy will drop as (to paraphrase him) we strike a balance between a righteous society and… whatever.
The Economist, like many rigorous and crunchy thinkers among us, mourns the end of laissez-faire a la Big Lychee. A few lost souls gripped by libertarian mental straitjackets rage against the minimum wage as if it were the perpetrator of this terrible crime – the killing of Milton Friedman’s great experiment. But the more level-headed see it as an effect rather than a cause; somewhere along the way, government action or inaction led our economic system to become so lopsided, so rigged in favour of landed and bureaucratic interests and against everyone else, that further intervention, planning and micro-management is now the only alternative to riots. The question is: who is to blame? We had a confident, self-reliant city in the 1990s; now it’s self-pitying and afraid of Third World losers like Shanghai. That didn’t happen by accident. Who do we string up?
What catches my eye, obviously, is the lamb. Assuming the adorable little bundle of woolly cuteness is not a fairly realistic stuffed toy (it is always hard to tell with lambs) or added to the bikini-clad model by PhotoShop… What was the creature thinking? Where did the ad agency get it? Did they (as I think they did) drug it to keep it smiling and thus sending out a positive subliminal message about the product? What did they do with it afterwards? So many questions.
Then, as I step back, I notice the usual row of government banners tied to the railings along the overhead walkway. This is an educated, well-heeled and sophisticated part of town, so the powers that be usually spare us the more distasteful propaganda urging passers-by to wash behind their ears, ‘Be Smart, Be Free – Say No to Drugs’, and not to touch live poultry. We get warnings not to drink and drive, notices of European pianists’ forthcoming City Hall performances and blurb about the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Biennale or East Asian Games. We also get Tourism Board posters imploring us, or someone, to visit Hong Kong or pushing some fake tradition (as the current one for the HK Dragon Boat Carnival in Tsimshatsui).
But there is something odd about one of these banners. It is publicizing the Lan Kwai Fong Beer Festival, a disagreeable annual event in which amateur imbibers stroll around with phony (plastic, foot-long) yards of ale sold at high prices from flimsy looking stalls at the side of the bar district’s streets. It is organized by the Lan Kwai Fong Association, whose Chairman is Allan Zeman, billionaire landlord of much of the LKF neighbourhood. While the LKFA is non-profit, the Beer Festival is as commercially-driven as anything Bella Scat-Q Skin Rejuvenation does. The money raised from selling overpriced beer flows, via corporate-owned, plastic-themed ‘concept’ bars, into landlords’ pockets. Yet by pretending to be a fab fun tourist attraction it gets a (presumably free) spot in the resolutely public-sector banner-hanging location that is the Mid-Levels Escalator.
Perhaps the government department in charge of allocating display space on public walkways knew that some cruel jester recently super-glued Zeman by the lips to legislator Regina Ip’s face, took pity and decided to send a few more tourist dollars in the entrepreneur’s direction to help cheer him up. Which surely it did.