The tip-tap of Bally Basail pumps upon Victorian tiled floor approaches me from behind as I take a sip of Foreign Correspondents Club bo lei. An elegant black Fendi Borsa Baguette bag descends gracefully onto one of the chairs opposite me, swiftly followed by age-shall-not-whither-her Administrative Officer Winky Ip. She mutters a brief ‘good morning’ and surveys the loose pile of paper strewn before me, each sheet densely covered with columns of handwritten words and phrases.
“What on earth is all this?” she demands, picking up a sample and taking a look.
“It’s a list.” I tell her.
The shapely civil servant starts to read out loud. “Page thirty-one. Skin-whitening product shops. The flag-raising ceremony. Most political parties. The Heung Yee Kuk. Property developers. The Tsang Administration. The Environmental Protection Department. The Planning Department. The Transport Department… I’m sorry but what’s all this about?”
I patiently explain to her that a consensus is emerging among many right-thinking people in Hong Kong about how much valuable space we could free up by moving certain facilities and activities to the Lok Ma Chau Loop. Slightly puzzled, she resumes the list.
“Bonnie Gokson.” She pulls another sheet from the pile at random. “Page fifty-eight. Swarovski Crystal boutiques. Golf courses. The Meritorious Websites Contest. Magazines with Princess Diana on the cover. Dining Concepts Phony Themed Restaurants Inc. Yoho Midtown. Colonic irrigation centres. Lamma.” She looks up at me. “No, not possible – Lamma is 13.5 square kilometers!”
Over congee, she continues to work her way through the directory of horrors. “Page seventy. Greenpeace. Advertisements for eczema cures. Anthony Wu’s ego… You must be joking – it’s Lok Ma Chau, not the black hole in the middle of the Crab Nebula! Let’s see… ear candling emporia. ‘James Tien for Mensa Chairman T-shirts’. The Society for Truth and Light. Sudoku. Bazi Practitioners. Every other 7-Eleven. The civ…” Winky suddenly chokes. But not on a morsel of chicken. “The… the civil servants’ air conditioning allowance,” she eventually spits out, giving me a dirty look.
“I don’t think you’ve thought this through,” she says, tossing the page to one side.
“Well,” I reply, “wouldn’t you like to add a suggestion of your own? There must be some government department you can’t stand, that could do with relocation to the Poisoned Swamp of Death Hub.”
“Certainly not,” she snaps. But then she starts thinking. “Actually there is a statutory body that’s a waste of space. Hardly anyone knows about it, and if they did they’d ask what exactly it does all day. So we basically keep it a secret. It’s the department that finds private-sector jobs for redundant civil servants.”
Right – on the list it goes.