The mood on the Mid-Levels Escalator this morning is one of unbridled inquisitiveness as Hong Kong’s disfranchised and neglected middle class try to get to the bottom of the ultimate government whitewash: the painting-over of the stripped pine in the Central Market hanging-gardens corridor. No sooner has the emulsion dried than certain insightful predictions are proved correct, and the job is revealed to be an undercoat with a view to further aesthetic enhancement of the locale.
The work is at an early stage, but there is sufficient outline to see what is happening, and it is not going to be pretty. Heaven knows it is scary enough when our civil servants attempt to be creative. But when they gather in their committees to choose successful applicants among Hong Kong graphic designers vying to demonstrate their artistic imaginations in public, the results can be bloodcurdling. My neighbours and I stand in awe of what is grimly forming.
“That’s so revolting it makes me think they would have been better off knocking the place down and selling it to the property developers to build another mega-tower,” says Mr Chan the asset manager.
Maybe, I suggest, that’s the whole idea. Fortunately, I have a breakfast assignation with sharp and shapely Administrative Officer Winky Ip ahead of me, and I will discover the truth.
The splendorous bureaucrat is stirring her congee as I sit down opposite her in the elegant Formica confines of Yuet Yuen restaurant. When I show her the pictures of the unfolding artistry she is defensive.
“Let’s get this straight,” I tell her. “Exhibit A. You paint over natural wood surrounded by genuine potted plants. Then you ask someone to come along and paint really bad-looking, um, plants over it.”
Winky looks at me suspiciously. “Correct.”
“OK,” I continue. “And then we have this thing here. Exhibit B. A sunset, maybe a bit Van Gogh or a bit pointillist, over a…”
Winky examines my photo. “That’s a cornfield.”
“OK, a sunset over a cornfield.” I look at it myself for a few seconds. “Can you tell me how the sun has come to be reflected in the amber waves of grain?”
“It’s the ocean,” she snaps back. “I was thinking of something else.”
“What kind of an ocean is it that clearly has some sort of vegetation growing on it?”
“It’s the Sargasso Sea. That’s seaweed.”
I personally find such slippery evasiveness rather fetching in female officials, but not everyone shares this taste, and I remind Winky that Hong Kong’s residents expect greater transparency these days. Come clean, I urge her. What’s really happening here?
As we sip tea and prepare to head off to our respective offices, she admits that there is an agenda at work. She produces a story in today’s South China Morning Post: ‘Beijing to build world’s slowest maglev’…
“Tell you what,” I say, “if you give me enough funding, I bet I could build an even slower one.”
“No no,” Winky assures me. “That would be me-too-ism. We’d get criticized for that. But we have to do something to put Hong Kong on the map and make sure we don’t get left behind by the mainland. So this is it.” She points to the pictures of Central Market. “We’re going to have the world’s most unnecessary, ugliest and stupidest urban indoor mural! The decision was made at the very top! Who’s going to be able to beat that?”