Update from Hemlock

The mood on the Mid-Levels Escalator this morning is one of balmy indifference to just about everything. It is 7.45, and not one, not two, but all three 7-Elevens between Soho and Queens Road have still not had the South China Morning Post delivered. But life goes on. The building on the corner between the ‘Ivan the Cossack’ Russian restaurant and Lyndhurst Terrace – home of the old Flow second-hand bookstore – has been evacuated and is soon to come down, to be replaced no doubt by an oversize monster tower of chrome and glass, housing shops selling perfumed candles, hand-crafted luxury stationery or perverted swimwear like the one a few doors up. There is nothing anyone can do.

And for how much longer will Yuet Yuen Restaurant, purveyor of fine congee to the neighbourhood gentry for countless decades, hold out? It is virtually the last family owned eatery – or retailer of any description – for miles around. In the corner, I find delectable Administrative Officer Winky Ip setting her Blackberry alongside her noodles on the Formica tabletop and scrolling through her messages. “Oh God,” she mutters. “It’s that time of the year again. The annual meeting with the Nigels and Brians.”

Seeing that I have no interest in knowing about it, she carefully explains. “They’re a bunch of men – Westerners, mostly. British, I suppose. They’re… How can I put it? They’re very pleasant, polite, well-spoken, clean. And just incredibly dull.”

“Let me guess.” I reply. “They’re on expatriate contracts, have mousy wives from back home whose parents were shopkeepers. Two kids doing averagely at an international school. They golf.”

“God – you know them!”

“No, no, it’s a type. They’re usually engineers with the MTR, airline pilots, actuaries – precise, unwittingly pedantic, devoid of creativity. And, yes, boring. Why are you meeting them?”

Winky tells me how every year this group of perpetual 12-year-olds insists on putting forward a proposal for a Formula One race track in Hong Kong. And every year, she says, the civil servants thank them and say they will think about it.

“Wrong response!” I tell her. “What you do is this. You get the runty one with a mustache – there is one like that, right?”

“Um, yes.”

“There always is. You point at him and ask ‘how big is the apartment you live in?’ Then, when he says ‘Over a thousand square feet’ you tell him that the average family in Hong Kong lives in just 450 square feet, and when he moves his wife and kids into a place that small, and if he still thinks a huge race track is a neat use of space, he should come back and see you.”

“But I live in a thousand square foot,” she says.

“Yes, but you’re not asking for a Formula One race track.”

Oh, right, I see.”

Are our civil servants getting more and more dense by the day?

It seems supplies of the SCMP won’t start dribbling through into this part of Central until later in the day (like in Shanghai, where it gets delivered at 4pm, except they don’t cut bits out here). So I flick through the Standard, and to my delight I behold a glimmer of hope. A little gleaming chance that the Hong Kong we all know and love lives on.

A teenager died last year – or tragically died, as everyone does these days – after throwing himself from the sixth floor of his high school. At the inquest now underway the distraught mother, who blames the school, expressed her grief and anguish with unforgettable, heartbreaking passion: “My son was 17 when he died. He would have been eligible for the HK$6,000 cash handout [by the government] had he lived.” Who would want to be anywhere else?

I declare the weekend open.


From the Asia Weekly supplement in today's China Daily


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16 Responses to Update from Hemlock

  1. Bernie says:

    The Nigels and Brians are a pretty soft target but the rest of today’s installment is brilliant. A few days ago China Daily seemed to be suggesting that Westerners lack family values because they don’t “pay back” their parents once they become wage-earning adults. A nice counterpoint presented here.

  2. Joe Blow says:

    The Nigels and Brians (and Collins and Chris’s) are so real. In the old days at the KCC you would fall over them and their perms-set-in-concrete wives.

    But their numbers are dwindling, aren’t they ?

  3. Old Timer says:

    Am I the only one unable to bring himself to actually apply for this handout? I find the whole exercise profoundly distasteful.

  4. Maugrim says:

    That section of HK around SoHo amazes me. From the pub that is now a 7/11 there is a market, a refuse dump and then a street of French restaurants staffed by ex-chefs from the Mandarin et al selling $700 main courses.

  5. PCC says:


    Just give me your ID number; I’ll collect it for you.

  6. Big Al says:

    The reference to the $6,000 handout in the sub-Standard article also caught my eye. Question: (i) is the mother so callous and greedy that she cares more about getting a $6,000 handout than the death of her son, or (ii) is she an example of the many people for whom $6,000 is such a fortune such that it eclipses the death of a child. For the sake of Hong Kong, I’d hope it is (i) but it probably is (ii), much to our shame. Perhaps Old Timer should apply on behalf of the dead child if he has no need for the cash himself?

    I remember when the handout was first announced – some smug banker-type said he’d spend it one evening in LKF; a bimbo said she’d spend it on jewellry (probably of the Hello Kitty or Disney type – wah, ho cute, ma); and an old biddy said that was more than she earned in a year. Again, much to our shame in such a wealthy society …

  7. Stephen says:

    With the clouds of doom hanging over the world economy and the prospect of The Horseman as the next CE I’m applying for the handout.

    And is the Horseman really suggesting the quite odious Stephen Lam becomes the next Chief Secretary ?

    Think I may have to retire and move to Sai Kung where a fair number of Brians, Nigels and Lisboa Corners reside.

  8. Old Timer says:

    I didn’t say I had no need for it.

  9. Aardvark says:

    ‘Solidarity in society and Kinship with Government ‘ make Chinese people least depressed in the world.

    This is breathtaking. I don’t think I’ve ever read a phrase that contains more untruths, in such concise form. I congratulate the writer. Fabulous stuff.

    1. Solidarity in Chines society: Not true
    2. Kinship with Chinese Government: Not true
    3. Chines people least depressed in world: Evidently not true, spend a day walking around this place, or any mainland city.
    4. Solidarity in society help reduce rates of depression: Not true.
    5. Kinship with government helps reduce rates of depression: Not true.

    This is award winning. It is, truly, the most untrue phrase I have ever read.

  10. Aardvark says:

    Apologies for errors in spelling and grammar. Was rushing things. Is there no edit function? Very annoying.

  11. Iffy says:

    Aardvark: Beijing’s propaganda department hasn’t quite come to grips with the idea of subtlety, evidenced inter alia by the fact that it still publicly calls itself the propaganda department. Orwell would choke on his bacon sandwich if he could see how grievously he overestimated the successors to the totalitarians of his time.

  12. PropertyDeveloper says:

    Shame about the Flow bookshop, undoubtedly the best in the territory.

    Minorities, by the nature of society, are encouraged to keep a low profile: they, or their children, tend to either melt completely into the pot, or to curtail their ambitions to mid-level jobs, unable as they are to aspire to the peak.

  13. oddsox says:

    What’s a, or who is, Lisboa Corners, even in archetype?

  14. Pete says:

    Flow is back in operation, just up the steps on Hollywood Road. Shame about its old location though, that was a solid old building with large windows.

  15. Stephen says:


    You are in luck for Nigel and Brian favourite event is in November and you will find them in Macao at …

  16. Jonesboro says:

    Where is this Yuet Yuen place? Sounds like somewhere I need to visit…

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