Update from Hemlock

On the top floor of S-Meg Tower, in the throbbing central business district of Asia’s leading international financial hub, the morning begins in the Company Gwailo’s lair with a slow sip of oolong and a relaxing moment admiring the majestic scene beyond the window, where the Hong Kong sun is piercing the swirling suspended particulates and bathing the harbour in a vibrant nitrous oxide-orange.

Down below in the street, millions of anxious citizens excitedly chatter about the riveting events going on around them. Legislators support higher pay for legislators, some tell one another, swooning in shock at the very idea. Others rush to be the first in line on hearing that technically not-yet-elected Chief Executive-elect Henry Tang vows to release a ‘written version of things said on various occasions’. Up here, in the headquarters of this dynamic conglomerate, all is calm.

Then, a kerfuffle at the door. Speaking of junior tycoons… Ms Fang the Hunter-Killer Secretary leads Number-One Son in by the hand and, with a look of disdain, silently abandons him before my desk. Our visionary Chairman and Chief Executive’s offspring, officially a senior manager in his own right, is clutching some papers. After the usual stuttering and blinking, he blurts out something about an appraisal form that was due back with the Civil Service Bureau yesterday.


The Big Boss, as a fully paid-up Friend of Donald all these years, had no hesitation in agreeing when the government’s Office for the Grooming of Future Toadies invited his heir to join the ranks of cronies appointed to the myriad public bodies that so expertly convey the mood of the people to Hong Kong’s leaders. With his goofy grin, staring eyes and compulsive nodding, the scion of the S-Meg empire makes a perfect companion to the Bunny Chans, the tame academics, the Bronze Bauhinia Star-gazers and the token and pliable ethnic minorities flattered to become fourth-class, useful-idiot ‘insiders’.

After a narrow brush with the Agricultural Products Scholarship Fund Advisory Committee (and you are wrong – it does exist), he is now sitting on the Tourism Commission’s Visitor Development Projects Review Board. Under the watchful eye of some Mother Hen civil servant and underlings, he and his fellow-members see glowing reports on mad schemes to increase the swarms of grasshopper-like tourists passing through our fair city. The way it works is simple. Bureaucrats use their creativity and imagination to devise the Avenue of Stars Firework and Noodles Promotional Fun Day, the parades of singing kids dressed as pandas, the adorable Jackie Chan videos and the Authentic Themed Old Hong Kong Shopping Experience where they tore down the street market. Then bureaucrats write wondrous descriptions of how these events are each attracting an extra 10 million visitors a year. The Board reads through the executive summaries and votes its unanimous approval that taxpayers’ money is being exquisitely used and the bureaucrats are geniuses.

It has nothing to do with me. Or so I thought.

Number-One Son waves the appraisal form at me. “It… it’s about the woman who runs – I mean assists – the Board,” he announces. “I… I have to fill in boxes with letters. ’A’ for ‘More than meets requirements’ down to ‘E’ for ‘Falls short of requirements’.” He blinks some more, while waiting to be told what to do.

I sigh. “OK, so you just fill in every box with an ‘E’,” I tell him. “Well, put a ‘D’ in every so often. Simple enough.”

The boy blinks some more. “But… but I have to write statements in some boxes. About her.” He stands with his mouth slightly open, presumably in disbelief – indeed, blind terror – at the enormity of the intellectual challenge facing him. “Miss Ip,” he adds.

He suddenly has at least a shred of my attention.

“Not, um, Winky Ip, by any chance?” He nods.



“Tell you what,” I reply in my most conciliatory tone, “leave this with me. I’ll fill it in and get Ms Fang to send it off. You have to be very careful what you write on this. It could, um, have repercussions for her career.” 

Click to hear ‘Government Center’ by Jonathan Richman!

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10 Responses to Update from Hemlock

  1. Rinky Dinky says:

    Reasonably amusing. B minus.

  2. Real Tax Payer says:

    Nice job you have there Hemmers : just hovering on the edge of the bureaucratic maelstrom , able to look in an laugh at their antics but not close enough to get sucked down into it

    Tell you what : I don’t envy their astronomic salaries . They would have to pay me 10x what they get to work in such a in-cess-tuous pool of sh1t

    ….. for just one day

  3. Sir Crispin says:

    “Bureaucrats use their creativity and imagination…” There is a phrase that has never before–and likely never again–been uttered.

  4. maugrim says:

    Come on Rinky, it was hillarious and truer than you might ever imagine about a lot of things.

  5. Probably says:

    Rating civil servants is like holding a “special” Olympics – just like holding an egg and spoon race for those kids at school who were never going to make the 100m, evaluating the performance of dullards who wouldn’t have a chance in the real world is fairly arbitrary and makes no difference except perchance to upset the individual in question.

    I trust she didn’t spurn your amorous advances to deserve such an assessment?

  6. Big Al says:

    I have a friend who is an ex-Civil Servant – as Sir Winston said, no longer civil, no longer servants …

    Anyway, when it came time for annual appraisals in his department, his underling provided him with assessments of his team. All had scored an A. My friend queried this and his underling told him that all the team were execllent. My friend replied “So, what you’re telling me is that no-one deserves a promotion more than anyone else? Go away and do it again”. The underling duly reported back with re-assessments of his team. All still scored an A. However, the underling pointed out that some of the As were positioned in the left of the scoren column, some in the middle and some on the right, which could be interpreted as A, B and C!

    I shit you not. This is how it works in government. They all get As all the time, every time, for everything. And don’t get me started on the various Civil Service Awards that they give themselves every verse end …

  7. Real Tax Payer says:

    May I quote Scott Adams from ” The Dilbert Principle” ?

    Dilbert’s theory of evolution :

    ” First there were some amoeba . Some deviant amoeba became monkeys. Then came the HK govt . OK… I am missing out a few steps but you get my meaning ”

    Survival of the fittest does not necessarily mean survival of the cleverest. That’s why even half-intelligent bureaucrats never get to the top , because in the land of the blind a one -eyed man is king

    ( * The original as per Scott Adams had “Total Quality Management” at this point. Not sure which is the most absurd – the HK govt or TQM. It’s a moot point)

    PS : did you read all that stuff today in the SCMP about these country park leases issued in the 1980’s for $24 per hectare or whatever? Because of some squabbling about boundaries between two such tycoon-esses the whole mis managed practice has come to light. And slap in the middle is the paragon of collusionist govt , yes … it’s the good ‘ole LANDS DEPT ! Yeah !
    Another victory for favoritism over decency and common sense

  8. Resigned says:

    Coincidentally, I am doing performance reviews today and just had to explain to a middle manager why not everyone could get the top available rating.

    At least in the private sector there is cost pressure preventing this kind of mutual admiration from sending wages through the roof.

    Or maybe government types really are worth double what they’re earning (for contributing in ways other than turning up or being innovative).

    Big Al’s story brings to mind The Incredibles: “When everyone is special … no one is.”

  9. Probably says:

    I don’t know about HK but certainly in the UK Big Al’s story is true as I know by personal acquaintances in local government.

    As a consequence of this process every civil servant gets a merit (grade point) rise every year as well as an inflationary rise. (If they have already reached the top of their grade then the money is awarded as a cash handout).

    In fact pretty much the only way not to get a merit rise, apart from buggering the Mayor’s wife – and that was sometimes looked upon favourably depending on the persons involved, was to be convicted of a major felony (nicking parking meter money for instance) and even then you were only passed over for 1 year.

    This is why, when UK governments claim that they are putting more money into local government every year, all it is doing is funding above inflationary pay rises for civil servants and paying the index linked pensions of people who retired 25 years ago (no money was ever invested at the time as it is all run on revenue accounting). This is why the UK economy is screwed!

  10. Real Tax Payer says:

    I sometimes wish we could all come out of the shadows and meet for a drink incognito ( we could wear masks or something )

    Since I discovered the Big Lychee I have rarely interacted with such a coterie of people who think SENSIBLY even though we differ from time to time – often radically

    But, sadly, that will never happen……

    It might turn out that XYZ on the Big Lychee turns out to be my wife …. which would explain why she keeps secretly tapping on her lap top and muttering things under her breath like “who are these **&^%* idiots called Maugrim , Big Al, Sir Crispin…. and RTP ?”

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