Hemlock's Diary
5-11 April, 2009
Mon, 6 Apr
South China Morning Post reports the release from prison last December of the last under-age murderer to be detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure back in colonial times.  For students of the Hong Kong penal system this may well be noteworthy, as such indefinite incarceration has since been scrapped in favour of fixed terms.  But to the paper, it is also an excuse to dredge up the 1985 Braemar Hill killings, in which a gang of teenage thugs raped/strangled and stabbed high school students Nicola Myers and Kenneth McBride to death.  Three of the killers were sentenced to death – another punishment since abandoned but which even then was automatically commuted to life – while the other two, being under 18, were held supposedly for as long as the Queen felt fit.  In time, they asked for, and received, fixed sentences, and were released with the forgiveness of the victims’ families.

The gory slaughter on Braemar Hill gripped Hong Kong for months.  It was a different place back then, when we were poorer but happier.  With much less traffic, you could walk across streets when and where you liked.  A can of San Miguel went for 90 cents.  May Road (convenient for the Peak Tram), Kennedy Road and Robinson Road were mostly low-rise, with few buildings over three floors high.  And in those buildings, the talk was often of ‘they’ – as in ‘they’ do spit rather a lot/talk loudly/eat funny food, don’t they? 

At one gathering I was dragged to, ‘they’ were present in very small numbers.  Polly the then-proto-lipstick lesbian was there, as was Grace, the HK University graduate who attributed her extreme thinness to the diet of tree bark her mother lived on when expecting her, en route south to the Fragrant Harbour and freedom.  But most of the people in the sprawling apartment were British, with a sprinkling of Australians and vaguely Portuguese types.  The guest list leant especially towards aging matrons who played bowls and their blazer-clad husbands who told tales of internment under the Japanese.  The talk that afternoon was of course about the slayings and the outrageous breaking of what most present considered an unwritten rule – ‘they’ don’t attack whites.
It is thanks to Nicola Myers and Kenneth McBride that I was banished from this polite society.  Hundreds of police and further hundreds of soldiers from the British garrison, complete with helicopters, had been combing the hillsides of Hong Kong Island in the search for clues about the scarcely believable crime.  Parents of the dead couple’s friends were probably there, and it wasn’t a very smart thing to say – but I was at the peak of gauche early adulthood, and I knew I was right when I blurted out something along the lines of, “Can you imagine the Government going to all this trouble if it had been a couple of Chinese kids from a public housing estate in Kowloon?”

Sherry glasses don’t make much noise when they drop onto carpet, so I don’t know whether any did.  But a dozen or two pairs of eyes stared in silent horror at such an appalling remark, while Polly and Grace simply stopped breathing and looked downwards.  The hosts’ daughter – our mutual friend and colleague – made a big show of pulling me out to the veranda for a severe telling-off.  If two innocents had not died, I might have been invited back.

Tue, 7 Apr
A four-day weekend lies ahead, to allow the
Xianggang Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China to celebrate the death and resurrection of our lord Jesus Christ.  Not many cities in officially atheist countries run by the Communist Party do this, yet few Hong Kong people will avail themselves of the opportunity, preferring instead, during the rest of the year, to dissuade dead ancestors from haunting them by burning offerings, seeking instant cash by bowing to gaudy idols in incense-filled temples, or helping number-one daughter find a husband by painting her bedroom door red. 

Of those who will attend church to commemorate the nailing to the cross, agonizing death and subsequent renowned rapid recovery of the son of God, a good proportion will be Catholic (like Chief Executive Donald Tsang), Anglican, Methodist and plain-vanilla Baptists.  Some of these (if not Sir Bow-Tie) are active proponents of such values as freedom of the individual and, in particular, democracy – and thus at least technically enemies of the sovereign power, making the state-approved status of this holiday almost as complex a mystery as the resurrection.  Another group worshipping Western-style will be the born-again evangelicals whose dogma insists that God doesn’t care two hoots how you treat other people in this world but will damn you to eternal Hell if you refuse to believe that Noah herded a pair of every species onto a boat, and dinosaurs died out around the time of Alexander the Great.  Some of this latter community, like our Secretary for Security and Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs, report directly to Donald.  How the Vatican-loathing, science-supporting leaders in Beijing feel about all this is, like the rest of it, unknowable.

Many of the less-devout members of our population will leave town to sit on a beach, photograph each other in front of famous structures or traipse around overseas branches of familiar fashion outlets.  We can monitor this phenomenon by checking the Hong Kong Observatory’s irrit-ometer, which shows the local Annoyance Factor plummeting from 87% a week ago to just 47% today and falling, as many of the city’s most tiresome people board aircraft or cross the border.  The effect is apparently exaggerated by the departure of relatively small numbers of exceptionally tedious golf and car-racing fans, but either way the atmosphere in the Big Lychee is growing noticeably balmier by the day.  S-Meg Tower is no exception.  The latest pests to have packed their bags are Maple, Brownie, Mikko and Didi – manipulative gossips from the Accounts Department, who, after just dropping by the top floor to taunt Ms Fang the hunter-killer secretary, have disappeared in a cloud of toasted wholemeal cinnamon-and-raisins muffin crumbs. 

And the best news of all is that this barbarian festival, with its bunny rabbits, crucifixion and chocolate eggs, is totally ignored in the Mainland, so we can safely assume that there will be no sudden extra influx of tourists from up there.   In this respect, Easter could be even more pleasant and relaxing than Chinese New Year.

not ‘totally ignored’, strictly speaking.

Wed, 8 Apr
Clichés and corny headlines erupt in the business media as an apparently very big and famous French firm called Veolia ‘jumps aboard’ Hong Kong’s iconic ‘ding-dings’ by
taking 50% of our much-beloved tram company from Wharf.  If Cheung Kong, say, tried to buy the Arc de Triomphe or Notre Dame Cathedral, there would be nationalistic strikes and riots from Dunkirk to Marseilles, but if a French conglomerate wants to help itself to a part of the Big Lychee’s heritage, there is little fuss. All that matters is whether the new management will raise the fares.

Over pork and preserved egg congee in the Foreign Correspondents Club, delectable Administrative Officer Winky Ip and I share our amazement that a ride on the Shaukeiwan-to-Kennedy Town line today costs HK$2, rather than the 60 cents we recall.  Obviously, we should use the network more often.

As a former pen-pusher in the Anti-Pedestrian Unit at the Transport Department, Winky has a keen interest in the French company’s plan to operate a new line on the Central-to-Wanchai reclamation. 

“This is going to meet stiff resistance in the Highways Department, and the Transport and Housing Bureau generally,” she tells me.  “There’s only enough area on the reclaimed land for about 10 lanes of surface or submerged freeway and other roads going along the harbour front.  Do these people expect to take over space intended for motor vehicles?”  It’s a good point.  Our bureaucrats, from Sir Bow-Tie downwards, will strongly object to wasting space on a non-polluting mass-transit system when it could accommodate modern gas-guzzling Mercedes and SUVs and smoky diesel buses full of Mainland shoppers. 

Thoughts of the latter bring a counter-argument to mind.

“Ah, but,” I tell her, “this Veolia outfit has been very clever.  They’ve said the new tram route would primarily be for tourists.  Our policy makers won’t be able to resist that.  Obviously if the company said it was aimed at Hong Kong people or to make the air cleaner, the civil servants would toss the idea in the toilet.  But for the sacred tourism sector – no expense can be spared.”

Winky sips her Iron Buddha and considers this for a few seconds, looking slightly disturbed.  Then she shakes her head with a relieved smile.  “No, no it won’t happen,” she assures me.  “It’s impossible.”  She leans forward to explain why.  “Don’t you see – it was the French company’s idea!  A suggestion from outside the bureaucracy!  That’s unacceptable on principle.  Reject.”
Thurs, 9 Apr
An exciting new product comes to my attention this morning, courtesy of a little ad magazine called
The List – Australian spring water. 

For most of my adult life, I have quaffed the plain and basically free liquid that the Hong Kong
Water Supplies Department arranges to gush forth from the tap.  In one or two older buildings, I let the stuff run a few seconds to wash any traces of rusty pipe sediment out of the system, but otherwise I just fill a glass and put it straight to my lips.

Not everyone knows they can do this.  Much of the Big Lychee’s population trace their origins to the impoverished and chaotic hell that was mid-20th Century China, a place awash with nightsoil and corpses.  Just as you had to cook all vegetables, they understandably felt, you always boiled drinking water.  Such behaviour is infectious, especially in a city where rebellious, creative, lateral and critical thought are discouraged, so their offspring have ended up doing the same without question.

Meanwhile, inhabitants hailing from more civilized environments tend to think that any place with an unfamiliar ethnic group, language and cuisine by definition does not have chlorination.  To the sort of gwailos who complain about the lack of English commentary for sports events on pay-TV or who care deeply about air miles and credit card points, the local H
2O is a threat to personal well-being on a par with seafood, taxi drivers, MSG and HIV.  To nonchalantly gulp it down straight out of the plumbing right before their eyes is to fill them with wonder – like doing one-arm pull-ups, only easier.

Where there is paranoia, there is money to be made, and some clever entrepreneurs have convinced residents suffering from Expat Aqueous Fear Syndrome to buy elaborate and weird filter systems to attach to their kitchen sink fittings.  Most hydrophobes, however, protect their precious loved ones from lead, plutonium, cholera or typhoid by picking up the phone and ordering hefty 18-litre bottles from Watsons at

Where there is money, there is also additional paranoia to be made – in order to make yet more money.  Usually it is easier to prey on the fears of the dim and uneducated than the enlightened and schooled, but not in this case.  Most dullards will happily chug Watsons distilled water away, blissfully unaware that the totally sterile substance might represent an almighty risk.  Those of us who years ago paid attention in high school biology class, however, will vaguely remember the principle of osmosis and will therefore ponder the possibility, when it is put to us, that this lifeless and pure product could leach minerals out of our bodies!

It’s a myth, but many fall for it.  The distilled water trade
fights back directly by pointing out that minerals come from food, but it also takes a swipe at the bold and original thinkers among us out there who sneeringly dismiss all bottled waters as absurd, by claiming – despite generations of living evidence to the contrary – that chlorinated, fluoridated and otherwise municipal-ated water will corrupt and pollute our bodies and lead to birth defects and senility.  The organic food industry is closely related to these people.

The Australian spring water advertised in
The List is oozing in minerals, even ones we should be trying to consume less of.  Since it has been sucked from the ground rather than turned into steam and back, consumers might wonder why it costs ‘only HK$98’ a bottle.  The answer, presumably, is that it flew in Qantas first class all 4,600 miles here from Victoria – the Big Dry itself.

With the raising of a cup of the Dongjiang River’s finest Adam’s ale, I declare this four-day weekend open.
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