Hemlock's Diary
4-10 December, 2009
Mon, 5 Jan
What should be Hong Kong’s New Year’s resolution for 2009?  It would be nice to think that the Big Lychee would swear that it will stop begging the Mainland for such favours, gifts, free lunches or assistance as psychopath panda bears, high mortality-rate sturgeon, visits from astronauts, endless swarms of tourists, or vague and meaningless promises to support our role as a financial centre.  Then the city could go back to looking after itself like a real grownup, just as it once managed to under the yoke of the British colonialists.  But it seems a mentality of childlike helplessness and entitlement, once acquired, is hard to shake off.

This occurs to me first thing this morning as I join two of my neighbours from Perpetual Opulence Mansions, Mrs Ng the former marketing manager and Mr Chan the erstwhile banker, on a trip – being made by
more and more middle-class folk – to the St James’s Settlement food bank.  As we load up the Ng family’s Mercedes with our loot, we try to hide our disappointment at the rather limited range of items we found on offer on the charity’s dusty shelves.  Mrs Ng looks at her bag of Chinese rice, and wonders whether her children will like it.  “We’re so used to the Australian stuff,” she says, “though I suppose we can feed the maid with it.”  Mr Chan is upset that his favourite brand of cheese cocktail sausage wasn’t available.  And I find myself pondering what to do with 10 days’ supply of instant noodles. 

In the Company Gwailo’s lair, on the top floor of S-Meg Tower, I stash the prawn, chicken and beef varieties of the salty, high-fat, processed and barely nutritious junk food away in case of typhoon or peasant uprising, and go through my lengthy in-box of unread emails.  And what should I find, from about a month ago, but this…
To: Senior Mgt
From: Company Sec

Dear All Dedicated Ladies and Gentlemen,

Please be informed that HK Stock Exchange has recently amended the black-out period relating to shares dealing by Directors of listed companies.  In the past, black-out period is one-month before results announcement.  It is now extended to commence from the issuer’s end of financial period until the publication of the results with effective from 1 January 2009.

Therefore, in respect of the final 2008 results of S-Meg Holdings, directors and senior management are prohibited from dealing in company shares from 1 January 2009 until the final results announcement (TBA but between 9-13 March).

In respect of 2009 interim results, directors and senior management are prohibited from dealing in company shares from 1 July 2009 until the interim results announcement (TBA but between 24-28 August).

Please be reminded that above prohibition also applies to staff of your department if they are aware of any price-sensitive information of S-Meg Holdings.

Thank you for your attention,
Wincy Yeung
Company Secretary
The new rule was greeted with mild shrugs here, which is why I hadn’t even read the message.  And it seems I was not alone in being slow to absorb the news.  While I was out of town, Hong Kong’s leading local business patriarchs lashed out in defence of one of their most cherished clauses in the Big Lychee Bill of Rights –

“The right of tycoons and their families and friends to engage in insider share trading for personal gain at the expense of their companies’ minority shareholders shall not be infringed.”

This is a time when many, from rich to poor, are suffering from financial distress in their respective ways.  White-collar professionals, having seen their investments and property collapse in value, are being laid off, and are now reduced to begging for alms from food banks.  Hong Kong’s local merchant princes, meanwhile, are seeing lower returns from their cartels as consumers tighten their belts, and have, in more than a few cases, suffered calamitous personal losses from extending their compulsive gambling habits to accumulators – the equity or forex derivatives that offer punters the perverse thrill of limited upside and unlimited potential losses.  (Virtually charging extremely rich people millions of bucks per round of ammunition to play Russian roulette, the banks behind these products are such utter geniuses as to provoke the greenest of envy.)  

The tycoons’ yelps of protest at being barred from insider trading have not gone unheeded.  The fearless representatives of the people who sit in the Legislative Council have rounded on the regulators for their reckless haste and impertinence.  And on or around the day I returned from my fun-packed trip to Malaysia, I heard on the radio one of the Government’s Deputy Secretaries whose names no-one can ever remember plea for the market overseers to ‘strike a balance’.  One the one hand, he implied, you have a measure that will protect minority shareholders, make a hard-to-spot illegal act harder to get away with and strengthen the integrity of Hong Kong as a financial centre.  On the other, you have resistance from a few hundred anguished people who have seen some of their billions disappear despite their certainty that they have a God-given privilege to acquire wealth without regard to principle, morality, others’ financial well-being or the reputation of the city.  Like King Solomon faced with the disputed baby, our top officials show their visionary leadership by suggesting that everyone split the difference and be happy.  Except the wise Jewish monarch was joking.

Thus the regulators look set to
back off.  In a corporatist system, each of our highly treasured various sectors has its due prerogatives, and for one of them it is the indisputable right to make money from insider knowledge that the hordes of little people out there don’t share.  The Big Boss looks unpeturbed today, just as my unemployed neighbours know that they can always fall back on free groceries from charity, the working class have their public housing on peppercorn rents, and the elderly can rummage through their fruit money, HK$50 health care coupons and countless thousands of garbage bins to find their alloted portion of society’s almost unlimited bountiful freebies. 

I await Wincy’s next email with interest.
Tue, 6 Jan
Deep, deep down at
the bottom of tomorrow’s Legislative Council agenda, where even the tiniest suspended particulates and nitrous oxide emissions cannot penetrate, there is a glimmer of evidence that Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement might finally be Getting It.  Legal representative Margaret Ng is to introduce a motion effectively demanding that increasingly flustered-looking Chief Executive Donald Tsang get off the fence and declare his position on functional constituencies – and thus whether he genuinely supports universal suffrage or not.  A painful-to-read amendment by Abraham Shek/Razack, representative of the property/construction cartel and archetypal, evil, scheming promoter of vested interests over the public good, lets Sir Bow-Tie off the hook.  It could only have been penned by a bureaucrat.

On the radio this morning, Ng outlined the logic – FCs are incompatible with universal suffrage, therefore if you refuse to abolish FCs you refuse to allow universal suffrage.  If she and her colleagues stepped back and rubbed the naivety out of their eyes, they would notice that little Hong Kong is under the sovereignty of the Chinese Communist Party, and if anything is totally incompatible with universal suffrage, you’re looking at it.  Maybe the fate of this motion will help them see the light.  FCs are helpful, but vested interests that collude with officials benefit even more from having an opposition camp that wastes all its energy blathering away about an abstract ideal unattainable so long as the CCP holds power.  Where would we be today if the pro-democrats had fought as hard for 10 years against bureaucrats transferring our wealth into the pockets of our favourite tycoons via pointless road-building projects?  We would have cleaner air.
Instead, one in five people might leave Hong Kong because of the air pollution, according to a think-tank survey involving over 1,000 phone calls.  Most such opinion polls cover only Cantonese speakers, but these interviews were also in English, Mandarin, Fujianese and Hakka, and so can be regarded as having extra statistical integrity. 

Unfortunately, the survey neglected to ask respondents a vital question – where will you go?  Will it be the Mainland, where they arrest you for complaining that milk companies are poisoning babies and you pay 40% tax?  Or Singapore, where they arrest you for interviewing someone who doesn’t worship the ruling family and you pay 40% tax?  Or Taiwan, where people drink their own urine for health and you pay 40% tax?  Or the US or UK, where it’s too cold and/or violent to walk around after dark and you pay 40% tax? 

The good news is that with our population down to 5.5 million, the Big Lychee will suddenly become more habitable again.  Housing will become more affordable, public spaces will be less crowded, and – here’s the amazing thing – the drop in road traffic will largely eliminate the very air pollution that drove people out.  So all the rest of us have to do is wait for the one in five to pack their bags and get out.  But maybe that’s what the one in five are also thinking, deep down.  They’re secretly planning to stay put.  So actually, no-one will leave. Game theorists must have a phrase for it.

Wed, 7 Jan
…and indeed they do.  I am indebted to a noted
member of the Abraham Razack/Shek Fan Club for pointing out that game theorists call it the El Farol Bar problem, named for a drinking hole that is great fun when 60 out of its 100 possible customers turn up, but a hell-hole when more try to squeeze in.  The problem arises from the fact that all 100 must decide independently and simultaneously whether to go. 

My solution would be for everyone to pledge to toss a coin every evening – ‘heads’ you go, ‘tails’ you stay at home.  That way everyone should get, on average, most of the raucous enjoyment experienced when 60 boozers are there, every other evening.  But game theory is not about solving problems so much as analyzing behaviour.

For a good example here in Hong Kong, we need look not to the debauched denizens of Lan Kwai Fong but our very own senior officials and the 7 million citizens they hope to
lure into the shops to help the economy by spending.  So far, we have been treated to a high-profile visit by Sir Bow-Tie (salary HK$334,758 a month) to a fair at Victoria Park, where he bought HK$10,000 worth of goods, and subsequent sprees by Chief Secretary Henry Tang in Causeway Bay and Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Secretary Stephen Lam in Tai Po.  The latter two were accompanied by various other officials, whose pay proved to be of considerable interest last year.

Inspired by this example, all 7 million of us are now supposed to cast fears of unemployment, negative equity and shriveled retirement funds aside and go out and throw at least some of our nest eggs away on non-essentials.  Whether it would really help avert recession is doubtful.  In a small, open economy where nearly everything is imported, the multiplier effect of extra money in circulation changing hands over and again is limited – the cash soon leaks out.  Furthermore, given the nature of the Big Lychee, it is not impossible that it will be a case of ‘trickle-up’, as landlords adjust their rents to grab whatever extra turnover retailers attract.  Why else would the Liberal Party – not known for its deep concern for the plight of mom-and-pop stores and other little folk – call for the Government to hand out
shopping coupons?

But let’s assume we knew it would help, and we all agreed to play our part and boost consumption.  “OK,” we would all loudly declare, “I’m not going to save any money for the next six months – I will buy a load of stuff I don’t need.”  But who would really do it?  People have families to feed and clothe.  They would hoard their pennies.

If the pro-democrats want to strike a blow for common sense and reason, they should conduct their own shopping-trip photo-ops.  Ronnie, Margaret and Emily should take the press along to Shenzhen, stock up on day-to-day necessities that cost a third of what they do on this side of the border.  Explain how they are buying not only for themselves, but for family and neighbours, and how the bus fare to Lok Ma Chau and back pays for itself 100 times over.  Advise which outlets to go to and even how to negotiate discounts on-line beforehand.  Then they should demand that the Government give every Hong Kong family a free ticket up there every two weeks, so people can get maximum value for their hard-earned money, rather than let Hutchison-SHK-Wharf gobble it up.  That’s how you help the economy – assuming that by ‘economy’ you mean people.  With a chunk of the population out of town on a Shenzhen grocery run at any given time, the El Farol Bar would be no more than comfortably busy, too.
Thurs, 8 Jan
After over 11 years of mewling, thumb-sucking and apron string-clinging, is Hong Kong finally regaining its sense of pride, independence and self-worth?  Recent events at the city’s Ocean Park tourist attraction suggest that it might well be.  To no-one’s surprise, the Government-owned theme park has long indulged in embarrassing and incessant groveling and begging towards the Mainland in return for such wearisome clichéd baubles as panda bears.  But now, in a long-overdue display of assertiveness, the place is rejecting a supposedly much-prized gift from the glorious motherland – sturgeon.  The slimy, morose-looking ‘national treasures’ keep dying on us, so back they go and good riddance. (Especially to those gross dangly bits under their mouths.)

Part of the problem is that the fish apparently
suffer from anorexia.  If this meant that they were the piscine equivalent of over-achieving teenage girls hiding uneaten food all over the place and feigning menstruation, we might muster a bit of sympathy.  But assuming it simply means they are turning their noses up at the excellent fare the people of Hong Kong are generously giving them, it should stiffen our resolve to eject them all as boorish, ungrateful and undeserving guests.  Let’s see how long they last in some half-poisoned stretch of the Yangtze back in sunny Hubei.

The same goes for the excruciatingly tedious panda bears.  After one of the vicious brutes
mauled a keeper to death last month, it is surely only a matter of time before Ocean Park boss Allen Zeman tells our overlords in Beijing, “You can take this panda and shove it.”  At the very least, there should be a sign on their cage saying, “These lice-ridden, malodorous, dangerous beasts were cynically dumped on the people of Hong Kong by the despotic Communist regime in a lame attempt to win the community’s affection and respect, and take its mind off its lack of political rights.”

Meanwhile, multi-billionaire patriot Li Ka-shing
dumps a large chunk of his Bank of China stock at the first opportunity.  Not a sign of confidence from someone who usually knows when to get rid of a dud asset.  All we need now is for dashing Chief Executive Donald Tsang to admit publicly that the Mainland is a pain, and going down the tubes, and the less we have to do with it the better – and hey, that’s why we all came here in the first place, right?  The Big Lychee gets its mojo back.  And it all started because of a dead fish.
Fri, 9 Jan
Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway is in disgrace after being caught committing an act of
wanton cruelty against our impoverished and defenceless old people – giving them a big discount on Wednesdays.  Everyone knows that Wednesday is ‘no-travel’ day for the Big Lychee’s elderly.  It’s marked in their diaries.  From 7am they sit in a teahouse making two cups of oolong and one dumpling last three hours.  Then there’s half an hour of slow-motion stretching in the sitting-out area.  Then a couple of hours’ leisurely rummaging through garbage and pulling boxes of paper to the recycling place.  Then, after a lunch of gritty rice and chicken neck, it’s back to the park for an afternoon of intensive scowling.  (Except on days when some throwback Buddhist charity is handing out free bags of rice, in which case they will spend nine hours standing in line in the baking sun.)  After an orange for dinner, it’s time for bed.  To dangle almost-free transportation in front of them on such a busy day is tantamount to torture.

Sunday, on the other hand, is the day they get out of their neighbourhoods and zip around town, because that’s the day every man, woman and child in the Big Lychee goes out, and it’s so much more fun if frail and cantankerous old folk try to barge their way into packed rail carriages with them.  To make them pay full fare on a Sunday is therefore pure abuse, no better than locking them up and starving them, or swindling them out of their life savings.

But what else do we expect from this sadistic corporation?  Although the largely state-owned MTR is primarily seen as a rail network, its two main businesses are building soulless, high-density, high-rise residential complexes of tiny apartments out in the middle of nowhere, and running a chain of vast and indistinguishable shopping malls.  The squeezing of thousands of innocent people into nasty little rabbit hutches in psychopath-planned Cartesian cities like Tseung Kwan O is callous enough.  But it’s nothing compared with the unspeakable treatment the MTR metes out to architects, and the suffering consequently endured by the poor wretches who enter its shopping malls.

Before being allowed to work on an MTR shopping mall, architects must undergo a lobotomy.  Following the removal of vital parts of the brain, they are incapable of designing any building that does not have a podium and floors made of special marble that gets extremely slippery on rainy days of the sort Hong Kong experiences for eight months of the year.  The brain damage also compels them to locate wide, load-bearing pillars in such a way that they are always in a passageway where they obstruct the flow of people.  And not just anywhere in the passageway, but to one side, so they come close to a wall or railing, leaving a gap just wide enough for one average-size person to pass through at a time.  You can always tell when you are in an MTR shopping centre (as opposed to a private-sector one, like the venerable Swine Group’s retail palaces at Pacific Place and Festival Walk), because you see security guards trying to free shoppers wedged into the gaps between the pillars and walls.

From residential zones that are little more than nighttime storage facilities for human production units, to zombie architects mumbling “Must have podium…slippery marble…” as they draw their blueprints, the MTR is an evil organization.  So we should hardly be surprised to catch it tormenting and insulting our plucky senior citizens whose toil and sweat made the Big Lychee what it is today – spitting in their faces with an offer of virtually free travel... on Wednesdays.
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