Hemlock's Diary
25 September-1 October 2005
Sun, 25 Sep
Gliding up the Mid-Levels Escalator this afternoon, I hear the unmistakable sound of street-level retail property owners sharpening their knives and licking their lips.  The next item on the menu for Soho’s ravenous landlords is ‘enoteca on elgin’.  How long will it last?  Or, more to the point, how much money will it lose before the investors bail out?  The faux-trendy restaurants in the neighbourhood seem to come off a production line.  Blam, blam, blam goes the cookie cutter, and out they come – places so small with rents so high that the owners have no choice but to rely on poor-quality, high mark-up ingredients, from which they divert their victims’ attention with ugly furniture, weird lighting and obsequious staff who keep rearranging your tableware.  ‘Service’, it’s called.

How to find enoteca on elgin?  Turn right at the rusty drainpipes and it’s straight under the apartment with 40-year-old windows, just next to the rat-infested alleyway.  No – not
that rat-infested alleyway.  The other one.

‘enoteca on elgin’.  Do I get a free pan-fried sea bass in raspberry balsamic glaze for being the first to notice that the ridiculous name is ‘acetone’ backwards?  If they wanted to be really pretentious, they could have called it ‘acetone backwards on elgin’, or maybe ‘nigle no acetone’.  Maybe they went to the same signwriter who devised Rednaxela Terrace up the hill.  I have no expertise in these matters.  All I know is acetone is a poison and a fire hazard.
Mon, 26 Sep
Who can fail to experience a pang of sympathy for anyone who spent his early twenties in the Taiping Brigade of Luozigou Commune in Wangqing County, Jilin Province, working in the fields as a young intellectual?  Who could be so insensitive that they have no pity for someone who not only had to study Korean, but who spent time at the economics department of the Kim Il Sung Comprehensive University in Pyongyang?  What heartless brute could feel no compassion at all for a man who has spent his entire career climbing the Chinese Communist Party ladder, mindlessly reciting the latest official mantra on learning from peasants, the relative mouse-catching abilities of black and white cats and the Three Represents?   And now, as if Guangdong party secretary Zhang Dejiang hasn’t suffered enough in life, he has had to meet Emily Lau. 

Two hours later, and the legislator was in full, mouth-frothing, high-decibel, ranting fury at Zhang’s shocking revelation that Beijing was not going to replace its official view of the June 4 massacre with that of Hong Kong’s democrats.  Ms Apoplexy
wasn’t alone over the weekend in being allowed to exercise her lungs and self-righteousness across the border for the first time since 1989.  The uncouth and unkempt Long Hair modestly proposed an end to one-party rule before heading off to the pub.  The better-manicured Martin Lee wrung his hands about how terrible it was to have been banned from his homeland for 16 years, as if the rest of us enjoy going there.  Democratic Party leader [insert name] no doubt inflicted his unique charisma on everyone he met, though the press reports are sketchy. 

Valiant Chief Executive Donald Tsang cheerfully declares this ice-breaking encounter between Beijing and the democrats to be a
great success – a step toward harmony, dialogue and yet more harmony.  But will it backfire?  Will the grim-faced apparatchiks in Beijing see this as nothing less than an insult – a deliberate gesture of ingratitude and disrespect on the part of 7 million unpatriotic sub-citizens towards the party and the whole socialist spiritual civilization it is nobly constructing?  And if so, will they not feel the need to visit some terrible revenge upon the Big Lychee?   If we suddenly get an extra million tourists pee-peeing all over Disneyland in the next few months, we’ll know why.

Tue, 27 Sep
An unpleasant task befalls me.  I must read through the draft of the S-Meg Holdings Board Members’ Handbook.  The Big Boss decreed the creation of such a manual, even though he has no idea what one is, after a non-executive director mentioned that modern, dynamic corporations have them.  Ms Lu the buck-toothed Company Secretary has asked each department and subsidiary in the conglomerate to write a profile of itself.  Fate now demands that the Company Gwailo, who apparently had thousands of innocent peasants impaled on stakes in a previous life, check the English. 

To fortify myself, I switch on RTHK Radio 3.  To my delight, they are playing
my favourite Announcement in the Public Interest.  “Let’s work together!” says the eager voice.  “By working together, we can overcome Hong Kong’s earwax challenge!”  If there is a more worthwhile use of taxpayers’ money I can’t think of it. 

Suitably encouraged, I flick through the papers before me and make an interesting discovery.  The prize for least atrocious English easily goes to that nest of Nazism, the Human Resources Department.  At the other end of the scale, it is virtually a tie.  The China Operations Department’s effort is so bad I will re-write it out of pity.  They can be forgiven.  They work in Putonghua, and they’re not very bright.  Hence my amusing sobriquet for them – ‘the simplified characters’.  But at least they make money for us.  So I hereby declare that the winner of the Worst English Award is the Information Technology Department.  Their grammar is as disheveled as the greasy hair on their pointy little heads.  Their spelling is as unpredictable as the acne outbreaks on their leering, bespectacled faces.  I will leave their profile as it is.  Directors who want to take a break from the usual subject under discussion at S-Meg Board meetings – horse racing – will be able to amuse themselves by trying to decipher it.
Wed, 28 Sep
Kevin – the glamorous gwailo who would be your neighbour if you lived in Henderson Land’s CentreStage development – leans back in his designer label casual clothes and watches the discriminating and successful people admiring the finest luxury goods in the trendy boutiques of the high-class shopping mall.  Could there be any more desirable place to live in the world than Hong Kong’s Central?  Why – if only his hairdresser understood English a bit better, it would be paradise.  A tall, slender girl strolls past in Dolce and Gabbana, Chanel and Prada and glances at his carrier bag.  Has he bought everything he needs for the day?   A six pack of San Miguel, two packs of Marlboro lights, a CD of Dire Straits’ greatest hits, the sport and TV section of the newspaper and a DVD of a new movie with lots of really great special effects.  Yeah, all sorted like, innit?

IT FEELS like the 1990s again.  Walking through Central yesterday afternoon, I was mobbed by spotty real estate agents trying to sell apartments at CentreStage.  Only HK$8,700 a square foot, they told me.  It would work out at US$650,000 for a flat with 450 square feet of actual space.  Property investor Peter Churchouse has bought four of them – at a discount, presumably. 
Yesterday’s land auction raised HK$10 billion for the Government.  Property developers are hiking their prices.   On the radio this morning Churchouse noted that prices are still 40 percent or so below their 1997 peak.  The implication is that there is lots of lovely upside because the 1997 level was somehow natural and normal – though on a graph it looks like Mount Everest in the middle of a prairie.  So I should buy one of these little concrete boxes.  Before the project’s even finished, I’ll sell it for 10 percent above the original price.  That’ll net me a 100 percent return on my 10 percent down payment.  The buyer will keep it a while, increase the price tag by another 10 or 15 percent and sell it on.  And on and on it goes.  Do three or four at a time.  Buy shares in price tag manufacturers, too.  All the Government needs to do is tighten the supply of land, and all this wealth suddenly appears!  Magic!

I arrive at the 20th Floor of S-Meg Tower early and find a police woman snooping around   An alarm had gone off.  She asks me if I am the manager.  If it’s got a white face, it’s in charge.  It feels like the 1990s again –
Thurs, 29 Sep
He who lives by the meaningless survey dies by the meaningless survey.  Any confident and competent government simply shrugs at the World Economic Forum’s findings on economic competitiveness.  It would be pleasing to think that Donald Tsang’s post-Tung Hong Kong would be among them – one of the five most self-assured regimes in the world.  But no.  It goes into a foot-stamping, hair-tearing tantrum because some self-appointed experts on everything knock the Big Lychee down seven places to number 28 in the list of
places with the world’s most wondrous institutional infrastructure

whining at absurd length like spoilt brats, our petulant officials only draw attention to the very faults identified by the WEF.  The city’s constitution states that 10 years after 1997, we may reform our political system as we wish.  It also says a new Chief Executive serves for five years.  When we are ordered to accept totally different, politically-driven meanings for the words to those in the dictionary, there is a problem with rule of law.  You either fix the problem, or shut up.  You don’t wet your pants and issue a huge press release proclaiming everything is perfect.  Huge sums of public wealth have been transferred to property tycoons, Richard Li, Disney and dozens of construction and engineering companies in exchange for no apparent net benefit to Hong Kong.  You either stop doing such things, or shut up.  You don’t go into hysterics, smashing your toys and running round screeching about level playing fields.  The WEF report should have been seen as an invitation to quiet reflection.
IS IT a coincidence that people who are paid too much doth protest too much?  Joining our bureaucrats in the ‘empty vessel’ competition are the English Schools Foundation teachers, whose taxpayer-subsidized salaries, at around HK$1 million a year, are between two and three times those of their peers in international schools.  Take a 10 percent pay cut, their administrators have told them, and we’ll say nothing more.  Teaching takes a certain combination of aptitude and desperation.  Most of us couldn’t do it, but we wouldn’t want to anyway.  It is a calling for people who are dedicated and noble, but not to the extent that they can resist extremely long vacations.  The Company Gwailo at S-Meg Holdings is worth a seven-figure sum because the Big Boss values him as such.  The ESF teachers are… teachers.  Obviously, they should accept such a small reduction in their bloated incomes with quiet, smug relief.  But they don’t.  They bleat about being of exceptional quality.  Are they? 

The medium of instruction in this group of schools is unique in that perceptive native speakers can tell everything they need to know about a fellow native speaker after hearing just a sentence or two from them.  Birthplace, breeding, intelligence, education – it is an open book.  And it is obvious from the flat vowels, raw intonation and scruffy diction on the radio this morning that the ESF teachers are not exactly to the manor born, as JP Donleavy would put it.  Their union leader, for example, sounds like a gardener’s son who has made good thanks to his rough-hewn charm and a few sympathetic employers.  I shudder to think that one of his female colleagues is churning out dozens of Hong Kong children a year speaking her ‘Essex suburb social climber’ dialect.  A million dollars a year?  I think not.  Then again, where would the fragrant harbour be today without the arrogance, greed and sheer chutzpah of talentless refugees?
Fri, 30 Sep
An unhurried morning in the office affords me the chance to gaze across the water to west Kowloon and ponder the hulking eruptions of concrete that obscure the sulphur-veiled mountains.  “The absence of flaw in beauty is itself a flaw.”  It is surely with Havelock Ellis’s dictum in mind that Sun Hung Kei officially announces that it will grace the world’s most stunning harbour with the biggest, ugliest, concrete-penis-from-hell of all time – the half-kilometre tall, 118-floor
Hubris House.
It will be Hong Kong's tallest building and while under construction is destined to be the world's third tallest (in terms of tenantable floors), taking on global importance and reinforcing Hong Kong's status as an international financial centre.
Havelock Ellis also said, “The place where optimism most flourishes is the lunatic asylum.”  From the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings in 1920s New York to Petronas Tower in 1990s Kuala Lumpur, egotistical architecture has been a ‘sell’ signal, a leading indicator of an economic crash.  However, Sun Hung Kai seem to have taken this into consideration and chosen a design devoid of any aesthetic merit, or indeed features or character of any sort.  Being even blander than it is big, goes SHK’s cunning theory, the structure will go unnoticed by the vengeful gods of the property cycle, who will no doubt be distracted by the modestly titled World Financial Center in Shanghai, the city that’s definitely going to take over from Hong Kong now they’ve stopped it sinking so fast.  This is the Big Lychee.  We don’t want a giant sword embellished with the Japanese rising sun – or is it just a big bottle opener?  We don’t want ego.  We want tenantable floors.  Tenantable floors taking on global importance and reinforcing Hong Kong's status as an international financial centre, naturally.
I must write an urgent note to SHK pleading with them to do what they did with their last priapistic edifice, IFC 2, and avoid frittering away valuable dollars-per-sq-ft on a public observation deck – there are too many tourists already. 

Sesame Street today was brought to you by the word ‘tenantable’