Monday, 31 December 2007

Cor! Phoar!

... as Hugh Laurie (in his pre-House, pre-male-menopause, "I must prove myself as a serious actor" phase) said when first espying Amy Hardcastle in Blackadder the Third.

It being the end of the year, I have decided, as someone who finds new year celebrations about as exciting as a Scotsman reciting poetry on Burns Night, to acknowledge those who have done so much to attract visitors to this site from as far afield as Brazil, Burma and Birmingham, Alabama.

Most of them of course never return, disappointed that the link from See Lai (thanks, Ron! or should I say Cheers, mate!) leads them to a site devoid of the desired hot Asian babes accompanied by marvellously descriptive captions, all of which seem to find room for that most graphic of words - "bonking".

Second in my links hall of fame is Hemlock, guaranteed to be still writing about constitutional reform and camomile crappucinos when Hong Kong is granted its own tortously complicated version of "universal suffrage".

Third, as far as I can tell by looking through a few pages of my new toy (Statcounter) is probably Spike, whose post rate attests to a level of hyperactivity and insomnia only otherwise achieved by Gweipo, who doesn't link to me, but is forgiven, because I've just waded through the Second Part of Part II of Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae, and I don't want to be committing a sin, whether it's venial, mortal or cardinal.

The also-rans include Ordinary Gweilo, his bête noire Fumier (who I've never met but is said to be Hong Kong's oldest surviving blogger) and Joyceyland, knocked off in her spare time by that rarest of species, a Hong Kong journalist with a sense of humour.

To all my loyal readers, especially the non-bloggers, because I feel bloggers don't really count, as they only come here so they can say "Not very good today" or "Not getting as many comments as me", and particularly to all the poor sods who come here hoping to find lesbian movie scenes, in the immortal word of Ron - Ciao!

Finally, for all the Spanish buggers who come here hoping to read something interesting about your megalithic forebears, here's a photo I nicked off the Internet that shows you're not missing much anyway.

Saturday, 29 December 2007

Full Bore

Popping into the office this morning, I find that a number of previously unseen, and unknown, periodicals have landed on my desk. Yazhou Zhoukan might sound like a new age singer but is in fact, as it proclaims with fitting Chinese modesty, "The International Chinese Newsweekly", in other words, unreadable, not least – but not only, I'm assured by locals – because it is published in Chinese.

As it the way with modern magazines, several bits fell out when I picked it up, one of which was in English – or a kind of English, I suppose I better say, as it trumpeted the benefits of Chinese medicine. Chinese medicine is one of those things, like the repository of superstition called feng shui, which the cunning Chinaman worked out long ago was far more likely to siphon money from naive foreigners, especially those suffering from Sinophilia, if every pronouncement sounded as if it had been composed by Chow Mein, the character Benny Hill modelled on future Chinese leader Jiang Zemin – with uncanny accuracy, it must be said.

The flyer informed me that, according to "The American Journal of Chinese (sic) Vol. 33 No. 4", Tian Xian Liquid "can modulate antigen-stimulated cytokine production by T-cells isolated from patients with recurrent aphothous ulcerations", which is presumably music to some fat bugger's ears but complete gibberish to me.

Meanwhile, students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong's School of Journalism and Communication have celebrated Christmas by producing the 80th edition of their U-Beat Magazine. While the rest of the magazine is in Chinese, the lead article is in English – once again, it must be said, English of a kind. The opening words give a flavour of what is to follow: "The world (FOB) price of raw cashew is p*, and the after tax FOB pcashew growers…", which suggests that, while the rest of the world takes the old adage about an infinite number of monkeys typing the works of Shakespeare with a pinch of salt, that portion of the cream of our youth who have set their heart on a career interviewing the parents of a schoolgirl who's just committed suicide take it perfectly seriously.

Switching on my email, I find another missive from Anthony D. Romero of the American Civil Liberties Association (ACLU) waiting for me. This one is called "It's up to us". The ACLU is nothing if not persistent now that they have finally got back in touch with me. That's two emails in a week from the chaps who use the United States Constitution as their letterhead (the one beginning "We the people") – they're very fond of their first person plural pronouns, are my cousins over the water.

I'm afraid it's the usual stuff ("Bush and Cheney…assault on the Constitution…compliant Congress…dire straits…torture and extraordinary rendition…this especially challenging period"). Plus seven more requests for me to part with my hard-earned to go with the six Tony D. made of me just last week.

But the email serves its purpose in a way, spurring me to look up the Constitution, penned 220 years ago. My eye fell on Amendment No. 2 (#2 for our American friends), which states that "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

Now, I don't know how Tony D. feels about it, but it seems to me that it's about time that we Americans (he counts me in, so it would be churlish of me to count myself out) "stand ready to act", as he puts it, against the idiocy of selling automatic weapons to any loony who wants one. In fact, of course, many loonies buy a whole arsenal so they can defend their house against anyone who might be nuttier than them. Killing machines that don't fit into their house can be stashed in their SUVs, just in case anyone tries to infringe their right to keep and bear a semi-automatic handgun by for example pointing out that it's now 2007 and not 1787, and things have changed.

One of those changes is that so they've got a police force now and can dial 911 if someone starts getting all infringey of their rights. After all, everyone's got the civil liberty not to be shot dead. Right, Tony D.?

Monday, 24 December 2007

Ringing the climate changes

An unexpected addition to the usual round of Christmas cards and bills was a package from my alma mater, Merton College. It contained a very picturesque calendar, which is even now bringing some seasonal colour and cheer to the smallest room in the house. With it was a note from the Development Director thanking me for my "positive response" to the prosaically named Telephone Campaign.

While delighted that my comments on the campaign have been taken in the spirit in which they were intended, I'm not so impressed with the punctuation and word order in the second sentence of Christine Taylor's short note. "For the first time this year, the Development Office has produced a Merton College Calendar." I think she must mean not that other calendars will be on the way before the end of December, but that 2007 marks the first time since it was founded 700 years ago that Merton has produced a calendar.

Still, it's the season not for quibbling, but for good will. Characteristically, Merton is getting into the spirit by not just thinking warm thoughts but attempting to fund them too, as Warden Dame Jessica Rawson seeks funding from Old Mertonians to "endow in perpetuity" a Research Fellow in the Economics of Climate Change.

Word has it that Al Gore is in the running to follow his old boss to the city of dreaming spires so he can do his bit for climate change by discharging large amounts of CO2 from lecture halls, theatres and churches. The only sticking point is his insistence on bringing with him the crane he uses to track the global warming line graph that is going north faster than icebergs are crashing into the Southern Ocean. If it continues its vertical ascent at the rate Al predicts, there's a real danger that global warming will outstrip Al's own carbon footprint, a world leader in its own right as he flies round the globe with his crane.

Friday, 21 December 2007

Dust to Dust, Ashes to Ashes, Ruin to Ruin

Macau's best kept secret no longer, the Pousada de Mong Ha is where this old ruin will be repairing for a couple of days' R&R. Built 30-odd years ago next to a crumbling 19th century fortress, where you can still see the odd cannon, the hotel is a far cry from the monstrosities that have sprouted to support mainlanders' gambling addiction.

With just 20 rooms, double rooms for HK$600 (rising to HK$800 on weekends and public holidays), not to mention "balconies with an ambience of effortless enjoyment" (would a website for a foreign hotel in standard English actually drive customers away?), Mong Ha is a little oasis. Staffed by students from the Institute for Tourism Studies, it is one of the only hotels in the enclave where you will not receive a call just as you are turning in asking you if you'd like a nice Russian girl ("very clean") for the night.

This drawback apart, the hotel is an excellent base for exploring Macau and provides easy access to important sites such as A Lorcha (still arguably Macau's best restaurant) and La Bonne Heure (definitely its most underrated, courtesy of a Japanese chef who did his training in France).

Our party will be staying in the adjacent Pousada and Mong Ha suites, either of which is highly recommended for couples or families who want to experience a bit of old Macao.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Taking Liberties

My enjoyment of last night's re-run of a 2001 episode of The Weakest Link on what used to be called BBC Prime but is now renamed BBC Entertainment in a triumph of hope over experience was cut short by a clear injustice done to one of the contestants by Anne Robinson, the thinking man's Tyra Banks.

The Queen of Mean asked poor Tom, "Can you still find Mayans in North or South America?" to which Tom answered, as I did, "Yes".

"The correct answer is South America," she retorted, giving him her who's-broken-out-in-a-rash-of-ignorance? look.

But Tom was right and Anne was wrong. Anne hadn't done her preparation properly and got her intonation wrong, stressing "still find" rather than "north" and "south", as she should have done.

"You are surplus to requirements, your phaser is set to stupid. Anne, you are the weakest link. Goodbye."

Still on the theme of silly TV programmes, the other evening I was unfortunate enough that my stroll from study to kitchen to refill my glass of Pinot Noir coincided with one of the mid-programme breaks on Nickelodeon. The best you can say of the voiceovers on Nickelodeon is that they make the father and son team who do the links for ATV and TVB sound almost human and almost coherent.

On this occasion they were promoting yet another meaningless quiz. Hopefully, the prize wasn't English lessons from the voice talent, as he announced in that feverishly moronic manner that characterises this sub-genre of broadcasting that "All those illegible should call the following numbers..."

This morning when I checked my email one headed "One more year, no more damage" was awaiting me from Antony D. Romero, the Execuitve Director of ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union). As it turned out, the message couldn't be much further from the truth.

Antony D. was planning nothing else than a full-frontal assault on my pocket book (or "wallet", as I will call it, staunchly defending my civil liberties and right to remain free from American linguistic imperialism). There followed no fewer than seven Karl Rovian attempts to part me from my hard-earned. By the time I'd read down to the end of the message, I felt as disorientated as a detainee at Guantánamo Bay.

"Give your personal support..." Make your year-end gift now" "DONATE NOW" "Make a 'One More Year, Nor More Damage' year-end donation" "Please make a generous year-end...right now" "Make a year-end gift now..." NOW NOW NOWWW!!

My head spinning, waterboarding began to appeal as a way out. Just as I was about to confess everything, it was the words ofTony D. himself that brought me back to my senses. "We don't have to stand still for any more damage".

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

To My Devoted Servant Dr Li Ka Shing

Like any self-respecting domestic helper in Hong Kong, our amah wouldn't be seen dead in Watsons. Who would when you can get the same stuff much cheaper in an independent chemist's?

Quite why a company which runs 170 stores in Hong Kong and 1,500 shops worldwide can be consistently undersold on most items by a single family-run outfit that gets its stuff from a wholesaler is difficult to comprehend. The fact remains that the massive savings which accrue from buying in bulk and squeezing suppliers for huge discounts do not translate into savings for the customer.

Instead, Mr Li Ka Shing (excuse me, Dr Li) seeks fame beyond the grave by opening buildings that bear his name, bestowing US$70 million on Harry Lee's Singaporean project for "nurturing future generations of policy makers and leaders" – a finishing school for despots and crackpots? – and US$128 on Hong Kong University's Faculty of Medicine.

Yesterday I asked Arneda to compare prices of items she normally buys in the independent shop with prices in Watsons. The results were both predictable and uniform: from razor blades and shaving foam to shampoo and toothpaste, Her Personal Store was more expensive. Just to give one example, a 1000 millilitre bottle of Rejoice shampoo sets you back HK$56.90 at Watsons, but costs just HK$47 down the road.

The flagship of the A.S. Watson Group, Park'n Shop, is no better. Arneda reported that the washing powder she bought at the corner shop for HK$29 was ten dollars cheaper than the same product in Hong Kong's self-proclaimed leading supermarket chain, comprising more than 200 outlets.

So Dr Li, if you're listening, I was deeply moved when I read what you said in Singapore in September, especially your words about serving the people as their best friend and devoted servant. That's beautiful, but could I ask you to get together with Arneda – just the two of you: servant to servant – and do something about your prices?

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Watsons' Salute to Benny Hill

The "A.S. Watson quarterly family magazine – Quarter 3 & 4 2007" landed on my desk yesterday. I had a feeling it was going to be one of those out-of-the-box publications when I spotted that the title of the magazine had been shunted over to the right hand margin of the front cover and inverted so that it could only be read upside-down. All doubt was dispelled when I turned the page and read the blurb: "Wats On is the quarterly family magazine of the A.S. Watson Group…"

Two simple words (one not even a word at all) to communicate the message that Watsons stands for a heck of a lot more than face-whitening packs. With this title, the creative types at the bottled water empire have not merely leapt out of their giant box of Super-Extra-Strong Pampers, they've hurdled the displays of Gigi Leung advertising unpronounceable Fancl products and landed themselves among the vast array of "napkin" manufacturers that all advertise their product with the same blue liquid being emptied onto the same white towel.

But to get a true appreciation of the creativity that has transformed this humble chemist's into "a place that promotes holistic beauty", one must delve a little further into the 40-page publication.

The first hint you get of imagination set free is in the captions for the photos of the company's Health & Beauty Awards (Watsons' equivalent of the "Oscars", we are told). Instead of the more prosaic "third left" assigned to Singapore's Merchandising Director Lum Kwai Yeow in her group shot, the MD of Watsons Philippines, Krish Iyer, occupying the same position, is identified by "white clothes; red scarf". Maintaining the sartorial theme, the Singaporean GM, just two down from Ms Lum, is pinpointed by the rarely seen "middle; pink clothes". This is imagination running wild.

A few pages further on and I was confronted by a sight I thought I would never see: hundreds of Watsons China staff giving the Benny Hill salute under a big character poster presumably proclaiming that laughter is the best medicine. I should really say "variations on the Benny Hill salute", as some have pretty much got it (without, in most cases, sticking the tongue out, though some have got the blink), while some have managed to raise the hand only as far as the cheek and others have overextended their arm so that their hand is in danger of tapping their neighbour's head instead of their own.

Of course, no promotional publication would be complete without a paragraph that goes on to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Cliché. This year's winner is to be found on page 26:

"People are the key to Watsons' success, and RA (Watsons' Retail Academy, AKA the Benny Hill Saluting School) plays a vital role in achieving this. Through RA, teams receive fantastic ongoing development opportunities that will drive excellent customer service and ultimately grow the business while at the same time enhancing people's job satisfaction."

Wats On saves the best till last, though, with a tribute to the generosity of the man who provides staff with the box they can think out of, Li Ka Shing, or as he is styled in this booklet (and why not? he owns it) Dr Li Ka Shing. What first caught my eye was a photo of two old Lies (not a typo – a blend of their two names) shaking hands: Hong Kong's benefactor together with Singapore's favourite eugenicist, Minister Mental Lee Kuan Yew.

The article tells the story of Dr Li's donation of a hundred million Singapore dollars (68 million US, or 530 million Hong Kong) to the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. The plaque unveiled by the Lies makes interesting reading, and is quite unlike what might be found in most universities:

This building is dedicated to Dr Li Ka Shing
in recognition of his generous gift to the
Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy
for all those who choose to serve the people

Almost brought tears to me eyes. What struck me strongest was the emphasis put on choice – free choice, I imagine, I can't really conceive of any other kind – which was also the theme of Dr Li's speech: "To choose to serve your people as their best friend and devoted servant is a most noble thought and conscious choice."

And what, you may be asking, is all the money going to be spent on? The President of NUS fills us in. It will "enhance" (naturally) Harry Lee's School's "capacity to nurture future generations of policy makers and leaders". In other words, more little Lies. That's comforting.

Monday, 17 December 2007

Exposing One's Autistic Side

After one of those time-wasting review episodes last week, we were back to the competition proper in the quest to find America's Next Top Model.

The producers of this tosh (especially the top honcho Tyra Banks, who compensates for shallowness with business acumen bordering on ruthlessness) like their contrasts. So, it was a bit of an irritation to them that two contestants who looked like identical twins were still standing in the round of seven. Both were tall, both were on the anorexic side of thin and both used the same can of peroxide to tend hair that fell half way down their back.

The producers got round this problem by invisibilising one of these women (Jenna) for the duration of the programme, while the other one (Chantal) big-talked her way through the entire episode, which could only mean that she was heading for a fall. Sure enough, when it came to the time for them to be called forward for the final cull, Jenna received her summons from the headmistress early, showing her relief by flashing her buck teeth, while Chantal faced the ultimate humiliation of being paired off with Sarah, the token fatty.

Of course, this being America, the token fatty mustn't be called a fatty. She is called "plus size". As she stood there in her hotpants beside the stick-like Chantal and before the plenteously-bosomed but otherwise perfect form of the goddess herself, part of me wanted to shout out "You have no chance, fatty. Go home now!"

The other part reflected on the fact that here was the only person in the studio who was normal. Set beside six bulimic teenagers, a bloke called Miss J Alexander sporting a Jackson Five afro, an English guy called Nigel (enough said), an English woman called Twiggy (who still gets a kick out of being introduced by her Tyraship as "fashion icon and living legend") and a sleezeball music video director, Sarah had the one quality that isn't going to land you a contract with Fight Acne magazine and a hundred grand. Sanity.

Flying the flag for the nutjobs was Heather, a plain girl whose outstanding features are long black hair, a deathly grey pallor and a large mole on her chin. She is also autistic, as she never ceases to remind everyone. This week, she managed to faint during the filming of the music video scene, although this probably had more to do with a diet that seems to consist of half a banana a day, enough to make anyone autistic, I'd have thought.

Bianca, a sassy kid from the Bronx, was onto Heather's case, accusing her Tyrahood of favouring her at every turn, an accusation that did seem to have some merit in it. Certainly, when the women were thrown some kneepads and told to crawl across the gym floor in a sexy way, Heather's idea of sexy turned out to be Gollum going fishing.

Down to six now, I'm still sticking with my first love, Lisa the beanpole from Jersey with a face to die for, but I think a blacker person will win it. They usually do and they usually deserve to. They seem to have the ability to be totally unselfconscious doing the kind of things that would make most people give up through boredom or in response to the futility of the whole thing. Heather will, I fear, have to learn that life as teacher's pet is a precarious one, that modelling is a cutthroat business and that at day's end it's all about bottom line.

Friday, 14 December 2007

TB or not TB

"Have you got an anadin - I'm coming over a little queer."
"Put it in an email so I can be sure not to read it."

There are two schools of thought about the Hong Kong Tourism Board. One is that it is rather a waste of money, the other that it is a complete waste of money.

At least we now know where some of the money taxpayers provide is going. According to an Audit Commission report, the HKTB gets through more than HK$100 million each year in its drive to attract more mainlanders to Hong Kong Disneyland, the Mickey Mouse theme park whose major contribution to the local economy has been to revive the fortunes of its rival for the tourist renminbi, Ocean Park.

Of that hundred million, according to the HKTB annual report, the package given to the board's former Executive Director, Clara Chong, was more than HK$4 million, the kind of remuneration that would have qualified her (had she still been around) to open her acceptance speech after receiving last month's British Best Asia/Pacific Tourist Board award with the old Barry Norman line "For my money – and pretty good money it is too…"

On top of her salary, bonus and allowances, Clara had taken out medical insurance that was both comprehensive and third-party: comprehensive in that it made provision for helicopters to be on stand-by in case of emergency (one never knows when a nail might break), and third-party in that it covered her family too (not employees of the board, as far as anyone can tell). Legislator Albert Cheng King Hon, the former publisher of Chinese Playboy who had his own brush with the emergency ward after carelessly getting his arms in the way of a triad weaponry display, asked her if her duties included doubling up as a stunt woman. He was probably pretty close to the mark, when you think about it.

At a cost to taxpayers of HK$177,000 over two years, compared to the going rate of a few thousand dollars for senior public officials, here was a health insurance package that even Goofy would realise was on the high side.

But this is after all the Hong Kong Tourism Board, where they produce promotional leaflets whose distribution never gets beyond the warehouse and where employees conduct overseas visits for which, rather novelly, approval is received from superiors after they return to Hong Kong rather than before they leave.

If you like your thinking out of the box, then the HKTB is the place for you.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Religion Teaching Men the Limits of their Reason

Reading Michael Ignatieff's biography (bordering at times on hagiography) of Isaiah Berlin brought home the power of the Jewish identity, what Ignatieff calls "the role of Jewishness in defining ultimate commitments". When Berlin, employed by the British Foreign Office, was faced in 1943 with the choice between loyalty to the Jewish cause or loyalty to Britain, he informed a Zionist newspaper publisher in New York (and through him US Government Officials) of a proposed Roosevelt-Churchill joint statement condemning Zionist agitation, thus sabotaging the plan.

As Berlin got older, he also became, like so many nominally non-religious Jews, more open to religious practice and the possibility of religious truth. As Ignatieff notes, Berlin was repelled by the callow anti-clericalism of the Voltairian Enlightenment and traced most of the evils of the twentieth century to the idolatry of secular reason. As he wrote at the age of 82, "Stone-dry atheists don't understand what men live by". Berlin's respect for the Jewish tradition, and for religious feeling in general, was based on the conviction that it taught men the limits of their reason.

A temptation for both religious and secular people (for all, indeed, who share the common denominator of being human) is to forget that the scientific spirit of inquiry is "the spirit of the search for truth, as opposed to the belief in its possession", as Karl Popper writes in his monumental Open Society and Its Enemies. The problem with thinking one "possesses" the truth, whether it be about child-rearing or about a Palestinian homeland, is that such "possession" gives the right – or even more dangerously, the responsibility, as perceived by its adherents – to proclaim the truth.

Socrates' motto "Know Yourself" and his insistence on how little he really knew means not that we should say that we know nothing (a rather arrogant thing to say, and potentially highly dangerous, as all such phoniness is) but that we should live with a constant awareness of our limitations, especially the limitations of our knowledge. An understanding that the certainty of objective truth doesn't apply to scientific theories such as Darwinian evolution or to religious dogma is a good place to start.

A declamatory moralising tone – religious zeal itself – is not the sole preserve of Bible-bashers. Reflecting on the evangelical character of many evolutionists in the Darwinian controversy, physicist and sociologist J.D. Bernal concluded: "it was not…that science had to fight an external enemy, the Church; it was that the Church…was within the scientists themselves".

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Christmas in the Cathedral

It was standing room only last night at the annual Light Up A Life Christmas Concert at Hong Kong's prime, and only, piece of freehold real estate, St John's Cathedral.

An event presided over by the local vicar, Matthew Vernon, proved to be a bit of a curate's egg. The uncharitable might say that the high note of the evening was struck by the Christmas tree, which came to life, and light, during a rendition of the haunting Silent Night, but that would be churlish on an evening when an estimated half a million dollars was being raised for the Society for the Promotion of Hospice Care, as worthy a charity as you can think of.

The concert got off to an unsteady start with the police trumpeter having difficulty coaxing the right notes from his instrument, resulting in a "fanfare" that sounded as if it might be hospice bound.

First up among the three special guest acts was the Filipino Fellowship Choir, consisting of domestic helpers dressed in white blouses and what looked like carpets made by Afghan refugees. In his introduction, the Rev. Vernon said they would be singing three songs, which was at odds with the programme, which had them down for two: Zion Call and Come Fill My World. In the event, the performance had something of the quality of Status Quo, the British band that only have one tune, but play it at slightly different speeds with different words. Probably different words, I should say, as Francis Rossi and his men aren't really big on lyrics.

The congregation hardly had time to negotiate its way through The First Nowell (the one with the famous refrain "Gilzean! Gilzean! Born is the king of White Hart Lane") before the organiser of the event, resplendent in rose-coloured jacket, took the microphone. Taking her queue from the trumpeter, she duly fluffed her lines, but not before she'd informed the assembled that she had run the event for 13 years and was more than just a figurehead, twice reminding us that she was every bit as much a helper as the other 500 volunteers who visit the Bradbury Hospice in Sha Tin. Her speech was lent a particularly Christmassy feel by her reference to "My husband and I", made, if I wasn't mistaken, with a slight movement of a gloved hand.

Next up were the sexily titled Pro-Musica Chorus and SAR Philharmonic Orchestra (not to be confused with the Hong Kong Philharmonic or the Hong Kong China Philharmonic), who performed Vivaldi's Gloria in D major (a sort of Four Seasons with singing). After a dodgy start, the tenors and basses picked up and matched the sopranos and altos, who looked like Edwardian governesses in their ivory-coloured tops and long black skirts. In the unforgiving acoustics of a packed church, most of the various soloists who stepped forward to sign their bits lacked the necessary power to carry to the back of the nave, but it was nice to see a choir letting their own members sing the solo parts rather than bringing in professionals, and it suited the occasion.

The short straw fell to James Francis, a member of the Hong Kong Welsh Male Voice Choir, and a Welsh one to boot, who had to follow the tree lighting. His sing-song tone was well suited to Dylan Thomas's "A Child's Christmas in Wales" and he was going well before the excitement of the fire at Mr Prothero's got to him and he briefly lost his place.

Next came the evening's headline act, the men in black with scarlet trim, looking as if they were auditioning for the part of Dr Evil. Their first piece, Amen, started on several notes before merging into unison, but once they'd warmed up, they gave it plenty of hwyl - Welsh for oomph. The baritone soloist in the second piece, When a Child is Born, was the evening's standout performer, combining richness of tone with the power to carry to the west door. A less showy, but musically sensitive, performance was given by the soloist in Cantique de Noel, a fellow with a striking resemblance to what Matthew Broderick in Glory would have looked like 20 years on if he'd survived the assault on Fort Wagner.

A couple of carols and a blessing later and it was time for the mince pies and mulled wine in the Cathedral garden.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Prevent Contracting

These days one is never quite sure what dreaded lurgy is undergoing plastic surgery, altering its genetic composition and preparing to descend on the unsuspecting burghers of Nigeria and China.

Perhaps the mutant killers are especially sensitive to emails from the widows of the late Nigerian Head of State, or sent into evolutionary overdrive when subjected to endless repetitions of the official Olympic chant "China China, ha ha ha! China, China must win!" at sessions across the Mainland.

Whatever the reason, Hong Kong's Food and Environmental Hygiene Department is taking no risks. Last week, a sign went up in the local park on the only tree that wasn't already festooned with interdictions against a variety of hazardous practices, including sleeping on benches and walking on the grass.

Unfortunately, the message seems to have been the victim of a virus or worm of its own. "Prevent contracting," it proclaims. "Don't feed wild birds."

Perhaps the sign writer, doubtless himself contracted out by the department to enhance efficiency, was confused by the proximity of the local hospital. Alternatively, faced with the annual migration of Mainland women to give birth in our maternity wards, the government wanted to kill two birds with one stone.

I noticed yesterday that the sign had been taken down. Someone from the Census and Statistics Department must have alerted their counterparts at FEHD of the dire consequences of cutting off the revenue stream of Hong Kong's obstetricians and midwives. With the local birth-rate the lowest in the world, you don't need to be Anson Chan to recognise a livelihood issue when one threatens to make a fellow HKU graduate trade in his Mercedes for a BMW.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Frowning on Suggestions

While clearing the pile of newspapers that had built up on my carpet, I caught sight of a piece from last month's Standard which captured more of the essence of Hong Kong than any number of columns by people with names like Frank Ching, Bernard Chan, Lau Nai Keung or Kitty something-or-other.

A spokesman for Hong Kong's taxi drivers (whose "Knowledge" is restricted to how to get to Jockey Club betting shops with adjacent noodle shops where they can leave the engine running while they refuel) was pressing for a HK$1 fuel surcharge.

Mr. To Sun Tong said taxi drivers were angry (nothing new there, I thought), "living in poverty", and facing lots of "pressure" (together with "busy", Hong Kong's favourite self-referencing word: babies, schoolkids, schoolteachers, dead people – everyone faces extra "pressure" here).

It wasn't just the rising price of LPG that was making your average cabbie resemble a pressure-cooker about to blow; the proposed legislation against idling engines was leading many of his members to consider a life on the dole. With an ineluctable logic (albeit probably not the kind he had in mind), To added: "We can't control taxi drivers if they become irrational."

I'm not sure whether the people at are irrational, but I wish they would stop inventing ergative uses for transitive verbs. I wince every time I read their message telling me that goodies are on the way: "Your order has dispatched". Why they can't write "Your order has been dispatched", or " has dispatched your order", I don't know.

Of rationality, Popper wrote that it is "not a property of men, nor a fact about men. It is a task for men to achieve – a difficult and a severely limited task". He also wrote: "it is obvious that even the most rational of men are in many respects highly irrational". And he never even visited Hong Kong, so far as I know.

A friend of mine who works for Outward Bound in the wilds of Sai Kung has first-hand experience of this irrationality. He recently wrote to the minibus company whose missiles stop at his place of work, asking them if they could change the name of the stop from "Ah Kung Wan" to "Outward Bound", as this would mean more to people who were visiting, especially first-time visitors. He also pointed out that there were two other Ah Kung Wans in Sai Kung, and so it wasn't the smartest choice of name anyway.

This morning he got their reply. It concluded as follows: "To avoid confounding passengers who take this route and other routes which halt at this stop, we frown on the suggestion". Well, it didn't actually end like that. It had this gratuitous – and very annoying – little bit at the end: "Once again, thank you for taking the time to write to us."

I want to ask him if his pressure has been relieved after receiving that reply but fear he might explode.

Friday, 7 December 2007

No Hair on the G String

I have two recordings of Bach's Goldberg Variations. One is an arrangement for string trio, and the other a straight version, or as straight as you get from Glenn Gould. With his noises off, thankfully confined to the bonus tracks, he must have been the inspiration for David Helfgott, Australia's biggest show-off – and he had to beat off some pretty stiff competition to secure that title.

In the programme notes to yesterday's performance at the City Hall by the Jacques Loussier Trio, we were told that "many pianists have torn their hair out" over the variations, but that pianist Jacques Loussier "is not one of them". This may be true, but the same cannot be said of the double bassist, Benoit Dunoyer de Segonza, any resemblance between the man on stage and the photo on the programme cover being entirely coincidental.

In the publicity shot he's right up there in the middle-aged girlie galaxy with the Eagles' Timothy B. Schmidt and the fellow in Air Supply's backing group who prances round the stage during "All Out of Love" shaking his head up and down like a horse in the winners' enclosure at Happy Valley.

In the event, they didn't play the Goldberg Variations, not least, I suspect, because they last for nearly an hour and a half, which is how much time these veterans allowed themselves on stage before they shuffled off for their chocolat chaud. But they did manage a handful of other Bach numbers, including the Prelude Number One in C and the Pastorale in C minor, as well as the tune that sold a thousand Hamlet health sticks, Air on the G String.

When the trio opened the second half with the soporific "Summer" from Vivaldi's Four Seasons and the ethereal Gymnopédie Number One by Erik Satie, one could be forgiven for thinking there'd been a mix-up in their schedule and they thought they'd wandered into the neonatal intensive care unit at Queen Mary's Hospital.

Suddenly waking up to the realisation that those were adult Hong Kongers in front of him and not premature babies (he should have known anyway from the mobile phones going off), Jacques galvanised his men in a stirring rendition of Maurice Ravel's Bolero to conclude the evening's entertainment.

The only problem was that André Arpino on drums wasn't playing ball. To be more specific, he wasn't playing his side drum, even though this is the world's most famous piece for side drum – just ask Torvill and Dean – and he had a perfectly good one in his drum kit. Instead, he was playing his metal drum, which, if you closed your eyes like those premature babies at Queen Mary's, sounded more like a tin can being struck by an eggbeater.

André finally cottoned on, but only after Benoit had provided the highlight of the night with a nice jammy bit in the middle (and the Bolero has a lot of middle). Coiling himself round his instrument like an anaconda, plucking the strings with gusto and throwing his right arm out to the left as if he were spinning a frisbee, André caught both the disc and the idea.

The only disconcerting note of the evening was struck in the Gents, where signs warned us not to "dispose hard objects down the toilet". What do the boffins at the Leisure and Cultural Services Department think patrons are going to do? Cut if off?

Thursday, 6 December 2007

History, not Bunk

A recent letter in the SCMP touched on history. The writer, an A-level student of Chinese history, bemoaned local people's ignorance of the subject, showing her courage (or was it naivety?) by citing Sir Donald's opinion that the loony Cultural Revolution was an instance of democracy.

Amy Law of Tuen Mun argues that "having an understanding of the past can help the next generation recognise China's successes and enhance [there's that word again] the sense of national identity". It is for these reasons, she says, that "our students must study Chinese history".

Amy's letter is a vivid demonstration of the value of the good teacher, an endangered breed not native to Hong Kong and a progressively less frequent visitor.

R.G. Collingwood would have made a good teacher, I imagine, and 60 odd years after his death we still have his Idea of History, which was all the rage among philosophers of history in the austere post-war years.

The first question that Amy might ask herself (or better still her teacher) is what history should be. To Collingwood, it was primarily "an answering of questions pursued by interpretation of evidence for the sake of human self-knowledge".

The second question that a historian should ask is what a parent should ask when they see a broken plate and a child in close proximity: not "why?" but "what?" For Collingwood, the poverty of many "committed" historians (whether theocentric or atheistic) lies in their tendency to look away from man's actions in order to detect the plan of their "god", thus neglecting the prime duty of the historian, a willingness to bestow infinite pains on discovering what actually happened.

What Amy is propounding is a kind of romanticised pseudo-history, driven by passion and prejudice, whose purpose is not to discover the truth about the past but to express the author's feelings towards it. Isaiah Berlin was referring to something very similar when he coined the phrase "the tyranny of identity politics": the obsessive elaboration of an identity distinguishably one's own, safe from contamination by other races or nationalities.

As Collingwood says, the problem with patriotic history (and this applies equally to history inspired by liberal, humanitarian or socialist ideals) is that it has no higher function than to express either the historian's love and admiration for his subject, or else his hatred and contempt for it. He's either spinning or debunking.

The true value of history is not practical (giving instruction in the art of politics and practical life) but theoretical, consisting in truth. History "is not a passive surrender to the spell of another's mind; it is a labour of active and therefore critical thinking. The historian not only re-enacts past thought, he re-enacts it in the context of his own knowledge and therefore, in re-enacting it, criticises it, forms his own judgement of its value, corrects whatever errors he can discern in it. The criticism of the thought whose history he traces is not something secondary to tracing the history of it. It is an indispensable condition of the historical knowledge itself".

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Scrotal Recall

"You will recall that when we contacted you during the Telephone Campaign, you very kindly offered to make a gift of 530 pounds a year for at least 3 years to the College."

So begins the latest letter from my alma mater, Merton College, Oxford. The first hint that cash is not pouring in to the Mertonian coffers is contained in the rather grandiose name they've decided to give to the round of telephone calls made by undergraduates to alumni a couple of months ago. "Telephone Campaign" does have a certain ring to it, I suppose, even if it evokes memories of Terry Wogan and his telethons for the charity Children in Need. Not that Michael Terence has been overly beneficent over the past 27 years, only waiving his 9,000 pound fee this year after it was revealed that he was the sole celebrity accepting payment for their work.

The second sign that all is not going according to plan is that one Mertonian in the US has made his donation of quarter of a million smackers dependent on the same sum being raised "outside of the US". Currently, according to the Development Director, Christine Taylor, sounding as plaintive as Mia Farrow in a Woody Allen melodrama, we other slackers have only chipped in with one third of what Joe Dough is pledging.

Reading between the lines, it is easy to see what is putting the Brits off. In her original letter, Ms Taylor told us that one beneficiary of our hard-earned would be Junior Common Room "extra-curricular activities". As someone who spent many happy hours relaxing in the JCR, I can testify to the wide range of activities that its members get up to after hours, but the niggard in me holds the view that these are not really the sort of enterprises that should be funded by old men in suits, even one topped off with a stetson. Call me an old capitalist, but there are certain things that should remain "outside of" the purview of welfarism, as Mr Dough might put it.

Ms Taylor switches the emphasis of her most recent missive to safer projects, such as the Choral Foundation and the College Lodge Rebuilding Fund, but the damage, I fear, has already been done. And even then, just as she's shoring up her defences, she scores another own goal by highlighting the "Tutorial System Support Fund" as a worthy home for our wedge. If, as is implied, the time-honoured one-on-one tutorial faces extinction if the dons aren't paid more for sitting in an armchair and pretending to listen as a hungover 19-year-old reads his essay on "Social Constructivism in the Lysistrata", then perhaps it's time to scrap them altogether rather than pretending they are an integral part of the learning experience.

Ms Taylor signs off by expressing the hope that she'll be able to welcome us back to the city of dreaming spires one day soon. Well, Christine, I'm not sure if, like Schwarzenegger, I'll be back this year or next, but might I suggest that in the meantime you work on your recall a bit? It may prove more profitable than a grab for the balls.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Maid in Hong Kong

As I was driving into work this morning, a minibus drew alongside me. I knew it was a minibus not only because of the screech and the 16 pairs of white knuckles plainly visible through the tattered posters telling me to vote for Regina Ip, but also because of the advertisement for foreign domestic helpers that adorned the body of the missile.

There were the usual telephone numbers to ring, name of the agency, "Technic Employment Service Limited", and photo of happy Chinese kid (boy, of course), but something was wrong – or at least different. Instead of a Filipino or Indonesian maid beaming at me with duster in hand, the kid was surrounded by his parents, proudly holding up his Grade 8 Piano Certificate and his letter of admission to Stanford University on a Fulbright Scholarship.

As an example of thinking out of the box, this advertisement stands out, but it's only the latest in a line of creative outdoor advertising for maid recruitment agencies, which, like everything else in these booming economic times, are experiencing unprecedented growth. Soon, even the mainlanders in Tin Shui Wai will be hiring their own helpers. Or maybe that should be the other way round.

The original minibus advertisement featured a rustic looking Filipina, not unlike Maria, the 1980s send-up of a Filipino servant on TVB's Enjoy Yourself Tonight. Dark of skin, muscular of frame and bright of smile, she looked as if she'd gone straight from the paddy fields of Luzon to Brother Mike's Overseas Domestic Helper Apprentice Training School Inc. in Manila.

Then there was an intermediate stage, when the agencies used photos of Filipino women lined up in blue dress and white pinafores, or listening attentively behind desks as a local lectured them on the finer points of car-washing, bringing up Hong Kong children and not getting AIDS on their day off.

The next stage still featured a rank of Filipino women smiling to attention, dusters by their sides, but a hint at the transition to come was provided if you looked at the face of the solo Filipina pictured with the pre-schooler. Her eyes were blue. So it was really only a matter of time before the Filipinas were airbrushed out of the picture altogether to be replaced by a family photo.

Something, I thought, was strangely familiar about the group shot of Ma, Pa and Little Emperor, but it wasn't until I got to the office that I realised what it was. They were the same family that features in the government API ("announcement for the public interest" for the blessed uninitiated) which tells us what we should and shouldn't watch on TV. If I recall correctly, they star in the segment where the little boy puts his hand in front of his dad's face to stop him watching the Cable Adult Channel. What I always wanted to know was why he didn't shield his mum's eyes and why she's smiling so much. I think I'll ring Technic Employment Service and find out.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Quitting While You're Ahead

Give me pop culture over self-indulgent "art" any day – even pop programmes like America's Next Top Model, which takes itself with a seriousness that is so disproportionate to its true value that, when someone strips away the patina of authoritative sophistication, it leaves the viewer with a warm glow, a renewed faith in humanity and some hope for America.

This week a black girl called Ebony (anyone heard of a white girl called Ivory?) decided that a life dedicated to selling people stuff they neither want not need by starving herself and listening to the contradictory instructions of affected Frenchmen with cameras and transvestite runway queens was not for her. Having survived the cull, Ebony said "Thanks, but no thanks" to the show's creator, owner and star, Tyra Banks, forcing her to reinstate the girl she'd just fired, Ambreal, who has as much chance of making it as a model as Tottenham Hotspur have of keeping a clean sheet.

To watch the mask slip from Tyra's immaculate visage was reward for sitting through Twiggy's vacuous comments ("this is real high fashion…great bone-structure…this is her second best picture") and the incomprehensible mumblings of Jean-Claude Le Tripod. To be witness to Tyra's incomprehension that any 20-year-old would pass up the chance to spend another week being beamed into American living rooms on her show made compelling viewing for anyone whose values go more than skin deep. To look on as Tyra told this young woman of common sense and good character that the one thing she hated was a quitter underscored Ebony's discernment and wisdom. Here was someone who knew that the best thing to do when you've made a wrong decision is to face up to it and undo it.

Over at America's Got Talent, Regis Philbin, the senescent host with the wandering hands, introduced another wondrous performance by eleven-year-old Bianca Ryan, the singing phenomenon compared to Liza Minnelli by panellist David Hasselhoff in a rare moment of inspiration. Thankfully, this week the camera cut just as Regis was encircling Bianca's waist with his left arm. With a portrait in his attic doing most of his ageing for him, is this man so big that no one can have a quiet word in his ear about his touchy-feeliness?

"You continue like this and you'll win it," Piers Morgan told Bianca, showing a commendable ability to praise the girl without patronising her or using the word "awesome". As for the American guy whose ability to get his wife to change her clothes in a nanosecond has led to an expression of interest from Marks & Spencer's for the Christmas and New Year Sales' period, he got all defensive when Piers gave them the thumbs down again ("We've performed in 15 countries for three royal families" – a rather un-American boast, I thought) before applying the coup de grace by telling Piers he wasn't qualified to be a judge.

Of course he's right (Piers isn't even qualified to be a journalist), but sitting there next to Hasselfhoff and Brandy, Piers's words have the weight that Einstein's would have if he shared a stage with James Tien and Selina Chow. Given the validity of Piers's repeated criticism of the act – that it, unlike the woman, never changes – not to mention that it's not in the nature of celebrity panellists to look kindly on those who attack one of their own, one feels it's only a matter of time for these two. My money's on Piers persuading the bimbo and himbo combo to vote them through to the final to make his revenge all the sweeter.

I should have called it a day after my televisual feast. Instead, I wasted two hours and ten minutes watching the dull and brutalizing Perfume: the Story of a Murderer. The premise of the film is so far-fetched that inevitably, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it has been hailed by some as a masterpiece.

Dustin Hoffman stars as Baldini, an Italian perfumer (or "perfumerer", as he calls it once, daring anyone on the set to correct him). But ageing Americans are in, as anyone who watches 60 Minutes or flies United knows, and Hoffman needs no further encouragement to ham it up, switching Italian burr and Scottish brogue with impunity, frequently in the same sentence. Perhaps Baldini's read too many of those surveys where women say they find these two accents the sexiest, or perhaps he knows the days are numbered for perfumerers and his descendants will earn their living selling ice cream on Clydeside.

Inevitably, the director finally cottons on, arranging for Baldini's multi-storey apartment block on a bridge on the Seine to come tumbling down like a pack of cards and allowing Hoffman to get out of the film before it can get any worse.