Thursday, 31 January 2008

Occult Simplicity

The French revolutionaries strove for what James Billington calls "occult simplicity". (Occult because, where's there's revolution, there's always a few wacky freemasons hanging about, ready to try out a new handshake and design some weird diagrams which will later be discovered by a Japanese businessman and incorporated in the logo for a new car).

"At the root of everything lay the passionate desire of thinking people to find a simple, unifying norm for society like the law of gravity that Newton had found for nature."

I rather think it the case that modern day revolutionaries still strive for simplicity. This has not only to do with the size of the average revolutionary's brain but also with the desire for dominion, the need to control others – and especially their thinking.

The trend towards simplification has always been marked by the habit of substituting labels for arguments, as evidenced today by dross such as "moral equivalence", "cognitive dissonance", "stability and prosperity", "gradual and orderly change", and so on.

For a labellist, the main problem is that people whose views differ for yours (but who are actually pretty similar in the way that matters most, as they want to have the power you've currently got) can come along and co-opt your labels.

Thus, words like "liberal" and "radical" (and even "nation") had already acquired new, or additional, meanings by the end of the nineteenth century, and today "liberal" has declined into being nothing much more than an insult in many parts of the world –wherever I happen to be living, for one.

Nowhere is the decline of words (or death of words – verbicide, as C.S. Lewis calls it) more apparent than in China, where the function of "People" in People's Republic of China reminds me of a story told by Corrie ten Boom in her book The Hiding Place.

Together with her family, this Dutch watchmaker harboured Jews and members of the Dutch resistance from the Nazis before she was sent to Ravensbrück, from which she was one of the few to be released. Being asked by a child how people who betrayed their neighbours to the Nazis could call themselves Christians, she replied "Just because a mouse gets into the biscuit tin doesn't make it a biscuit".

Billington researched and wrote his book in the 1970s, when world domination by the Soviet Union was still seen as a real threat. Nonetheless, his warning is just as appropriate today, as it seems the "contemporary world" doesn't change much from one generation to the next. "The origins of revolutionary words and symbols is of more than antiquarian interest; for, in the contemporary world where constitutions and free elections are vanishing almost as rapidly a monarchs, revolutionary rhetoric provides the formal legitimation of most political authority."

"Patriotism" is a word that long ago lost any real, living meaning in this part of the world, and is now used merely for its irrational – occult – ability to bamboozle the gullible. Joyce links to a recent evocation of patriotism by a member of China's ruling class, the thinly-veiled warning masquerading as a welcome issued to Hong Kong's 36 members of the National People's Congress Standing Committee: "I believe the deputies of the new session will embrace the constitution and the Basic Law and they will carry on the honoured tradition of loving the country and loving Hong Kong."

Most of the "elected" Hong Kong deputies will play follow my leader and accept the "radically simplified" prosperity-and-stability line. Self-interest will see to that. Thinking people tend to complicate political calculation – hence the special contempt that is always reserved for them by true believers.

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Yes, Eunuch Wonderful Tonight


"Shall we geld him too, Mary?"
"Oh, James, I love it when you talk dirty!"

Swamped with Eunuchs

I am grateful to American historian James Billington for his account of how the words left and right entered politics.

For a time, in post-revolutionary France, left and right fought it out with mountain and plain for supremacy, as the search intensified for the best "spatial sanctification of immaterial ideas" (I think he means metaphor).

The middle position in the French assembly became known as "the swamp" (le marais) – the morass occupied by those unfit for either land or sea. Writing his Études Révolutionaires in 1845, A. Ducoin characterised le marais in polarised terms that anticipated later radicals' denunciation of the centre as unprincipled and opportunistic:

"Between these two extremes, men of secret votes and silent cowardice stagnate, always devoted to the strongest party and serving the powers that be. The place occupied by these eunuchs in the Convention was called the Swamp; it is called the Centre in modern assemblies."

It seems we in Hong Kong are uncommonly blessed with eunuchs. If this were a Chinese storybook and had to end with a neat apophthegm (you won't believe how long it took to find the correct spelling for that – I've been wanting to use it for ages), I think I might draw a picture of Rita Fan talking to James Tien. (Actually, I don't think either of them do listening, so let's rephrase that as Rita Fan talking to James Tien while James Tien talks to Rita Fan.)

Rita (holding folio of Études Révolutionaires): "Read this? Says eunuchs make the best bootlickers."

James (raising eyebrows): "Neuter me."

Sorry about that. It's been a hard day.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Fire in the Minds of Men

There's a character in Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel The Devils (also known as The Possessed) called Governor Lembke. He's a nutjob who provides comic relief among all the revolutionary plotting and counter-plotting of this rather uneven, yet entertaining, work by the Russian master.

As a fire (deliberately set, of course) rages in front of him, Lembke shouts to a policeman, who, unbeknown to the dotty governor, has been detailed to keep an eye on him, about the danger facing one of the firemen.

"Pull him down! Pull him down! He'll fall through! He'll catch fire! Put him out! What is he doing there?"

"He's putting out the fire, sir."

"Not likely. The fire's in the minds of men, and not on the roofs of houses."


Fire in the Minds of Men was the title chosen by James Billington, one time pupil of Isaiah Berlin, for his 1980 book charting the origins of revolution, or, to be more accurate, what he calls "revolutionary faith".

Since I have recently been going through something of a Russian period (Nadezdha Mandelstam's Hope Against Hope, Billington's book, the third in Laurence Rees's excellent trilogy for the BBC, War of the Century - a documentary about the 30-odd million people who died after one loony, Hitler, invaded a country whose leaderhip had been usurped by another, Stalin - topped off by re-reading War and Peace), one thing that keeps striking me is how unrevolutionary - temperamentally and philosophically - I am, and always have been. Anti-revolutionary, in fact.

"Nothing binds people more than complicity in the same crime", writes Nadia Mandelstam. But the message of Billington's book is that it needn't be a crime that binds people. Such is the human desire for belonging, for contracting alliances with like-minded people and for excluding others, that revolutionary zeal (with little thought for the direction of the zeal or the consequences of success in the revolution) offers the kind of ties that many people are pleased to be bound by.

And the types of people that can be bound in this way are very broad, including much of the so-called intelligentsia and many "ordinary" middle-class people. Of course, the one class that seldom gives a fig for revolutions are the people on whose behalf they are ostensibly made, the working class who have to really work to earn a living and who just want to earn a bit more and live more comfortably.

Mandelstam, who's possessed of quite the impish sense of humour, uses a couple she knew, Larisa Reisner and Fedor Raskolnikov, arriviste Bolsheviks who made good in post-revolutionary Russia, to stand as types of the revolutionary hypocrite. (Is there any other kind, one is tempted to ask, the more one learns about the reality of revolution?)

"Larisa and her husband justified themselves by saying that, as people engaged in building a new order, it would have been sheer hypocrisy for them to deny themselves their due as incumbents of power. Larisa was ahead of her time in fighting 'egalitarianism' even before it was denounced."

According to Mandelstam, the very word "Revolution" played a key role in hoodwinking so many intellectuals:

"My brother Evgeni used to say that the decisive part in the subjugation of the intelligentsia was played not by terror and bribery (though, God knows, there was enough of both), but by the word 'Revolution', which none of them could bear to give up. It is a word to which whole nations have succumbed, and its force was such that one wonders why our rulers still needed prisons and capital punishment."

As I said, this woman, like many top brains – real thinkers – is very funny.

Monday, 28 January 2008

Pain and Prejudice

White Americans know the depth of the contempt felt by most white people for black people. They also know how to leap onto their white chargers in full chain-mail, pull the visor down over their face (with the little slit you're meant to see through covered up), and charge off to attack straw men, or in a recent case a straw woman.

Kelly Tilghman works as an announcer for the Golf Channel on the goggle box. Sam Donnellon writes a column for something called McClatchy-Tribune, which is picked up by Hong Kong's Sunday Morning Post. Kelly joked on air that the only way Tiger Woods' opponents could beat him was by lynching him. As a result, she's being lynched by hacks like Sam while being force fed fried chicken by Fuzzy Zoeller.

What the poor woman (who, as always seems to be the case, is a "good friend to Tiger Woods") said was, according to Saint Sam, "stupidity…based on insensitivity". For "insensitivity" that "creates pain for a whole class of others", the blessed one intones, Kelly must spend "the coming months, years and decades…prov[ing] the sincerity" of her apology, proving "that she gets it and understands the hurt her word choice caused to the African-American community".

Whatever.

Talk about straining at a gnat. Of course, Tiger had to come across all outraged, so as not to further alienate black people, and sure enough he "forgave her publicly" last week, issuing a bull declaring that "we all say things we do regret, and that's certainly a moment she does regret", adding the roles of amanuensis and parish priest to that of best golfer in the world.

Meanwhile, in the Democratic Primaries, the world's phoniest woman, Hillary Rodham-Clinton ("Or shall I drop the "Rodham" when running for President as I'll get more votes as just "Clinton", seeing as there's all those uneducated black folks who'll vote for me thinking I'm the Clinton with the charm?"), is in a battle with Barack Obama that makes televised wrestling seem wholesome and edifying. The reality of so-called race relations in the US is encapsulated in all the talk (not to mention, the "walk") of the "white flight" from Obama.

I've always disliked calling a prejudice an "-ism". To me, calling something an "-ism" encourages the abolition of thinking – the "-ism" will do your thinking for you. And when we stop thinking, or create a climate in which others are encouraged to stop thinking, we tend to start behaving worse than we did before. What's more, the use of prefabricated words and phrases that do your thinking for you discourages people from making the most of their prejudices. It makes them think that prejudices are utterly bad things and irredeemably bad things. But they're not.

As Allan Bloom wrote in his Closing of the American Mind, "the mind that has no prejudices at the outset is empty." Prejudices "are divinations of the order of the whole of things, and hence the road to a knowledge of that whole is by way of erroneous opinions about it. Error is indeed our enemy, but it alone points to the truth and therefore deserves our respectful treatment".

Bloom once had a debate about education with a professor of psychology, who said it was his function to get rid of prejudices in his students. Bloom writes, "I began to wonder what he replaced those prejudices with ... I found myself responding ... that I personally tried to teach my students prejudices, since nowadays – with the general success of his method – they had learned to doubt beliefs even before they had any".

Friday, 25 January 2008

Look No Hans! Wookiee Takes Controls



Andy Murray, the Scottish Number One seeded nine at the Australian Open, will be sitting a lot happier today. His conqueror in the first round, the Wookiee known as Tsonga ("big boy" in Shyriiwook) before he was adopted by Harrison Ford and given the hermaphrodite name Jo-Wilfried – as no one could be sure with all that fur around – allowed Rafael Nadal just seven games in as clinical a display as you could hope to see.

It was all over so fast that I missed the entire match, only getting back in time to see Chewie, as he prefers to be called, giving his trademark thumbs down salute. Now, a lot has been said and written about this celebration, with speculation ranging from the ridiculous (Chewie thinks that since he is "down under" he has to reverse his gestures for them to come out the right way up) to the sublime (he is creating a force field to send a message back to his old mates at The Red Lion on Kashyyyk, who told him he'd never make it on the ATP Tour and would end up coaching spoiled expat kids at the Hong Kong Country Club).

The reason is in fact much more prosaic – I checked on Wookipedieea. As anyone who's test driven one will know, the one thing a spaceship lacks is space, especially when it's design is based on a frisbee, like the Millennium Falcon. Relaxing one evening over a game of Uno with Harrison Ford, Chewie recovered from a seemingly hopeless position when Ford forgot to say "Uno" when he had the Wookiee holding a fistful of cards.

Chewie duly played his "Exchange Cards" card, vocalised "Uno" (speaking is out for a Wookiee, as he cannot move his tongue or lips and has to communicate by locking the jaw open to allow sound to emanate from the throat – check the photo again) and won the game. His celebration was wild but short-lived, as, leaping high in the air, he forgot how low the ceiling was. Both thumbs broken and reassigned from co-pilot to data input duties, Chewie got R2-D2 to stop flirting with C-3PO and come up with an alternative mode of celebration.

The women's final on Saturday should be a cracker, as the aesthetically overrated but talented and tough Siberian from Florida, Maria Sharapova, takes on the hottest player on the WTA Tour, Ana Ivanovic. Sharapova in straight sets – as Ana loses her serve and her nerve.

The men's final on Sunday should be a cracker, whoever comes up on Chewbacca's radar. I have a feeling that Djoković will pull out the big one this evening and down The Fed. So long as it's not a marathon, I expect him to go on and beat Chewie in the final. But, I'm almost always wrong. And, anyway, what I'm really concerned about is my daughter's scheduled junior tennis match tonight at the Country Club.

What sort of devoted father I must be to be watching her dob it back and forth over the net for two hours in freezing drizzle rather than have my feet up in front of the crystal bucket with a glass of red in one hand and a notebook for taking down the best Colemanballs in the other!

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Not Just a Tennis Player, Also a Pretty Face

The semi-final line-up for the Australian Open tennis confirms, if any confirmation were needed, that the balance of power in world tennis has finally shifted from Great Britain to Greater Slavia.

Step aside, Annabel Croft and Buster Mottram, and hail (not "Heil!" – no Croats in this list) the Court of Belgrade (or Bui Yi Gak Loi Dak, as it is marvellously called in Cantonese, spiralling from just two syllables to five).

Taking the ladies first (one can but fantasise), the Siberian with the skin condition, Maria Sharapova, will take on the Serb with the blistering forehand and Neanderthal forehead, Jelena Janković.



Then, Slovakian stick-insect Daniela Hantuchova will fall prey to Ana Ivanović, definitely the BLB (best looking bird) in world tennis. (Okay, I'm still fantasising. I know I shouldn't, being old enough to be her older brother.)



The Australians – who haven't produced a women's singles champion for 30 years, when Chris O'Neil (hardly a fair dinkum name for a sheila, anyway) beat Betsy Nagelsen, who was only warming up for her next role as typist for husband Mark McCormack's newspaper column "Success Secrets" – have adopted Ana as one of their own. The women, anyway. Red-blooded Ockers are thinking "adoption" more on the Woody Allen Soon-Yi Previn model.

Making Ana an Aussie is an interesting example of the phenomenon referred to as back formation in linguistics, whereby a new word is created from an existing word falsely assumed to be its derivative. Thus, "couth" has been invented in recent years by removing the prefix from "uncouth", which has been around – especially in Australia – for hundreds of years.

The point of this fascinating digression is to point out how desperate the "original" Aussies (the O'Neils and Hewitts of this world, or "convicts", for short) are to claim as their own the Balkan immigrants who perhaps as recently as three months ago weren't on their invite lists for barbies on the suburban beach.

In the men's competition, which the natives haven't won since Nigel-Mansell look-alike Mark Edmondson beat John Newcombe and his moustache in 1976,



this evening's semi will see Chewbacca take on Rafael Nadal and his armpits.

Like everyone else, I'll be rooting for the Wookiee, AKA Jo-Wilfried Tsonga – a bit of a girlie name, which is probably why he prefers Chewie. Actually, I want Chewie to win because I'm intrigued to see how quickly Jim Courier cottons on to the fact that this hirsute biped can only grunt – a prerequisite these days for success on the court, but generally considered to be a bit of a drawback at interviews.



Tomorrow's semi pits world number one Roger Federer ("The Fed", as Courier has dubbed him – and jolly pleased with himself for doing so he looks too) against Novan Djoković (or "Jokervitch", as Vijay Amritraj, who sounds more like Dan Maskell – "Ooh, I say!" "Glorious passing shot!" – with every commentary, has taken to calling him, following Peter Donegan's lead).

Having being taken to five sets by Člarć Čent and his Soviet-era spectacles, Federer won't be underestimating the challenge of Jokervitch, especially when he can make a better fist of playing a Federer backhand down-the-line (or "up-the-line", as Vijay insists on calling it – determined to cling onto the last vestige of his own identity before it is totally subsumed in Dan's) than The Fed himself.

For all who've read this far, here's your reward:


Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Nadezhda Mandelstam's "Hope Against Hope"

Hope Against Hope has been described by Martin Amis and Clive James as the essential memoir of the 20th century. It was written towards the end of her long life by Nadezhda Mandelstam, the wife of arguably Russia's greatest modern poet, Osip Mandelstam.

Reading the book in translation (although Nadezhda was an accomplished linguist and earned much of her meagre living by translating from Russian into English, she wrote this book in Russian) is both a sobering and an uplifting experience.

A kind of black humour pervades the writing (she recalls the story of a school "inspector" in the 1930s who pleads with the staff on one visit to cut down the number of denunciations they're writing, threatening not to read the anonymous ones at all), and, not unexpectedly, given that her husband died in 1938 aged 47, sadness too.

But it is another quality that shines through a book which reads in places like a domestic diary and in others like a literary biography: the sheer enthusiasm for life that characterised her husband's life, and indeed her own.

Rather than falling into despair as the truth about Stalin became clear to him in the early 20s, Mandelstam channelled his disillusionment (he had supported the Revolution) into his writing. After falling silent for the second half of the decade, he came back with a bang in the 1930s with poems that would never be published in his lifetime.

One of them reached the ears of Stalin, not surprisingly given its opening lines:

We live, deaf to the land beneath us,
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches,

All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer,
The murderer and peasant-slayer.


That Mandelstam lived for five years after composing his "Stalin Epigram" is rather a mystery, but might have had something to do with the personal interest the dictator of the proletariat took in his case.

The book conveys the reality of being shunned and avoided, of living in grinding poverty, in a manner that is all the more powerful for the absence of sensationalism. Besides hope (Nadezhda means hope in Russian), what comes over most strongly is the reality of objective truth and values.

"Why do you think you ought to be happy?" he had said as a rebuke to his wife when she suggested suicide as a way out of the unbearable life they were living. "Life is a gift that nobody should renounce."

Above all, though, the reader is left with a measure of the great love these two people shared.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Aussie Fighter Fails to Make Impression on Jokervitch


Aussie Battler Heads for Loneliness of Locker Room
First, Casey from Perth, now Lleyton from Adelaide. The Aussie fighters have gone down fighting. Unlike the Brits, who just went down, or, in the case of one junior (look under "Tennis"), was sent home before playing his match for failing to bring his rackets to a practice session. Perhaps it was all a misunderstanding, and Marcus Willis was guilty of nothing more than taking "double-handed backhand" too literally.

Willis's headmaster, Roger Draper, chief executive of the embattled British Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), took a different view. "You see the Slovaks and the Croats and the Serbs and they work hard and have the right attitude," he said.

Like Newcastle United Football Club, only on a national scale, the LTA exists to prove that money (the millions they make from Wimbledon) doesn't make champions. Talent and hard work is what's needed (preferably in that order), as Novak Djokovic (the talent from Serbia) demonstrated when despatching Lleyton Hewitt (the worker) straight past Jim Courier to the loneliness of the locker room.

At least, the Aussie battler could take consolation from the fact that his never-give-up style took him to two grand slam titles in the hiatus between the Sampras era and the Federer-Nadal era. He could also take consolation, I would imagine, from the prospect of an early night tucked up with his cover-girl wife after his previous match had ended at half past four in the morning on the previous day.

Poor old Lleyton had been on the wrong end of a decision by the money men to let his match against Marcos Baghdatis begin at midnight, ruining his sleep patterns, as commentator Peter Donegan kept reminding us. It was left to fellow Aussie and former pro, Geoff Masters, to point out what was obvious to everyone else, that the mountain man from Serbia was better than Lleyton and would have beaten him even if he'd been subjected to sleep deprivation and waterboarding by the cream of the Stasi and the CIA.

Clearly a bit of an Aussie battler himself, Donegan tried everything in his power to put the big Serb off his game. A perceived weakness in making challenges to line calls was detected early and ruthlessly exploited, as Donegan sledged the number three seed from his gantry perched precariously under the retractable roof of the Rod Laver Arena. ("There are no poor viewing seats in this stadium," he added patriotically, aiming a double-fisted cross-court at the bombed-out craters that pass for tournament venues in Belgrade.)

"We've learned never to write off Lleyton Hewitt," came his stentorian call to arms when his man stood at 2-5 in the third set. And when the cat let the mouse have one more game, weaker minds might have been persuaded that we were about to see a triumph of the will of Nurembergian proportions.

Digging as deep as a bloke with dyed hair in a back-to-front baseball cap running from side to side in vain pursuit of a tennis ball, Donegan saved his best till last, falling back on the dirtiest trick in the book – Surname Abuse. Skipping to the last chapter of Steve Waugh's Notes on Mental Disintegration (with a Foreword by John Buchanan), Donegan started calling the 20-year-old "Jokervitch".

Beside Donegan in the gantry, Geoff Masters tried in vain to stem the flow before issuing a Code Violation and the threat of an on-court interview with Jim Courier. When even this didn't do the trick, there was only one recourse left to Geoff: "Look, mate, you keep this up and you'll be doing the final with Liz Smylie".

That shut him up.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Chewbacca Through as Člarć Čent Stumbles

At the Australian Open, it's business as usual, as the four top seeds in the top half of the women's draw took up their appointed slots in the quarter finals and the men's competition proves to be just that – competitive.

While a tubby girl from Perth called Casey was being given a tennis lesson by Jelena Janković – the Serb with the Neanderthal forehead – Janko Tipsarević (Jelena's dad, if I'm up on my Serbo-Croat patronymics) was pushing Roger Federer all the way.

In his time, Federer (or "The Fed" as he's being called by Jim Courier – the former player who is attempting to reverse evolution by dropping the post-match interview bar to levels previously thought unattainable) has despatched all comers on all surfaces except clay. This year, the Aussie organisers have tried to knock him out of his stride by changing the colour of the court from green to blue and renaming the surface "plexicushion", presumably in the hope that he'll get even more relaxed than usual and settle down for a kip mid-rally.

Janko's secret weapon is that he has received Jason Bourne style behaviour modification to turn him into Superman. Unfortunately, the treatment was halted mid-programme when the Americans bombed Belgrade and took out not, as disseminated by the CIA, the Chinese Embassy, but their own top-secret Asset Standby and Protocol Rendition Organization (ASPRO).



The upshot is that Janko has been left in limbo as Člarć Čent, condemned to eke out his living on the ATP Tour wearing Soviet-era spectacles. The mission to displace Novan Djoković as Serb number one having gone tragically wrong, it's only a matter of time before Djoković rubs salt in the wound by adding his compatriot to his portfolio of impressions.

Watching Federer and Tipsarević on Saturday, it soon became apparent that neither player particularly wanted to win. To the casual observer, the tit-for-tat exchange of tie-breakers and service breaks might have raised the spectre of match-fixing, but to the Melbourne Park aficionado, it was clear from the nervous glances the players were directing at the media centre that neither Roger nor Janko could face the ordeal of a Jim Courier interview.

It was Janko who snapped first. At the changeover at 8-9 in the final set, a glance at the man in the stand with the Serbian flag told him that Courier had left the hairstylist's salon and was undoing the first three buttons on his John Travolta black satin shirt. A couple of unforced errors later, and the Balkan was heading for the safety of the locker room, leaving Federer to face that peculiar mixture of inanity and obsequiousness that Jim has perfected.

The sci-fi theme continued as Chewbacca gladdened the hearts of all Wookiees with a victory over a member of the imperial army,


while James Blake (the guy who took the Afro out of Afro-American with the hard-boiled-egg-wearing-a-woolly-belt look)


downed French hard man Jean Reno.



Meanwhile, another Frenchman's dreams of beating Rafael Nadal and his armpits were shattered when he had the misfortune to come up against a chair umpire who had just finished performing Siegfried in the Ring Cycle at the Sydney Opera House.

Realising there is only so much a man can take of the Majorcan's ability to retrieve the ball from the third row of the stand, and terrified by the thought of an egomaniac delivering lines he's been honing in front of the mirror, Paul-Henri Mathieu could only take one basso profundo rendition of the aria "Nadal is Challenging – The Ball was Called Out on the Service Line" before he succumbed to a calf injury and went to join Jean Reno in what Nietzsche once called the blessed loneliness of the locker room.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Soft Shoe Shuffle

A couple of years ago, Simon (he of the World) wrote a post about his take on the Chinese ethos. "Me first, family second, the rest nowhere" was the gist of it. He illustrated his point by recounting an experience in a lift. As I recall, a poor woman had been trapped between him trying to get out and a couple of people trying to get in while a crazed person was hammering the Close Door button. Simon even had to take recourse to using his squash racket to clear a path through the throng.

Maybe I'm just lucky with lifts, maybe it's that aura of power I radiate, but I generally get in and out of lifts without much fuss. Actually, since my wife rewarded me for my early morning tennis workouts by giving me the world's largest tennis bag



(thus, unwittingly, I am sure, contributing to Mike Ashley's fortune and thereby easing the return of King Kev to Tyneside), I have probably been more sinning than sinned against in the lifts of the building where I live.

With this thing on, it doesn't really matter where you stand or at which angle, you're guaranteed to be stopping someone getting in or getting out during the 4-second window of opportunity afforded for such activities by Schindler. If only Oskar had paid more attention to elevator ergonomics and less to book and film opportunities, Hong Kongers' fevered impatience might have been nipped in the bud and Simon able to leave his squash racket at home.

Which brings me to something that has come to my notice recently. Like many such phenomena, it was probably going on before I noticed it, but now that it's come out of the background, it seems to be going on everywhere.

To call it running in the office would give the wrong impression (an impression of sustained and fast activity). No, it's much more like my tennis workouts, really, rather sedate and a world apart from the tennis you can see at the Australian Open – well, except when fatty Bartholi is playing.



The fact is that anything besides walking is going to attract one's attention in an office. Thus it is that whenever someone breaks into a run, my eyes are drawn in an involuntary reflex mechanism away from whatever important phone conversation I might be having, or whatever vital report or equally vital webpage I might be reading.

More disquieting than the visual impression, though, is the aural impact. It takes quite a bit to rouse me from the near catatonic state brought on by the corporate image study, but when I hear the sounds of shoe hitting carpet in preparation for the dash, I come round like a local when the oysters arrive at the buffet, or, with a bow to Simon, when the lift arrives at the 38th floor.

I've actually learned to identify the runners by their tread. One woman covers the two metres from her door to just beyond her boss's door with a feline grace that belies a figure that childbirth has not been kind to. This same boss's lieutenant performs the kind of stutter step that wouldn't be out of place at Melbourne Park as he shoots a similar distance to her open door before performing his ritual knock and half bow.

Unfortunately, it's my nearest neighbour, hidden behind a partition for most of the day, who has the most disconcerting gait. The layout of the office means he must turn left or right when he exits his cubicle. Heavy of build, it's fair to say that he wasn't made to run. His sense of direction is also below the Hong Kong average (which puts it down there with the average woman's). Add to this a rather nervous disposition and a tendency to panic and what results is the frenzied stamp, which becomes the frenzied double stamp when he gets confused and starts running the wrong way.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Keegan Returns


First Jason Bourne, then David Webb, now Kevin Keegan. This has been a week for superheroes. In returning to his spiritual home on the Tyne (anywhere's got to be better than Scunthorpe), Kev is attempting to disprove the old adage that a dog shouldn't return to its sick.

Very few managers make successful comebacks at the same club. Marcello Lippi would be one exception at Juventus (but the Silver Fox was good enough to lead Italy to the World Cup 18 months ago), but apart from that it's difficult to think of too many managers who've done well at the same club second time round. Graham Taylor at Watford? Graham Taylor at Villa? Howard Kendall at Everton? Tim Bredbury at Hong Kong Rangers?

Kev and his bouffant hair-do came to prominence when I was at boarding school, when dark Saturday afternoons used to be illuminated by listening to the results as they started to come in at 4.40pm. No Sunday kick-offs back then. No injury time, or "stoppage" time, or "additional" time back then. If you got injured, then either you carried on like Bert Trautmann with his broken leg or you kicked the other fellow back.

My favourite story of those bygone days before foreign coaches (an appropriate namby-pamby title for this bunch of softies) ruined the game with their diets and their emphasis on skill and tactics was told by Tommy Smith and concerned his team-mate Emlyn Hughes.

One of football's true hard men, Smith's dislike of Hughes was legendary, and might have had something to do with his being replaced as Liverpool captain by Hughes. Smith was no fan of Leeds forward Allan Clarke either, but this enmity was put aside when Clarke decked Hughes behind the referee's back. "Tell the c*** I'll buy him a drink after the match," Smith called over to a defensive colleague.

In an era when England won absolutely nothing and even suffered the double indignity of seeing Scotland qualify for the two World Cups held in the 70s, Kev was that rare breed – an entertainer who actually bothered to turn up for training and who would always give "110 percent", especially if Clarke's colleague Billy Bremner was on the other side. Kev wasn't in the mould of showmen like Stan Bowles, Alan Hudson and Frank Worthington – he actually made the most of his talent, limited as it was in comparison.

I remember seeing him in action at the Valley for Newcastle United against Charlton Athletic as Keegan started his love affair with Tyneside. There was I "stood" (as football people say) behind the goal with the away supporters. Out come Newcastle to warm up before the game and they go through their routines as "Z Cars" plays on the tannoy.

The keeper (not Ian McFaul or Shay Given – they must have had someone in between) fields a few crosses and then comes the moment we've all been waiting for as Keegan steps up to fire a few shots at the goalie. Once he knew he'd got more or less the whole ground looking at him, he takes his shot, screws it horribly wide and turns around in agony clutching his hamstring. Step aside, David Brent. That's an entertainer.

This latest move by a Newcastle owner confirms me in my belief that they're all quite mad up there. To my mind, the real problem at St James's is that the players in the squad are crap. I'm not sure if any of them would get into Manchester United or Arsenal's side. So even if they brought in Marcello Lippi, I don't think he'd fare much better than Glen Roeder or Ruud Gullit, unless he was able to clear out the entire playing (and backroom) staff.

Maybe that is what some of the foreign names mentioned in connection with the chalice would have demanded. And the owner may be mad but he wouldn't have been spending a week in Hong Kong doing deals like Arthur Daley if he couldn't give David Webb a run for his money in the acumen stakes.

As another famous football owner said (well, sang, actually):

"It's a human sign, when things go wrong --
try a wing and a prayer."

Good luck, Kev!

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

David Webb Kicks Serious Ass


Who needs Jason Bourne, when you've got the real thing? Described by newspaper magnate and sandwich-maker Stephen Vines as a one-man corporate watchdog, David Webb is the scourge of family-run publicly listed companies, indeed, according to an article in The Spectator, the "scourge of Hong Kong", as well as being fairly low on Li Ka Shing's and Cheng Yu Tong's Christmas card lists. (Or should that be list? It somehow doesn't seem quite right that they should be in competition.)

A maths wizard who honed his skills writing games and manuals for the Sinclair Spectrum computer, Webb is disarmingly candid about the type of reception his advanced analytical skills and ethical mindset would receive in other parts of South-East Asia: "I'd probably be dead by now if I was doing this in Jakarta or Manila".



Fiddlesticks, David! Jason Bourne needs a dozen takes and a team of stunt men. When you turn your super-powered telescope on your target, smart investors know where to put their money.

The story of Eco-Tek, its former chairman Lily Chiang and the Hong Kong Poly U between June 1998 and Jan 2002, makes for an interesting read.

Then there's the "cash shell" Pacific Challenge Holdings, from the first two instalments in July and August 2000 , via its citation as a cautionary case study in January 2002 (scroll down to "Case study 2 - the Dilution Solution") to the ICAC press release six years later.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Putting the Asset on Standby until the Rendition Protocol Arrives

Being British, however long I live in the cut-throat climes of South-East Asia and however much I earwig the conversations of hard-assed business types with rippling muscles scarcely concealed by sharp suits – but enough of my taste in women – I'll always favour the underdog at heart.

Like my reluctance to sit down and make a will, my romanticising sentimentality is a failing I periodically pretend to do something about but always prefer to leave undisturbed in its blissful ignorance. Too much self-knowledge, I reckon, is as bad as too little.

When it comes to visiting Vietnam for the first time, as I plan to do later this year, the closest I'll come to the natives is capturing them on my Canon Powershot. To actually live in a hut with no air-con, eat gristle, get no sleep, get bitten by mosquitoes and have to go out and do manual work from dawn to dusk is not something that appeals very much.

It doesn't appeal much to many Vietnamese either, who'd resettle in the US and A sooner than you could say "Good Morning, Vietnam". Though if they knew they were going to be force-fed a diet of Robin Williams, they might just stick around in Hanoi wearing one of those funny hats.

Thus, when I watched the first in the Bourne series of films, I was delighted that the nerdish Matt Damon would be playing the part of the hero. I think I first came across Matt in Good Will Hunting (a title which to this day conjures up images for me of the search for harmony). I think he did a bit of a cameo in Jay and Silent Bob (which I saw on a plane and thought was hilarious and then saw at home and thought "What had I been thinking?") with his good mate from Ivy League days Ben Cornflake. Then, after a bit of a hiatus, I caught him in Ocean's Eleven, in which he was the wimpiest of the lot. Even Eliot Gould, doing his Quentin Crisp impression, radiated a greater air of manliness.

I've got to confess that I've enjoyed each of the Bourne movies. The basic premise of a bloke who doesn't know who he is appeals to me far more than it ought to, I suspect. Then again, when a fellow finally finds out at the end of the third film that his name is David Webb your heart goes out to him. You also know that there just have to be more films in which he traverses the globe in his ultimately successful attempt to remove all traces from all computer systems everywhere of his former identity as minority shareholder rights activist, corporate governance investigator and scourge of Lily Chiang.

The latest in the Bourne series, The Bourne Ultimatum, has Jason (yes, they gave him a wimpy name, but wait till he starts driving off roofs or jumping from the tenth floor of buildings into the Hudson River or killing an Arab assassin who looks like World Cup Winner Youri Djorkaeff in a squat-toilet in Tangier) leaving Moscow because there's nothing to buy in the shops, travelling to Waterloo Station in London, stopping off in Tangeria so he can run across some roofs – he has a thing for roofs – and then going to New York to confront Albert Finney.

In this last task, sadly, he fails (his only other failure in the series, as far as I can remember, being to save his rather indifferent looking girlfriend Marie from the assassin's bullet in India), as he can't understand a single word Albert says. It is many years now since, as an unwilling schoolboy, I sat through four hours of Albert hamming it up as Tamburlaine the Great at the National Theatre (one of the world's few dramas where the body count exceeds Bourne's), but in those days the ravages of three packs of Bensons a day had not taken their toll. It is a mixture of shame at being told his real name is David Webb and frustration at being unable to understand a word Albert is saying that forces Jason to take, for him, the easy way out and jump through a window into the Hudson.

The strength of the film, though, lies in its London scenes. Not content with aerial shots of the Houses of Parliament, lots of red buses and black cabs, no snow and nobody wearing fur hats, the filmmakers hammer home to American audiences that we've left Moscow by making Bourne's London contact a journalist on the Guardian newspaper. You learn quite a bit about his leanings just by looking at him: he has a haircut like Kyan from Queer Eye and he carries a satchel over his shoulder. He opens his mouth and all doubt is removed: he's got an effete northern accent, and his name is Simon.

Back in the US and A, Albert has a henchman played by Scott Glen. In case the audience hasn't cottoned on to the fact that these are the bad guys, these loose cannon CIA top dogs are given the names Noah and Ezra. The reason they pulled the Manchurian Candidate number on David Webb was to facilitate a neo-con Zionist fundamentalist takeover of Tangeria and introduce a retrenchment package for human rights hacks on the Guardian.

You know Ezra is a baddie because he's white, he's a man, he wears rimless glasses, he looks like Sven-Göran Eriksson and he doesn't esteem his female colleague Pam. Just because she's no oil painting and he'd obviously prefer to be working with Jodie Foster (who has more charisma in her little finger than Pam has in her whole skinny body), that's still no reason for making her the patsy. "If Blackbriar goes south, we'll hang it round her neck and start again," he announces to the geeks in the ops room. It's also no reason for talking as if he's reading everything from a script. "I want rendition protocols and put the asset on standby, just in case."

Back in London, England, Bourne contacts Simon and the conversation is terse: "Waterloo Station. South entrance. Thirty minutes. Come alone." The response from eavesdropping Ezra is instant: "Let's activate the asset." The trouble is that the asset is confused by mixed metaphors: so even when he's given the green light, he's still in the nest. Pam and Ezra meet for lunch to try and sort out the dialogue, but it's too late. Ezra's had one Heart-Healthy Omelette too many and loses his temper when Pam suggests he eats the yolks too for a more balanced diet. "Don't second guess an operation from an armchair," he snaps at her.

Meanwhile, Bourne's new bird, Nicky Parsons, is so hot that we'll forgive him for dropping his guard beside the Ganges.

"Why are you helping me?" he asks – the only person on the planet who can't see that she wants to get into his pants.

"It was difficult for me [meaningful pause as her come-to-bed eyes open wider] with you," Nicky replies, the most words she strings together in the whole of the film.

Jason is so moved that he hot-wires a two-stroke scooter to save her from Youri Djorkaeff, and the rest, as they say, is a Code Ten abort.

Seven Things I Approve of

1. People who check
2. The countryside
3. The thought of C.S. Lewis
4. Admiration
5. Weddings
6. The Internet
7. Brevity

I pass the baton to Richard, Hemlock, Gweipo, Andrew, Dr. George Adams and Walnut – on the off-chance they read this, have scouts who do, or do the odd vanity search.

Monday, 14 January 2008

They Think It's All Over

This weekend's football fix had me in such an emotional turmoil that my insides resembled our washing machine on speed.

As someone born in the south of England, who wouldn't have been able to locate Manchester on a map of East Lancs, it was only fitting that I supported Manchester United as a nipper. To tell the truth, in those far off days of muddy pitches, black boots, orange balls (in the snow), Norman Hunter and Ron "Chopper" Harris, it wasn't really United I supported at first, it was the genius and personality of one man – George Best.

I shall never forget the red shirt I was given for my birthday, onto which my mother carefully sewed the number 7. I could never play like Best, of course; in fact, the player I used to model myself on as I made my meteoric rise to play one match for my school's first eleven was Peter Storey, the epitome of what is now called the "holding midfielder".

My crowning moment came when I was selected for the Iwerne Minster Holiday Camp side against the local borstal. Taking up my favourite position at a corner, in other words, nowhere near the place where I might actually need to head it – a position, I note, now copied by Wayne Rooney – I unleashed a tremendous drive from the edge of the area.

Me being without my glasses, and the goal being without a net, I started to jog back to the half-way line for the goal kick, only to be surrounded by team-mates extending their right hands in congratulation. All very public school – none of this hugging and kissing, or building human pyramids from which the scorer emerges hobbling to face six months out of the game with an anterior cruciate ligament injury. In those days, long before metatarsals had been invented, we didn't even have anterior cruciate ligaments.

So it was, that I stayed up in the wee hours of Sunday morning to watch Newcastle United's visit to the Theatre of Dreams, a place that is often so quiet that you can hear the prawn sandwiches being munched by 76,000 people who have driven up to Salford from Tunbridge Wells and Chichester.

Whether I ever fulfil my dream of becoming a season ticket holder, I have a feeling that my salient memory of Old Trafford will always be the time I drove there in the 1992-93 season for the league encounter with Wimbledon. To be fair, as Big Ron would say, I thought I wouldn't have any problem getting in for a game against a team which only brought 45 supporters to away fixtures. However, as any manager worth his salt would say, "I woz unlucky" when I saw the Sold Out signs up at the ground. Not wanting to return to my car on the Trafford Industrial Estate, I decided to soak up a bit of the atmosphere by walking round the perimeter of the stadium.

It was then that one of those magic moments that come around as infrequently as an Emile Heskey goal occurred, and it was to involve that great institution, the British bobby. Sensing my plight, and reckoning that a bloke wearing corduroys and a trilby couldn't be a hooligan, he asked me who I supported. "Neutral," I replied, at which point he pulled out a wad of tickets for the visitors' end.

I took my place among the Wimbledon fans, and proceeded to watch my heroes (led by the great Bryan Robson) rolled over one-nil by Vinnie Jones and his mob. It was probably the only home game United lost as they went on their inexorable march to their first title in 26 years.

Back to this weekend, come half-time at 2 a.m., it was scoreless between the two Uniteds when I turned in. I did have a vague premonition, though, that the reds might be in for the same kind of shock that I'd witnessed all those years ago.

Remaining ignorant of the final score for the rest of the day, I settled down again in the evening with a glass of Colombard Chardonnay to watch the second half. Forty five minutes later, as United's sixth went in off the underside of the crossbar and the Russian linesman gave it, I had just witnessed a master-class from the world's best player (finals and semi-finals excluded) Cristiano Ronaldo.

Forty years on from when George Best was mesmerizing defenders, in the wizard from Madeira, United have finally found the man to step into the Ulsterman's boots, even if he's taken the toe-caps out and painted them orange.

Having set up the first goal by doing what he does better than anyone – falling over – Ronaldo proceeded to fire the ball under the wall, if you can call a bunch of blokes jumping up together when the ball's hit at them a wall. Newcastle being Newcastle, one of them couldn't jump as high as the others, and the ball, immediately sensing this, went straight for his dangling leg, took what we pundits call a "wicked deflection" and zoomed past Shay Given – winner for the last decade of the FIFA World Masochist of The Year Award.

With United leading 6-0 after another dodgy goal and only 60 seconds left on the clock, "Betfred" suddenly changed the wording on their scrolling ad. You've got to hand it to these bookmakers: they know their trade. Down came "Next goal Wayne Rooney 33-1" and up went "Red card Alan Smith 1-33".

In the day's saddest – yet most predictable – moment, the former Leeds United (where he was pretty good) and Manchester United (where he was pretty average) player, whose contributions had thus far included fouling Ryan Giggs in the area and getting away with it, and not fouling Ronaldo for the first goal and not getting away with it, went off for a slightly earlier bath than everyone else after giving the linesman an unsolicited diagnosis of his eyesight and judgement.

Looking at the replays, he might have been right; but looking at Ronaldo, you see a Number 7 up their with the Best.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Mental Disintegration

Geoffrey Boycott is undoubtedly an oddball but he talks a lot of sense, does Geoffrey. His piece (click on Columnists > Geoffrey Boycott > 10 Jan 2008) on the recent kerfuffle in Australia focuses attention on some of the points that actually matter.

While some people will take umbrage when he refers to Andrew Symonds' "sad little protestations of racial abuse" (I actually think Ponting betrayed his immaturity and lack of nous by reporting it to the umpires), his take on the way Australia have played the game over the last few years deserves a hearing, since it puts this comment in context.

In a nutshell, Boycott believes that there's no place in the game for the type of abuse and disparagement they tend to dish out, especially to players they see as threats. He cites former captain, Steve Waugh, for publicly supporting the practice of sledging (AKA abuse) as a means of "mental disintegration".

Just as in the English Premier League, effects microphones are strategically set so that the disgusting comments that pour forth at many grounds are not (generally) picked up and transmitted to the huge markets in South East Asia, so the stump microphone in cricket doesn't give an idea of the running commentary that can be going on when a top batsman with a perceived psychological weakness is at the crease.

Of course, it's not just Australians who employ such verbal abuse, but there seems to be a consensus that they are world champions in this, as in every other form of the game. It should be added that not all Australians support such tactics, and the moment when Andrew Flintoff put a comforting arm around Brett Lee's shoulder after England's victory at Edgbaston in 2005 was appreciated by lovers of the game in both countries (and probably beyond).

So, what's the solution? One of the biggest mistakes that cricket has made in recent years was to include in 2000 a written "Spirit of Cricket" as Preamble to the 42 laws of the game, and indeed part of those laws. One of the precepts contained in this lofty document states that "it is against the Spirit of the Game (yes, the words are capitalised, as if they came down in tablets from Mount Sinai) to direct abusive language towards an opponent or umpire".

But, as Saint Paul would have told the suits and the money men who run cricket (for these have largely replaced the gin-sodden chap in the bacon and egg tie and matching Panama), the spirit should be kept separate from the law. The law is a written code, but by its very nature a spirit is not. It cannot be codified and attempts to do so will result in a mess and a lot of work for lawyers.

Already, in Australia, the word "abuse" (as shorthand for "abusive language") has been replaced by "vilification" in such documents as training notes for umpires. By thus narrowing the type of comment that can be considered undesirable, the Australian cricketing authorities have effectively cocked a snook at Lord's (the home of MCC, who are still – just about – the guardians of the laws) and declared that the sort of "banter" that goes on in the middle is okay. Basically, you're only overstepping the mark - not to mention showing a lamentable ignorance of subcontinental politics – if you call a Indian a "f****** Paki cheat".

As a start, players should be told there's no place in the sport for referring to people's sexual lives (real or imagined) or their families. As for the type of verbal contributions that consist of reflections on the batsman's prowess with the bat, I think the approach of Darrell Hair (to my mind the best umpire in Test cricket) is the right one.

A few years ago, Kevin Pietersen was keeping up a running commentary on one of the opposition players. Before the monologue had the chance to develop further, Hair intervened, loudly enough to be picked up by the stump microphone: "I think you've made your point". Pietersen was as good as one of his gold ear-rings after that.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Lily, Poly and Nury

Known variously as Yu Gino Tu (the SCMP) and Gino Tu Yu (Journal of Game Development – for which he's on the editorial board), Lily Chiang's other half sounds as if he might be the result of a schoolboy's first stumbling attempts to learn Latin.

Gino Yu (for short) is director of Digital Entertainment and Game Development in the School of Design at the PolyU in Hung Hom, Kowloon. He is also director of the Multimedia Innovation Centre Entrepreneurial Research, Education and Creativity Laboratory (usually abbreviated to the faintly sinister sounding MERECL) at Cyberport – Hong Kong Island's answer to Sha Tin's Science & Technology Park – which cynics and critics have dubbed "a real estate venture dressed up as a bid to boost Hong Kong's…technology sector".

According to the Global Creative Leadership Summit website, Gino's main research interests involve the application of media technologies to cultivate creativity and promote enlightened consciousness, which sounds a little scary to me. The MERECL website cites Star Wars and Harry Potter as the kind of "creative intellectual property" franchises that "small teams of highly creative individuals" can, well, create. With the merest hint of a nod to Beijing, it adds tantalisingly that "themes which can be explored in this area include Asian culture, identity and introspection, and education".

I have seen the future and I'm not sure I like it: civic education and patrotic education at the chubby, if creative, fingertips of obese little emperors and empresses in multimedia laboratories in primary schools throughout Hong Kong.

In the meantime, Gino can leverage his wife's recent troubles by developing a range of video games. A couple that come to mind immediately are Share!, a game modelled on Risk! and bridge, where the aim is to achieve world domination. The main difference from the famous board game is that you need to achieve this domination with a partner. And the main differences from the famous card game are that 1) it must be played with eleven people and 2) all the other nine players must be dummies.

Given Lily's love of walking (she's apparently done Trailwalker five times), it was perhaps inevitable that the other game should be called Take a Hike!, more of a dungeons and dragons type game, but one which takes place in the wide open spaces of Hong Kong's country parks.

The heroine (whom we shall call Lily) is trying to get from Pak Tam Chung to Tuen Mun so that she can donate some more money to Lingnan University. However, a bunch of evil types are all out to stop her: Mainlanders from Shandong Province, intent on robbing her of her assets; inspectors from the Country Parks Authority of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, intent on issuing her with a summons for cycling in a nice place; and, finally, nasty Independent Commission Against Corruption investigators, intent on giving her the opportunity to study life in the Tai Lam Centre for Women.

Gino's colleague at the PolyU's School of Design is none other than Nury Vittachi, who teaches students all that he knows about story composition. Back in April 2007, Nury celebrated Lily's appointment as chairwoman of the Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce in his blog. I wonder if the latest shenanigans will give him an idea for a new book. Talking of former SCMP luminaries, what price a brand new, but equally hilarious, comic strip from Larry Feign, creator of Lily Wong – "The World of Lily Chiang"? It has me in stitches just thinking about it.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Guilding the Lily


Lily Chiang (in garb) with her dad Chiang Chen

The chairwoman of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, Chiang Lai Lei, who, perhaps predictably – she grew up, after all, in the days before thinking outside the box was invented – chose "Lily" as her English name, is in the news, but not perhaps as she would have wished it, being released on HK$1 million bail yesterday on fraud charges.

As the SCMP puts it with charming understatement, "pressure is mounting for Lily…to step down as chamber chairwoman amid allegations of share options fraud". In other words, the ICAC is chasing her down. And, as Australian jockey Chris Munce will tell you over porridge at his enforced temporary residence back in Oz, like the Canadian Mounties, the ICAC have a habit of getting their man – or woman. Indeed, they are poised to lay further charges against her.

Even being a member of the Liberal Party's executive committee may not provide immunity, it seems. Yesterday, party chairman James Tien was at pains to distance himself from the lady who was a virtual shoo-in to take her seat in the Legislative Council this year as the chamber's representative. "She believes she is innocent," he said, before announcing that she would be taking leave from her party duties.

An anonymous Liberal Party source was more bullish, trying to put a positive spin on things by proclaiming "We are not concerned because Lily Chiang's case has no relation whatsoever with the Liberal Party." Well, no, apart from the fact that Lily Chiang's case concerns Lily Chiang's integrity and fitness for public service, and Lily Chiang is a Liberal Party executive committee member. Apparently, anyway, her problems all stem from a lack of EQ: "she is only in trouble because she has made too many enemies".

According to Lily's predecessor at the chamber, David Eldon (formerly part of the Scottish mafia at Hong Kong Bank and now deputy chairman of the only organisation with more local power – the Jockey Club), who has taken up blogging in his retirement, Lily wasn't exactly the heir apparent. "Attempts were made by some unseen hands," he blogged, "to try and ensure that Lily was never given the ultimate office she sought."

I could swear I've read the same type of stuff from Elsie Tu, still trying to come to terms with the fact that the Kwun Tong electorate chose Szeto Wah rather than her at the polls a decade or more ago, ever since when she's preferred Chinese-style democracy, where a seat is more or less guaranteed if your face fits.

Lily is daughter of Chiang Chen, Chairman of The Chen Hsong Group, one of the world's largest manufacturers of plastic injection moulding machines. Lily's father has an honorary doctorate from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (of whose Court he is also a founding member), from which she received her own PhD in 1993. By coincidence, Lily's husband, Gino Yu, is employed by the Poly U as an associate professor.

Still on the subject of local seats of learning, the place that offers what it calls "liberal arts plus", Lingnan University, is also close to Lily's heart. Besides being on the Council and Court, in 2003-04 she donated (through the Lily Chiang Charitable Foundation Limited) HK$300,000 to Tuen Mun's finest, kicking sand in the face of the Jackie Chan Charitable Foundation, which coughed up only HK$100,000. (In June last year, the month after Lily became the first female chair of the chamber, her father donated a whopping six million dollars to Lingnan's library.)

It would appear that 2002 was a particularly busy one for Lily, as, in addition to allegedly granting phantom share options to nine employees of her company, Pacific Challenge Holdings, which allegedly yielded HK$7.5 million to her and her executive director Shah Tahir Hussain, she set up another charitable foundation, the Lily Chiang "Wide Sky", dedicated to providing "sustainable support and assistance in education and medical science" to young people in some of the world's most notorious trouble spots, including Afghanistan and Iraq. Mind you, as Lily would doubtless attest, it can get pretty hot in Hong Kong too.

Lingnan showed its gratitude to Lily for services rendered when she was made an Honorary Fellow in October 2006. The Lingnan website records that in her acceptance speech Lily praised Lingnan's "liberal arts education mission", which enables students "to become whole persons able to think in an independent and critical manner". She also emphasised "caring for others", thus avowing a philosophy that can be distilled as ICAC (Independent Critical And Caring).

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Monkey Still on India's Back

The Australian cricket team have just equalled their own world record for most consecutive Test match victories – sixteen, although since five were against England, they shouldn't really count.

Unfortunately, this outstanding deed has been overshadowed by a spat which has brought the worst out of many of those involved, especially the spineless International Cricket Council (ICC) – nothing new there – the Indian team and its board of control.

Questions too are being asked of one or two of the Australians, in particular captain Ricky Ponting, for reporting racist comments directed at team-mate Andrew Symonds rather than ignoring it or handling it in another way, for example, by confronting the offending player after the match.

In a nutshell, what happened was that Indian bowler Harbajan Singh called Andrew Symonds (victim of truly appalling racist abuse from Indian spectators on a recent tour) a monkey. This happened after Symonds had told Harbajan what he thought of him for tapping Brett Lee on the backside when Symonds and Lee were batting together. Handbags at dawn, really. But, as we know, you tip up a handbag and all sorts of accumulated crap is likely to fall out.

India have also complained about the umpires at Sydney and asked that one of them, West Indian Steve Bucknor, be dropped from the next Test, which he has been appointed to stand in. Effigies of Bucknor are now being burnt from Jammu to Mumbai, as is the Indian way. Strange how short memories are, though, for it was Bucknor who turned down an appeal for a plumb LBW when India were in England in the summer, allowing them to escape with a draw and go on to win the series.

The Indian captain Anil Kumble has also criticised the spirit in which the Australians played the game, a reference to the fact that Symonds, who made a big hundred in the first innings, hadn't "walked" when he was caught by the wicketkeeper when he'd scored just 30. What Kumble didn't mention was that no one in Test cricket (apart from Adam Gilchrist – the Australian wicketkeeper-batsman) walks (i.e. gives themselves out rather than leaving it for the umpire to decide). So, just sour grapes there.

The truth is that the Indian players "choked" and lost a match they should never have lost. No sportsman likes bottling it, and this is what really lies behind all the antics. After all, better to have your countrymen back home complaining about their national honour being besmirched than having them burn you in effigy…or worse.

Back to the Harbajan business, it appears that he admitted in the four-hour hearing held after the match ended on Sunday that he had called Symonds a monkey. The Indian board seem to be hedging their bets by calling the three-match ban imposed by referee Mike Proctor a "patently false and unfair slur" and referring in a shadowy way to two of their players "who said he has not said it".

After the disgraceful way the ICC hung Darrell Hair out to dry in the aftermath of the Test match between England and Pakistan in August 2006, it would be no surprise if they cave in again now that India has opted not to appeal the decision to ban Singh, but to throw the toys out of the cot and refuse to continue the tour.

"You pay peanuts and you get monkeys" might seem an apt comment, but for one fact: these jokers at the ICC receive exorbitant salaries and allowances, when all they really need is a couple of quid to buy a bucket of sand to stick their heads in, plus a dustpan-and-brush and a piece of carpet to sweep any surplus sand under.

Monday, 7 January 2008

Charm for Lurve

It was a veritable Who's Who at Victoria Park on Saturday for the final of the annual New Year's women's invitational tournament. Stanley Ho (Dr Stanley Ho) was there, James Tien was there, even veteran DJ Anders Nelsson was there (in a cap he'd borrowed from Uncle Ray and sprinkled sequins on).

Then there were the tennis players, led by the gazelle-like and marvellously talented Venus Williams and the over-rated Maria Sharapova. Venus came out for the final looking like a Neopolitan ice cream – her trainers sparkling with some sequins that had fallen off Nelsson's cap at the pre-match interview – while Sharapova wore a brown top with a skirt that had been white until she'd put it in the wash with her shirt.

It might have been the players that spectators had paid to see, but the stars of the show were the umpires and the line judges. Last year, much of the fun had been in watching players start officiating matches themselves, when the calls from the linespersons and the over-rules from the chair had as much chance of being correct as a throw of the dice on one of Dr Ho's tables at the Lisboa Hotel. This year the organisers had dispensed with the experiment of using a mix of local amateur umpires and overseas professionals, opting instead for two grizzened veterans from Wimbledon.

Sponsors and patrons who might have been concerned that the entertainment would be limited to the tennis this time round had their fears allayed almost instantly when the first over-rule occurred in the very first game, as Venus powered down an ace that had the centre-line judge scurrying for cover, but not before sticking out an arm and calling a fault. "Correction – the ball was good", intoned umpire Ping-Pong, from his rickety blue chair, a structure so old and tatty that alone of all spaces in the stadium, besides Anders Nelsson, it remained free of advertising slogans.

This was soon followed by an over-rule on the service line and one on the baseline. "We just need one on the net to complete the set," I whispered to my daughter in suitably hushed Dan Maskellesque tones. I could have been channelling the fellow sitting in his deck-chair at the net with his finger on the tape. "Let!" But it's the umpire over-ruling again – and he's yards away from the action.

Meanwhile, my attention has been drawn by my daughter to the umpire's habit of calling "15-lurve" as if he's doing an impression of David Brent ("free lurve on the freelurve highway").

"Let's wait and see what he says if Williams goes 30-love," I say.

But, we're disappointed. 30-0 is said in a normal way.

"Okay," I say, "let's listen out for what he says at 0-15."

We don't have to wait long, as Sharapova dumps her second serve in the net.

"Love-15," Ping-Pong says, again absolutely normally.

We conclude it's a trademark kind of thing, one umpire's way of asserting his personality on a tour that's never been the same since John McEnroe ranted and raved and the powers that be suddenly realised that it was embarrassing when a player could not only play exquisite tennis but also officiate better than the old duffers in blazers, whose reward for 30 years ordering pink gins at the Hurlingham Club was to be asked by Wing Commander Teddy Todger to come along and help out at Wimbledon once a year.

"Best seat in the house, old chap, and plenty of snifters at the nineteenth after the show, what ho!"

Soon the match is over and Venus has shown that, even though Sharapova may have a spottier face, she has twice as much talent. I make a rush for the exit but am too late. No one is allowed out while Ian Wade, who loves the sound of his own voice almost as much as David Brent, is making his annual speech. This year it is enlivened somewhat when, having sung the praises of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department for several minutes, he summarises by turning to their representative, making a little bow and thanking the "LCDS".

If the speeches seem to be going on for ever, by the time that Dr Ho shuffles up to present his trophy, everyone understands why he's called it the "Dr Stanley Ho Perpetual Trophy". In all, there are two trophy presentations for the runner-up and five for the winner. Still, every sponsor gets to kiss Venus, every one, that is, except for the diminutive Mr Li of Mumm champagne. Unfortunately, Venus wrong foots him, ducking at the same time as Mr Li goes onto tiptoes, so that rather than pecking at her cheek, he's left planting a kiss on her sun visor.

There's still the losers' final and the doubles final to look forward to before time is called on the afternoon's entertainment. Or, as I should say, before "charm" is called. For, as soon as the first changeover of the losers' final has run its course, my daughter nudges me and says, "This umpire was here last year."

"You've got a great memory," I reply.

"Not really," she says. "I just remember his 'charm'."

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Fumiemobile spotted in Sham Shui Po



The emigmatically named 962 has long been vexed by the identity of the vehicle into which Fumier squeezes of a morning. Wonder no longer! I passed this lime green BMW 2002 - mistaken at first for a Lada



as it stopped to pick up a passenger in Sham Shui Po.

Although the young lady with the dyed hair who stood for a while chatting with Fumie through the opened passenger door bore little resemblance to Jenny Lam, it would appear from the grin on the driver's face that he was ready to go from neutral into drive. Who knows, if all went well, perhaps even reverse?

Friday, 4 January 2008

A Draught of Hemlock

Finally performing my New Year's resolution to look through the blogs I link to, I note that Simon has come back fighting against the spammers, scammers and phishers who threatened like the guy with a dog who sells The Big Issue to take up permanent squatting rights on his site with a post about fellow blogger Hemlock's book: We Deserve Better. (That's the name of the book, not my opinion of Simon's piece.)

Along with See Lai, Big White Guy, Spike, Not The South China Morning Post and Fumier, Hemlock can lay claim to the title of Hong Kong's best known blogger. A self-defined "company gweilo" (the guy in a Hong Kong firm who looks after English press releases and speeches – Communications Manager, more prosaically), Hemlock has been heavily promoting his book since its publication last spring. And why not? Anyone who self-publishes deserves all the breaks they can get, even if it's merely a mention on a fellow blogger's website.

Since I haven't actually read the book yet (I'm waiting for the film to come out), I went to Amazon.com to check out readers' reviews. The people at Amazon have kindly picked out "The most helpful favorable review" and "The most helpful critical review" for the title currently lying in 338,563rd place in the bestseller lists.

In the former category, we read: "The book…advances the theory that the system of government developed by an unloved foreign power - Britain - is being continued by China, but is no longer appropriate for a modern society such as Hong Kong". In other words, big business (especially the property companies) ran Hong Kong before the handover and still run it today.

The delightfully titled "most helpful critical review" opines that the book handles the pre-1997 period better and criticises the "welter of details" that drown some topics. Whether this is a fair comment on the book I cannot say, but it is interesting in light of Hemlock's confession that he suffers from hyper-perceptivity, or bombardment by unnecessary detail.

Given the inherent irrationality of the main actors in the drama, perhaps any book-length treatment of Hong Kong is likely to be caught between the Scylla of vacuous clichés and the Charibdis of mind-numbing detail. As Clive James noted, it is difficult to capture the modern political experience when the essence of that experience "is to search, as if your life depended on it, for answers to questions that make no sense".

Thursday, 3 January 2008

La Bonne Heure, Macau



The highlight of our recent trip to Macau was dinner at La Bonne Heure, which put the following evening at the much more heralded A Lorcha firmly in the shade.

While the starters at A Lorcha were good – we were pretty adventurous and had giblets (not as offal as it sounds) alongside the octopus salad and clams – the veal ordered by two of us was as tough as old boots. My wife reported favourably on her curried crab, as did those who had steak, although the French fries were cut so thin and left in the fryer so long that an EU bureaucrat would have slammed a health warning on them as soon as eat them.

By a remarkable coincidence, the Agatha Christie I'm currently reading with my daughter (The ABC Murders) has Poirot proclaim "à la bonne heure" at one point. A quick search reveals that this means "well and good", which is a pretty apt way to describe the experience at its Macanese counterpart.

Tucked away in a side street (Travessa de São Domingos) off the main Senado Square, La Bonne Heure might have a dodgy website, but it serves great food. With a French manager and a Japanese chef, Koji, who trained not in Paris as I mistakenly wrote before, but in French restaurants in Japan, the fare was uniformly excellent.


The two bottles of Pinot Noir (HK$500 a pop) seem to have had the unfortunate side effect of destroying most of the little grey cells devoted to memory, the only starter I can recall being my own – mozzarella and tomatoes. I can go one better with the main course: my daughter had spaghetti carbonara (I remember because I polished it off – she found the cheese sauce too strong, as it wasn't made with Kraft cheese slices), while I had pork tenderloin in a mustard marinade. Both dishes came in at less than a fifth of the price of the Aussie Pinot Noir.

Desert doesn't cause such a strain on the brain, as all of us apart from my daughter (who had strawberry ice cream, which she kept well out of reach) went for the crème brûlée, which was as good as we had in the Auvergne at the world's greatest restaurant, Au Bon Coin.

Those whose salivary glands can take no more should call (853) 2833-1209 for a reservation, but truth to tell there's no need, as the place is always more empty than full, even on this occasion when we visited on the Saturday before Christmas. It's closed on Sundays.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Taken for a Ride



I read with amusement a letter in the New Year's Eve edition of the local rag from a reveller with a difference – one revelling in making a mischievous suggestion to demolish Hong Kong's benighted Disneyland and turn it into another Discovery Bay.

For those who don't know, Discovery Bay is one of several toy-towns conceived in the late colonial era when cloning and forced transmigrations on the Irian Jaya model were all the rage. While the results of the successful experiments were settled in Amoy Gardens, the ones that went wrong were bundled off to Hong Lok Yuen and Disco Bay, cursed to live in tiny houses with no stairwells and to write angry letters to the newspaper about the cost of golf buggies and the shortcomings of an education system that failed its teenage drug addicts.

A recent visit to Disneyland enables me to enter the fray and do my civic duty by means of a SWOT analysis. After crunching the numbers, the main findings are as follows:

Strength: lots of Mainlanders go there

Weaknesses: not as many Mainlanders go as used to go

Opportunities: lots for Sun Hung Kai, Cheung Kong and Henderson Land

Threats: the staff

Since it was always going to be Hong Kong's misfortune to be compared with Tokyo, my advice to the government before they gave my money to Disney Inc would have been to wait until one opened in Shanghai before building one here. In that way, they'd have been able to say, as they do about the political system, spitting, driving, etc., "Well, at least it's not a bad as on the Mainland".

Another mistake was to hire foreigners as acrobats, dancers and entertainers and locals as "cast members" who actually have to interact with visitors, as in, talk to them. While the Japanese choose staff who pride themselves on their ability to anticipate your every need, materialising as if out of Tokyo Harbour to accept with gloved hand your chewing gum wrapper before the gum is even in your mouth, Hong Kong Disney management has opted for middle-aged ladies who cut their teeth as security guards in public housing estate car parks.



The highlight of our visit was the stand-off that developed between a "guest", who dared put his feet on the road to get a better view of the parade soon to pass by, and the "cast member" who sprinted past us waving her arms and shouting at him to get back on the pavement. As is the way here, the man wouldn't take it lying down and kept putting his feet back on the road. In its own way, the entertainment created by this cameo exceeded that provided by the floats and the dancers, especially since, unlike in Tokyo, you weren't allowed to join in the fun, if a tango with Buzz Lightyear or a waltz with Minnie is your thing.

Reading a digest of Chinese news the other day reminded me once again how lucky we are not to live on the Mainland. A piece high on facts but short on commentary was devoted to a fare cut on Shenzhen's buses that was introduced across the board on 1 December 2007.

This, however, was a fare cut with a difference, as complaints soon started jamming hotlines that on many routes the fares were higher after the cut than before. Ticketing staff then refused to turn up for work since it fell to them to have to memorise a mass of different fare combinations subsequent to the "cut". Passengers, it seems, were slow to empathise with staff when their memory wanted to charge them four yuan and three jiao and the electronic payment device was asking for four yuan and six jiao.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Benazir Bhutto - Eat Your Heart Out

You know it's slow news season when there's a syndicated article in the Hong Kong Standard about the humble cha chaan teng. Hong Kong's version of the UK's "greasy spoon", these are the sort of places Benazir Bhutto and her scarves wouldn't have been seen dead in, filled as they are with enough health and safety infractions to keep an inspector busy till he too falls on his sunroof lever and joins the choir of early-deceased Sindhi dynastic power-mongers in the sky.

Set meals is what the cha chaan teng does best – "most" is probably a truer reflection of the actual situation. The one thing that can be said for the set lunches (20-odd Hong Kong dollars) is that they're better than the set breakfasts, which rate as some of the worst food served up on the planet. If you like you're fried eggs watery, your macaroni tasteless and your sausage straight out of a giant bag in the freezer marked "franks", then this is definitely the place to go.

The Standard article touches on one of the rules the people who work in these places need to observe – rudeness – as the author extends his spin from the F&B ("the tea is superb, smooth and fragrant") to the service ("the gruff waiters and working-class ambience carry a quintessential Hong Kong vibe that other places lack").

What he fails to comment on, however, and what shows he is no habitué of these establishments, are three of the essential elements that any self-respecting chaan teng must possess. First, it must have rectangular tables along the wall with seating on benches-with-backs for four people, and round tables in the middle with green plastic stools. Since everyone wants to sit at the oblong tables, the circular ones act as mere staging posts, at which families will perch or around which they will hover until someone shows the first signs of leaving, like finishing their food or folding up their copy of Apple Daily's Racing Guide.

At this point, the single inhabitant of the table will order another cup of the world's foulest drink, yin yeung, a combination of two drinks that are in their own right strong contenders for that title, the cha chaan teng's proprietary version of "coffee" and "tea", of which the only thing that can be said is that any resemblance to coffee and tea is entirely coincidental.

Of course, like nearly every hot drink that you order at the chaan teng, a generous portion of evaporated milk is poured into and down the sides of the cup/beaker/mug, which explains why when you do get a wall seat and try to stretch your legs you will invariably come up against boxes of the stuff stashed under the benches.

Which brings us to the second essential of these places: which is that no drink order is allowed to arrive at the table before at least some of the contents have been spilled into the saucer. (This, incidentally, explains why the more labour-intensive cup-and-saucer retains its leadership in face of fierce competition from the mug and the beaker.) For those of you who wonder why Hong Kong's newspaper stalls (maaih bou ji) give away a packet of tissues with each purchase, wonder no longer.

The third prerequisite of the cha chaan teng is that it should on no account have enough knives. Quite why this should be, I don't pretend to know. It is one of those aspects of life in Hong Kong that has no rational underpinning, like the Jockey Club closing down accounts of people who win money and drivers who automatically cross into the outside lane as they enter a tunnel, even though experience tells them that it would be quicker to stay in the inside lane.

As in all food outlets, the thing to do is order à la carte. I can personally recommend the French toast at the Sha Tin Wai greasy spoon next door to the Jockey Club betting shop. Especially on day like today, when they seem to have made a New Year's resolution not to dilute the maple syrup.