Wildfires and Ghost Cops Reply

Hong Kong’s hillsides were ablaze this week as ceremonial Ching Ming fires predictably got out of hand. More than one hundred such wild fires were reported and extinguished by the vexed authorities. Ching Ming, or clear and bright day, allows Chinese families to visit the graves of Grandma and Grandpa and burn paper gifts which subsequently appear the nether world.
To meet this ghostly demand, shops have been doing a good holiday trade selling everything from paper suits to a paper two door refrigerator (which I thought was remarkably sensible, if Chinese Hell is anything like the Christian one). I saw one family burn a very nice terrace house, complete with two servants to work there. I don’t know how the servants felt about the prospect of eternal dishwashing and cleaning, but labour laws are lax here and can be expected to be no better in Hell.
Grandpa got a paper mahjong set, presumably so he could sit around with his mates every Sunday, drinking paper beer and driving the household gods mad with the perpetual clicking of the mahjong tiles. Grandma got a very snappy Mini Cooper to cruise around the afterlife. I hope there’s more parking in Hell than in Hong Kong, or she might find herself pursued forever more by Parking Police wielding ethereal tickets.

Hong Kong Police meanwhile, had a big, full dress funeral for one of their number who was gunned down in a shoot-out. The hearse of the dead “hero” was flanked by a phalanx of police motorcycles which swept through city streets clearing the way from the Universal Funeral Parlor in Hung Hom to the burial at Gallant Garden.

The official police story of shooting went like this. Bad cop has a gun used five years ago in a police shooting. He decided that he needs another gun and the best way to get it is to hold up two armed, uniformed constables. He stages the hold up in one of Hong Kong’s busiest tourist areas. He times it to coincide with a major anti triad sweep involving hundreds of police only a few streets away. Good cop, the one who benefits from the Police funeral, is killed while his mate is seriously injured. The bad cop is also killed and is therefore conveniently unavailable to give his side of the story. Elected legislators, who are in a minority in the still undemocratic Legislative Council, found the official police story just a little difficult to believe. They want a public inquiry, which the police say really isn’t necessary.

So I went looking for a paper Commission of Inquiry to burn on Ching Ming day. Apart from anything else, the thought of incinerating paper barristers and judges appealed to me. But I couldn’t find a paper Commission on sale anywhere. I can understand that. Once these fires are lit there is no telling where it will end.

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Snivelling about the Avian Flu 1


Each morning at Guangdong’s Shantou university, I awake to the sound of birdsong. Normally this would be a good thing. But I have been living in agrophobic Hong Kong where birdsong means the cry of foul avian flu carriers. After the SARS deaths caused a negative blip in the Hang Seng stock index, the vigilant Hong Kong authorities have been very concerned about the impact unspecified communicable diseases might have, especially on tourism. This view is not necessarily shared by the rugged villagers of Hong Kong’s New Territories who are rather fond of our feathered friends and who , as a result, have been tucking into roast birds and rice before Confucius was a boy.

The Hong Kong Civil service are not easily discouraged by this rural intransigence. Every television bulletin seems to contain images of weeping grandmothers being led away as a strike team composed of police, vets and cultural advisors, exterminate the family’s pet ducks. There are government ads on television warning that the best way to beat the avian flu is to eat plenty of vegetables and avoid sleeping with chooks. This may be sound advice but its not particularly comforting. The press can be quite alarming. Hong Kong must be the only place in the world where a picture of a dead magpie provides the centre for the front page lead story in the major daily newspaper.

Mainland China is a little more relaxed about the flu. On arrival at Shantou airport, one is asked to fill in a little, rudely printed form. One should tick the appropriate box if one is suffering from HIV/aids, psychosis or hepatitis. Howevere, one should immediately notify the authorities if one has a fever, watering eyes or, curiously, a “snivel”. The last category would obviously exclude snivelling Australians although there is no indication as to what would happen if one admitted to it. Everybody just gets a stamp and goes through.

Life in China is becoming much more sophisticated. For about A$6, I bought a bottle of 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon. The label boasted that , “the wine presents a limpid and clear ruby colour”. It was called “Greetwill” which I assumed was a misprint of “Great Wall”, since there was a photo of the celebrated barbarian exclusion device on the label. However, having drunk a little, I have come to believe that “Greetwill” is a misprint of “Great Swill”. It certainly has a lingering aftertaste, but not quite as promised. It starts with a soft burning sensation, not unlike inhaling Kowloon smog, before it explodes in the brain’s central cortex like a New Year fire cracker. Mao must have drunk quite a bit of it before he declared the cultural revolution, made the professors wear dunce hats and told people that otherwise unqualified “barefoot” doctors could cure anything from tinea to african sleeping sickness.
I confess it does become more accomodating after the first glass.
But will it stop the avian flu?
Only time will tell.

At Home in the Pearl of the Orient Reply


We stepped out for a few beers at the Globe, a little expat pub in Hong Kong’s Soho district. The place was packed with suits playing darts..a game which I have always considered a blood sport when practised in crowded, smokey and drunken conditions. Then it was down to Gunga Dinh‘s for a few curries. The pommy architect, we were with, kept calling the Indian head waiter “Gunga”. I don’t think our pommy friend knew his colonial literature all that well. The waiter did. He just smiled with his gold teeth and overcharged us. Walking down the hill afterwards, we saw a Chinese man dressed as Elvis. I said,” There you are. We thought he was dead. But he’s been in Hong Kong all the time!”. We ended up at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club where they have late night jazz on Fridays in the basement bar. The band was as they say, “smoking”. The Filipino bass player looked like Bo Diddley. Maybe he’s here, staying with Elvis.

We caught a A$5.00 cab ride home through the damp back streets, glittering with pink, yellow, red and purple neon.

Bay Trip 2


We set out from the port of Aberdeen in the heat of late afternoon, heading south east to the Po Toi islands on the sea border with China. Aberdeen used to be a fishing village. Used to be. But that was before Hong Kong became the world’s gateway to communist run capitalism. Where village women once deftly piloted fishing junks around the harbour, there were now lines of white motor launches, looking more like marine apartment blocks than boats. We passed one called “Floating Asset” with a man in swimming trunks, lounging in the stern cabin, watching the business news on a wide screen TV.
We were turning seawards in an old wooden cabin cruiser, broad of beam and as practical as an elderly amah (Chinese maid). I sat in the bow where you could watch the heading and see the milk green South China Sea part and roll. The sun went down as we passed the old fort at Stanley where what was left of the British garrison surrendered to the Imperial Japanese army in 1942. I sipped a Chardonnay, lay back and thought of England.

Po Toi was almost asleep as we entered the bay. About ten years ago, the sea people’s ancient village had been smashed by a typhoon; the fist of the otherwise benevolent sea goddess, Tin Hau. Most of the locals took this as a sign to move to the air-conditioned comfort of the high rises of Hong Kong island where they traded fishing for land speculation, their rusty boats for Mercedes and their nets for digital phones. Those that remained were mostly old, with crinkled leather faces which peered from the small brick houses from which dim yellow lights still flickered. Tattered red and gold warnings to departed ghosts flapped on broken walls. A tap dripped, while in the distance, a dog barked. We walked with care, following the path as it wound up the hill through the tangled, darkening trees and down to the little white sand beach.

We were the only people at the restaurant, if that is what you call a roof above and a scrubbed wooden floor below. Our dinner; prawns, lobster and cod, swam innocently in plastic tubs ominously close to the glowing grill. Fresh Chinese seafood is a pleasure long remembered, particularly when you wash it down with Tsingtao, a german beer made by the Chinese for apparently medicinal purposes.

There were local dogs on the beach when I went walking. They were obsequiously friendly as only canines can be. They liked me , a foreign devil; on sight. But when the Chinese boatman from our launch tried to land, they went for him without a thought. I called them back and they ran to me, tails wagging, mouths wide with idiot dog grins. The boatman edged up the shore. The pack turned and snarled. I threw them a stick and they took off after it. The boatman saw his chance, jumped from his dinghy and made a run for it. The dogs were after him in a flash, howling and snapping, as they chased him up a small tree. I called them back. They licked my hand. The boatman jumped out of the tree and made for the restaurant . But was too slow for them. He was back up the tree kicking dogs as they jumped to bite his boots.

I thought this was decidedly odd. Why would a pack of dogs on an obscure Hong Kong island prefer visiting Europeans to native Chinese? Were they confused about who their masters were? Or was there something more sinister? Perhaps these were the imperialist running dogs we heard so much about during the Cultural Revolution? These political animals, much maligned by Mao, had undermined the Great Leap Forward, brought down the Gang of Four and were perhaps among the foreign agents now blamed by Xinhua for the Tiananmen Square “incident”. Maybe they had been hiding out at Po Toi for all these years, striking fear into the hearts of all those who loved Mother China. Let’s hope that the communist party aristocracy and their entourage of People’s Liberation Army investment consultants, Russian hookers, and Shanghai billionaires don’t land here after the handover, looking for a feed. They might get a surprise they didn’t bargain with Ms Thatcher for.

Going to air in 1997 Reply


It’s about a quarter past midnight. I have just read the news on Radio Television Hong Kong and am settling in for a shift that will take me through to 0700 hours. I was the last (or almost the last) foreign devil employed by the Hong Kong colonial government.
RTHK is straight out of the sixties. The people are pleasant and professional. The newsroom is full of chipped public service furniture, empty styrofoam cups and long abandoned olive steel filing cabinets. A geriatric disk jockey called Uncle Ray plays the Beatles through the darker hours.

I think the British empire died somewhere here during one of these nights.

I work four days straight and then have four days off. One of those days is devoted to sleeping after the previous night shift. Two of the remaining days, I spend working on l book. It’s a bit like being in some sort of information driven submarine, surfacing every eight days for air, medicinal rum and sustenance. I am going OK except I tend to get a little disoriented on the MTR (underground railway). I can’t tell whether it is day or night.

Sometimes you can guess it is morning because there are wizened old men in ragged shorts and singlets taking their birds out for an early outing. Elderly Chinese men like to keep little songbirds in exquisite little cages crafted from bamboo and teak . The birds drink from tiny cups made from the finest china or even jade. The litle old men are very proud of their feathered prisoners. One man had two cages with him as he squattted on the carriage floor in rush hour one morning, surrounded by teenagers in platforms, grim faced school girls with calculators and real estate agents with digital phones. I watched as one bird danced back and forth to his wagging finger. He caught my eye and grinned and the bird whistled “Dixie”, as if on cue.

These old men lavish time and affection on their birds, catching them crickets and other juicy goodies. In the mornings ,they hop the train, bird cage and all, to meet their similarly elderly bird keeping pals at parks out in the New Territories. There they sit and chat and hang the cages in a nearby tree where the birds can pretend they are free. The birds don’t seem to be discomforted by the subway at all. Presumably, they have made the trip a thousand times. The bird songs echo up and down the long train carriages, providing counterpoints for the soft thunder of the wheels.

There is even a mini bus driver who has a bamboo cage with a large blackbird hanging next to the drivers seat. These little airconditioned buses seat about sixteen people and run all over the island. Sometimes they run all over unwary residents as well. One of them drove off the road over the footpath and into a shopfront in Mongkok last week, killing one man and injuring more than a dozen others. The Daily Standard ran a front page photograph of a group of firemen on their hands and feet in the street outside the shop, unsuccessfully searching for one of the passenger’s severed finger.

Mini bus drivers are, as a result of incidents such as this, known for their bravado, if not for their traffic sense. I have observed that most of the drivers of such buses tend to be somewhat eccentric. One has a pot plant and a small buddhist shrine, presumably to focus the passengers’ prayers. Another likes to sing along to Chinese versions of the Mikado in truly awful English at the top of his cracked voice. But the bloke I like is the man who collects small science fiction figures and has erected them all over the driver’s cabin. He has them all wired so that when he hits the brakes, their eyes light up.

Back to birds and buses. The big black bird clings to its perch while the white knuckled passengers grip their seats. The driver chortles and hooks the little bus into the corners. It squawks when the bus bounds over a bump or rolls over a kerb sending pedestrians scattering.

Caged birds are very popular with the old blokes here. I suspect the poorer guys keep them instead of mistresses; another popular hobby pursued by the local Jockey Club punters. Mistresses are not taken to the park and do not sit in trees. They usually prefer the China Club; a wood panelled, lead glassed hangout for billionaires; a place tricked out to look like a China Coast cafe from the thirties. The Club occupies the top two floors of the old Bank of China Building, which was used as a headquarters by Hong Kong’s Red Guards in the far off days of the Cultural Revolution. They hung their red banners from the balconies and demanded revolution. These days the old art Deco bank building serves as a base for spotlights which illuminate the very much larger new China Bank Building, which was built on an overpowering scale to put the British firmly in their place.

To get into the Chinese run China Club, you have to know the rich and powerful just to get through the brass and teak doors. The waiters who are uniformed like upmarket coolies, hover in packs behind every chair. Stunning, six foot Shanghai models in brilliant silk Paris gowns glide by your table to embrace short plump former Red Guards flashing gold Rolex watches. And to think the British believed they had eliminated the pirates just by cutting off a few heads.

Not swimming in china Reply

I tried to go swimming today.

Hong Kong university has two lovely, limpid, tropical blue pools which are usually empty this time of year. The locals complain that it is too hot for swimming. This apparently quixotic attitude should have prepared me for what was to come.

I collected the appropriate paper work, saying that I am a visiting Honorary Research Fellow, and headed up the hill in the sweltering heat. I arrived in the empty foyer of the multi level Flora Ho Sports centre and approached the inquiries desk. ” I want to go for a swim,” I said. “You need to join Sports Union,” she replied. I was ready for this. I brandished my paperwork and she scrutinised it carefully. “You must take out a full year’s membership,” she said, ” You will pay $600!”. “But I am only going to be here for six months,” I said hopefully,”Do you have a half year rate?”. “No short term rate!” was the reply. The day was hot and the swimmerless pool beckoned. I hadn’t had a swim for months. I was desperate. I pulled six hundred dollars out of my wallet and brandished it at her. “Of course the new sports year begins in September,” she said. “If you pay $600 now you will only have a year’s membership until the end of August.” It was July. I am not sure whether it was the heat or the logic that was making me dizzy. As my head swam, I very nearly coughed up the lolly, although in retrospect $600 did seem rather a lot to go for one or two swims. But then this was Hong Kong. One expects to get fleeced here. I wavered but she was too quick for me. She eyed my fist full of dollars. “Of course we only take cheques,” she said triumphantly. “Those are the rules.”

Now being a stupid foreign devil, I thought that you had rules to ensure orderly ends. I had forgotten that there were those who thought that rules existed for their own sake, divorced completely from the everyday needs of men such as swimming.

Almost beaten and by this time feverish, I trudged back down the hill to the Centre of Asian Studies. Now I knew my fellow visiting scholars there had managed to get into the pool. Did they pay $600 for the full year? Not at all, Suave Andre, the Austrian economist, told me, “I paid $100 for three months”. I rang the Sports Centre and asked to speak to the Director. Being a European employee, he was out to lunch and his secretary could or would not tell me when he might be back. His deputies were similarly lost in space. They finally put me through to the Head Clerk. She read the rules. She admitted that there was such a thing as a visitor’s rate and the fee was $100 for three months.

Armed with this arcane knowledge, I trudged back up the hill. The little clerk was still behind the counter. She gave me a look like thunder. Can I have a form for university visitors, I asked. “You are not a visitor,” she said. “Of course I am visiting,” I said, thinking “Do I look like a son of mother China to you?” “You paperwork says you are an Honorary Scholar, and if you look at the form provided for University employees, you will see it names Honorary scholars as university employees. The rules say all university employees must pay $600 until September.” Now I have a university staff number but they don’t employ me. I could see that such philosophical argements would win me no points here. But equally, I was’t going to walk back down the hill again. I asked if I could use the phone, sitting silently on the counter in front of me during our negotiations. “The phone is for Sports staff only. We get many calls on it” she said as the phone continued to sit there mutely. “It’s a rule?” I said. “Quite right,” said the clerk brightening, presumably realising that this ignorant foreign professor was at last seeing how things were done. He was but not in the way she thought. I went over to the pay phone, rang my Centre’s Executive Director. I asked her to fax me a new letter of introduction which said I was a visitor and which asked for their co-operation. I was seeking new paperwork produced by a high level official. The fax took five minutes to arrive. Consternation followed. I had played my Ace and trumped them. “It seems you may be visiting,” she said. “Yes,” I said, “Here’s my cheque for one hundred dollars” I filled in the visitors form. It was scrutinised and declared correct. “Now may I go for a swim?” “No,” she replied,” We need three working days to process the application. Anyway, it is now too late to take your photograph for your pass. Come back after Monday.” I still had one duplictious foreign trick up my sleeve. While back my office the last time, I collected a guest ticket which staff members could give to their friends who wanted to use the pool. I pulled it out my pocket. She grimaced when she saw it and turned it over carefully. I thought I had her beaten but I was just a foolish foreigner after all. “You will see by reading the back that this ticket is only valid when the guest is accompanied by a Sports Union member. I don’t see anyone else here. I am sorry but those are the rules. Good afternoon”.

It was at this point I realised why the British started the Opium wars. Some time in the middle of the last century, some gormless chinless English wonder had sought to have a nice cooling swim in jolly old Canton. He had been confronted by a junior member of the Chinese mandirinate who then read him the rules. Murder, mayhem, bloodshed and civil debacle of an unprecedented scale followed as a matter of course.

Morrison of Peking Reply


Book Review

The Man Who Died Twice
The life and adventures of Morrison of Peking
By Peter Thompson and Robert Macklin
Allen and Unwin, 380 pp, $32.95

Morrison of Peking became a model for Australian correspondents abroad. He was brave, handsome, resourceful and ultimately a celebrity. But there was more to Morrison than media hype. Like many other heroes of Victorian era journalism, he was also a racist, an agent of colonialism and quite possibly a British spy.

Through his influential reporting, George Morrison helped shape British and Australian views of what he described as an exotic and dangerous “Orient”. Morrison was the first eminent Australian journalist in Asia, whose personality sometimes seemed bigger news than the stories he covered. If he lived today, he might be offered a job on Sixty Minutes.

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