Tuesday, August 22, 2006


Monty Python once boasted of a "Happy Holiday Home for Pets Pie Company".
Hong Kong had a "Don't Forget Pets Crematorium Centre". Or it did until this week, when it was closed after repeated complaints from angry residents who claimed it belched foul smelling smoke into their flats. According to the South China Morning Post, six government departments had tried, and previously failed to close the centre. Apparently the Environmental Office merely suggested the company install a better filter and a longer flue. This didn't impress one local who said she didn't like the idea of inhaling "bits of dogs and cats". A letter writer to the paper subsequently claimed the crematorium owner had been "hounded" by such residents who shouldn't have been in the building anyway.
It was also reported that Hong Kong's only government run pet cremation centre ceased operations in 1999, after the building in which it was unfortunately located, the Kennedy Town Abattoir, closed.
Many Australians of course believe the stereotype, that Hong Kong people like to eat small furry animals, particularly dogs. Indeed, the then Australian Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans once caused a scandal here when he joked that one of Governor Patten's dogs, which had gone missing, may have been lunched upon by the locals. This was regarded as poor taste. The dog, called Whiskey or Soda, I can't remember which, turned up unscathed and died some years later of old age, in England.
It seems that contrary to western suspicions, many Hong Kong people dote on their furry friends. Up on the Peak, where the really rich folks live, it's often the custom to have one's Husky (yes Husky) take the Filipino maid for a walk at least once a day. Down at the mid levels, where the Hong Kong lawyers and small time merchant bankers congregate, there has been a proliferation of pet grooming centres, where one's Pekinese can be shampooed, primped and primed, JonBenet Ramsay style.
It's certainly true that in the working class areas, such as the aforementioned Kennedy Town, there aren't too many doggies to be seen on the streets. But this doesn't mean they have end up in one of the many fine nearby barbecue restuarants. It may simply reflect that low income earners just don't have the money or more importantly, the room to have a four legged lodger.

Friday, August 18, 2006

One Flick and you're gone

After recently having spilled a rather fine Australian Shiraz into my laptop, I have come to realise why journalists don't drink as much as they once did. In my youth, journalists used to file their copy from booze proof analogue telephones or pound their stories out on almost indestructible manual typewriters. A fraternal interest in booze was a hallowed foundation for creating and maintaining contacts.
I started out as a reporter in Sydney, covering unions whose operations seemed to float on a sea of beer and spirits; whose currents, I quickly learned to navigate.
To avoid unpleasantness and resulting fisticuffs, different union factions used to favour different pubs in the seventies. Members of the Australian Communist Party drank at the Criterion, an otherwise undistinguished bar just across the road from Australian Associated Press. Off Duty overnight subs (sub-editors) mingled with communists, environmentalists, the occasional giant drag queen and ageing members of the anarchist "push". People had heated arguments over ideas; a concept many computer literate whippersnappers might find novel. Reporters would learn of scoops which would be tragically forgotten after the sixth or eighth Bundaberg Rum and Coke. It was the sort of place where you went in with a fairly loving relationship and came out with a force nine hangover.

One block south, on the edge of Chinatown, right wing unionists drank at the old Trades Hall Hotel. They belonged to the Centre Unity faction, which was neither Centrist nor unified, but it didn't seem to matter as long as they had the numbers at the weekly Labor Council meetings. They seldom spoke to journalists and drank and plotted in the back bar, deciding Labor candidates' careers, rigging union elections and writing the policies of the state Labor government itself. Only one journalist, Jack Simpson from the Telegraph, cracked their system. The back bar was connected to the public bar by a service window which the Centre Unity officials had to open to get their beers. Jack sat on the public bar side, running a small but lucrative betting shop. Jack would trade tips on the horse races for inside information on the Labor Party. The system worked well, until Jack a former bare-knuckle boxer; fell off his stool under the influence of one beers or three. His stories were a bit scrambled after that, although it seemed that editors of the Telegraph, who didn't much like unions anyway, didn't seem to notice. As Jack succinctly put it, "They were so low, they could walk under a snake's belly with their umbrellas up!" I still don't know whether he was talking about the Telegraph staff or the rightwing union officials.
Across the street, what was left of the unions drank at the Star Hotel. I went there one hot Sydney Summer afternoon, after a long unwooded Chardonnay sodden long lunch with two hackettes. The bitchumen pavements may have been melting outside, but the bar was cool and dark. A solitary drinker was downing beers with the sort of intensity with which lawyers pursue money. One of the hackettes, now a sage and respected columnist, sidled up to him.
"What's your name," she asked with a giggle.
"I'm the Flick man," he replied.
It was at that moment that two things dawned on me.
The first thing was that I recognised this fellow with the deep tan and the tattoos as a member of the Painters and Dockers Union. They worked the waterfront, which in those free and easy days before containerised cargo, was a lucrative venue for organised and disorganised crime. The Painters and Dockers were the toughest blokes on the wharves.
At this point, I remembered I had a pal belonging to the Actors Union which had been trying to sign up the strippers at Kings Cross. One club's bouncers protested against organised labour by throwing a union organiser down a flight of stairs and giving him a kicking which resulted in the loss of his spleen. But the Painters and Dockers owed the Actors a favour.
I read two weeks later that the club in question had burned down, with the manager still inside. Interviewed in hospital, the club manager told the Sydney Morning Herald that he had been depressed when he set the club alight and had locked himself in. He said that when he recovered from his injuries, he planned to leave town and get out of clubbing which had lost its attractions for him.
And the girls were talking to a Painter and Docker who called himself the Flick man. He was of course referring to the Flick company, which applied pesticides. Their radio and televisions ads claimed that if you had problems with insects, cockroaches, rodents or indeed pests of any sort, all you had to do was "Call the Flick man".
"Just one flick and their gone," was their slogan.
I made myself absent.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Getting rat faced in Cambodia

I confess that over the years I have got drunk in some strange and somewhat seedy places. When I was in Cambodia, journos like myself used to hang out at the Gecko bar in USSR Boulevard. It was easy enough to find, if only because of the two metre tall concrete Gecko standing outside the bar. It had red unblinking eyes, which were not unlike my own, after a serious session there. In those days, we used to get around town on cyclos; three wheeled pushbikes with a cane armchair attached to the front, so that the passenger could travel in comfort.
The Gecko was set up on the footpath, so the cyclos could push right up to the tables. You could sit in your cyclo armchairs; drink steadily in the steaming heat, until enough was too much. You could then give the driver US$1 and be cycled seamlessly and safely home.
Or mostly safely. I remember an incident one night when we were heading back to the Cathay, a local one star much favoured by Australian freelancers, SAS hit men and the occasional drug merchant. (Intrepid Japanese and American journalists stayed at the Cambodiana, Phnom Penh's only five star which not only had a swimming pool but which also sold bacteria free bottled water!)
We were with the other cyclists streaming down the main street, passing our bottle of Quantro from cyclo to cyclo, and savouring the scent of the Frangipanis, when a fellow got popped in the street in front of us. He was lying with his shattered head in a spreading pool of blood with his nemesis standing over him, AK 47 in hand. A Japanese TV crew emerged from a restaurant, camera running, lights flicked on. Our pal with the AK 47 just turned his head towards them. They got the message. They genuflected and retreated back to their sumptuous dinner.
Our drivers wheeled about the blood pool and pedaled us home. The incident definitely took the gloss off the evening. At the Cathay, I asked the night manager, "What does the Cathay do about security?" He was a young man who appeared to have been much scarred by shrapnel at an even more tender age. He was wearing shorts and watching American wrestling on satellite TV.
"Security?" the night manager said as he pulled a cut down AK from under his desk. On the screen a wrestler with golden curls howled as a fat man in a mask pretended to jump on his stomach. I thought of the Cambodian war veterans who would gently tap their stumps on the restaurant windows, as they held out their palms

I must not have looked reassured. The night manager reached down again and produced a rocket grenade. I thought about what a weapon like that would do in the confined space of the Cathay foyer.
It didn't bear thinking about. Sometimes its better to stay drunk.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Jaguars in gilded cages

It's free to go to Hong Kong Zoo. It's run by the Hong Kong government. The cages of Lemurs, Toucans, Chinese crocodiles and Burmese Pythons are housed in immaculate architect designed cages surrounded by meticulously gardened jungle. The resident Jaguar has a mid levels pad which includes its own gym, spa bath and sun deck. It's true that his accommodation is not as big as he might have had back home in South America, but hey in Hong Kong he gets to eat prime quality, imported beef and gets to look at the city lights every night.
The Hong Kong humans drive down from their apartments to gaze at the caged Jaguar while he gazes back at them. They both breathe the same Hong Kong air, and its choking them all.
The Civil Service led Hong Kong government is doing a fine job on the small but important elements of the urban environment. The streets are swept clean. The parks are mass planted with flowering trees. Even the public toilets are spotless. This all a bit of a shock to anyone who has recently been to under developed countries like England, which used to run Hong Kong. It's hard to believe that he former colony's slick public transport and its gleaming airport were designed and built by the same folks responsible for the odd and dysfunctional bus service to the shambles at Heathrow.

But the Hong Kong civil service government hasn't the strength and perhaps the insights needed to address the larger issues. It's good at gardening but is struggling with air pollution. As an unelected body, it lacks a democratic mandate to take on the literally filthy rich...Hong Kong's government sanctioned but privately owned power stations. A Hong Kong government agreement protects these gross polluters from competition in this tiny but exclusive market, in doing so feeding them continuing profits.

China Light and Power's website has a nice green frog and it boasts of its environmental awareness. CLP even claims that by 2010 , five percent of its generation will come from renewable sources, which seems a negligible if not laughable proportion. Particularly since CLP is powering up its dirty, coal fired stations to export even more electricity to China's polluting industries. (45.7% increase last year). Hong Kong Electric meanwhile smugly says it strives to exceed its customers environmental expectations. HKE has commissioned a wind generator of Lamma Island even as it expands its conventional generation capacity. Both companies are politely resisting calls to quickly clean up their corporate acts.

Their shareholders, are after all the whos who in Hong Kong's real zoo .