Walk down any street in Tsimshatsui and a man will offer you either a copy watch or a suit.

Well we all understand what a copy watch is. Probably we all understand what a suit is as well. This is an unremarked landmark in the success of cultural imperialism.

The other day I was looking at one of the numerous pictures of the latest festivities in Beijing. Every member of the new leadership – there are reportedly some women there but they had eluded the cameraman – was wearing a black or dark grey suit: jacket, three buttons. Trousers, down to top of feet. With a white shirt and a tie, colour of tie the only thing according to individual taste.

Look at a picture of President Trump on the campaign trail, or in a cabinet meeting, and you see the same thing on every man present: suit, tie, white shirt… The only difference is that the Americans have more variety in hair colour, led by Mr Trump’s notorious yellow follicles.

In Beijing hair is worn black, despite the rather high average age. There is a curious symmetry here. On porn sites there are an implausible number of blondes, in bulletins from the Politburo an implausible number of ravens.

The depressing thing about this is that you actually see more variety in a British Army infantry school passing out parade. They have the same guns, the same uniforms, but at least the graduates wear the hats of the unit they are going to join, which produces an interesting variety of caps, berets, and strange Scottish headgear.

It is difficult to believe that a society, whether Chinese or American, can be a hotbed of originality and innovation if its leading members, as a matter of course, all wear the same uniform.

The lounge suit, as it is officially called, is one of the few inventions which has not been claimed by Chinese historians. People who take an interest in this backwater trace its origins to Charles II, the Merry Monarch or the Harvey Weinstein of the 17th century, according to taste.

In 1666 Charles, following the example of Louis XIV, instituted a dress code for gentlemen at court (that is the Royal court, not the tennis court or the legal one) which comprised knee breeches, a coat, and a waistcoat. Gents were also required to wear a cravat (a now extinct variation on the tie) and a hat.

It seems sober gentlemen got in the habit of having the three pieces in the same colour though this was certainly not compulsory.

The other person who shares the blame for the modern suit is Beau Brummel, the dissolute but very fashion-conscious side-kick of the Prince Regent, later George IV. I must say that pictures of Mr Brummel do not look much like modern suit wearers but apparently he more or less invented trousers which came down to the ankle, as opposed to the previously customary knee breeches.

Something we would recognize as a suit appeared towards the end of the 19th century, initially as sporting wear. By sporting we mean aristocratic sports: shooting and fishing, nothing too athletic.

By the end of World War 1 the “lounge suit” had become the standard wear for men of all classes except the very rich, who persisted in such interesting oddities as the tail and frock coats.

In the second half of the 20th century there was a general movement on the part of people previously considered toffs to stress their sympathy with the general public by wearing the same clothes. So a high level of uniformity was achieved and if you look at pictures of crowd scenes, whether at sporting events or factory gates, weddings or funerals, most people are wearing the suit.

For me this came a bit unglued in the 60s. Like most people who went to boarding schools I had been required to wear a uniform which was clearly intended to prepare us for life in a suit – trousers with crease, blazer, white shirt, school tie…

When I went to university I supposed that people would wear a civilian version of this, involving maybe what was called a sports jacket (a tweedy thing you wore with non-matching trousers) and perhaps a cravat, which survived in those days as a comfortable alternative to the knotted tie. To my surprise a lot of people managed quite well in jeans and a sweater so after my first term I joined them.

We now have a paradox: lots of people wear suits to work. Nobody would dream of wearing one at the weekend unless they were going to church, and perhaps not even then.

One of my lady friends observed on this topic that “anyone who is wearing a suit is in sales.” The rest of us are free.

And what do we do with our freedom? We develop another uniform. I have every sympathy for Mr Howard Lam, the politician who may or may not have been abducted by mysterious assailants who stuck staples in his legs. Clearly Mr Lam either had a very nasty experience or needs some heavyweight head help.

I could not help thinking, though, observing still pictures of the video which allegedly showed him walking through Mong Kok unkidnapped, that there must be a great many similarly dressed men in Hong Kong.

He was wearing long shorts in dark blue or black, a dark tee-shirt, black peaked cap with logo, trainers and a black rucksack. I have every one of these. The thought occurred to me (bad taste warning) that if I was short of a Halloween costume I could assemble my shorts, tee-shirt, cap, rucksack and trainers, draw a few crosses on my legs and go as Mr Lam.

In one of C.S.Forester’s Hornblower books (well OK it’s The Commodore; I know the Hornblower saga backwards) the hero muses on the burden presented by civilian life, where he has to choose his clothes, and take the blame if they do not suit him. Wearing the King’s uniform was less stressful, because whether it suited him or not there was no choice involved.

It seems that ladies cannot avoid this problem. You are judged by what you choose to wear. In my trade union official days aspiring lady officials wore men’s shirts and jeans, flat shoes and no make-up (the Rosa Luxemburg look?) but this clearly suited some people much better than others.

Men on the other hand can avoid this problem by tacitly agreeing that they will all wear the same thing. Which is what we do whenever we can. Whether this is mere laziness or reflects some inherited tribal instinct I leave to the scientists.







An autocratic police state run by a centralized dictatorship. A multi-ethnic empire imposing its chosen language on administration and education, trampling local dialects.

A variety of different administrative arrangements, rights and privileges in different regions, with defence and foreign affairs strictly reserved for the central authorities. Functional constituencies…

Before you jump to conclusions, I have been reading “The Hapsburg Monarchy, 1809-1918”, by A.J.P. Taylor, a history of what became the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The book is almost as old as I am – it was first published in 1948 – but Mr Taylor was a noted stylist whose prose still gives pleasure. I wonder if the same will be said of the contemporary historians who, now that he is safely dead, are rather rude about him.

The story told here is a depressing one. It starts with defeat by Napoleon, and ends with Austria starting the First World War and disintegrating under the strain of defeat in it.

Beijing officials will not perhaps welcome the suggestion that, having rejected Stalin’s empire as a model, they should turn to Franz Josef’s. It isn’t exactly a shining example. Switzerland is erroneously accused (in The Third Man) of producing nothing but the cuckoo clock. What can we attribute to Vienna but a lot of classical music and some lovely pastries?

Well try this, in the account of the achievements of the “German liberals”, who briefly enjoyed a period of political prominence before normal aristocratic service resumed in 1871: “They thought it was the duty of liberalism to protect the individual from the state and could not imagine a state under popular control, least of all under their own.”

And yet “These constitutional laws … created a system of individual freedom… There was equality before the law, civil marriage, freedom of expression, freedom of movement…

“The police state still existed … but it was a police state exposed to public criticism and confined to civilized behaviour.”

“Political affairs were discussed without restraint, and the German Austrian, at any rate, felt himself free.”

Now there are no exact parallels in history, and there is clearly one topical item missing here. The German liberals, because they spoke the imperial language as their mother tongue, had nothing to say about the language question, which was a live issue in most of the Austrian empire, where people spoke a wide variety of mother tongues.

Also you could say that the Hong Kong liberals approached this from the other direction. Our pioneers hoped that democracy in Hong Kong would lead to democracy in China. Contemporary localists do not imagine a state under popular control and see democracy only as a way to protect the individual in Hong Kong from the state in Beijing.

Clearly though there is an outline here of a sort of grand bargain which might, as it did in Austria, deliver several decades of comparative peace and freedom, though it will probably have to wait until the regime in Beijing, which is very full of itself at the moment, has suffered a painful collision with economics.

A lot of Hong Kong people would be prepared to settle for the rule of law, freedom of expression, freedom of movement and a “police state exposed to public criticism and confined to civilized behaviour.” Nobody really wants to dabble in defence and foreign affairs, or for that matter in the numerous and difficult problems presented by the internal affairs of the rest of the Chinese empire. They want to feel free here.

If this was consistent with absolute monarchy in Vienna there is no reason why it should be inconsistent with “China’s absolute sovereignty” over Hong Kong. It just needs people to get their heads round it. Is there anyone in Beijing who can even spell “self-restraint”?

Observant readers will have noticed that I missed out one of the achievements of the German Liberals, the arrival of “civil marriage”. This was one aspect of the resumption of secular control over the Roman Catholic church. This is generally regarded as an exotic European problem of no relevance to Hong Kong, but I am not so sure. Hong Kong, as one observer put it long ago, enjoys freedom of religion but not freedom from religion.

This brings me to the matter of the Gay Games and the government’s tepid response to the news that this festival is coming to Hong Kong. Every columnist in Hong Kong has lambasted the government’s approach to this matter already, so I shall be brief.

If Carrie Lam feels that presiding over a festival of pink power is inconsistent with her religious beliefs nobody could complain if she sent someone else to do the opening ceremony. Not C.Y. Leung, please.

The question of how the government should handle the games, however, is not a matter of personal conscience, it is a matter of public policy. And the relevant public policy is that hosting mega events is good for the economy and the territory’s reputation so they should be supported with encouragement, money and help with booking venues.

This policy should not be abandoned in deference to the views of a minority of Godbotherers, even if the Chief Executive happens to be one of them.

Usually when an international story about human behaviour appears we are treated, sooner or later, to a local version. So far though, the current fashion for complaining about the sins of Harvey Weinstein and other male pigs has not prompted any Hong Kong victims of harassment or worse to come out and tell their stories.

We can safely exclude the possibility that this is because there is nothing to tell.

Hong Kong had a world-class film industry, and it had a world-class casting couch habit as well. If anything, it seems, the situation was and is worse here, because standards of behaviour are lower.

Mr Weinsten may be a man with whom no woman is safe, but at least he is not a gangster. The Hong Kong film business has long been a popular money-laundering machine for people with what newspapers in countries with English-style libel laws call a colourful background.

As a result female actors are expected to be athletic and sociable not only with the producer but with his sundry friends and financiers as well. This toxic culture only occasionally surfaces in public. It is occasionally alluded to in print in a rather indirect way if a young actor commits suicide.

Otherwise we get the occasional accident. There was the case of the well-known TV personality whose method of expanding his social circle was to promise potential bed partners an audition. This only came to light because one of these partners, possibly suspecting that the glittering career did not beckon as advertised, had an accomplice emerge from the wardrobe with a camera in the middle of the proceedings.

The upshot of this was that she and the camera person were charged with blackmail. The star of the show was allowed complete anonymity by the court..

Then there was a case which involved dangerous driving. The driver, who was running a TV station at the time, had been celebrating an agreement to buy advertising. The buyer appeared in court with an implausible tale of how much they had not been drinking and explained the deal, which included the interesting provision that the casting of all the female parts in the show to be sponsored should be done by him. Why a young millionaire with no relevant experience was given this job was not explained.

Then there was the time Mark Thatcher, son of the famous Margaret, came to Hong Kong as the guest of some of the less puritanical parts of the financial industry. They were looking for a reputable international face and he was looking, I suppose, for some money.

However this story, which was mainly about business, took an interesting turn. One of the less puritanical parts had a showbiz connection and Mr T spent an evening with a quite beautiful young actress who was, I suppose, on their books. We tracked them through dinner and disco. What happened after that remained unknown. Clearly the situation was rife with possible misunderstandings.

Readers who have been around for a while may also recall the case of a magazine which printed on its front cover a picture, heavily pixillated, which was allegedly of an actress who had been kidnapped and beaten up a few years before. This led to noisy protests from showbiz people at the publication of the picture. The prevalence of kidnappings and beatings in their industry, on the other hand, apparently did not call for comment.

We must not, I suppose, suggest that the entertainment business is the only one with this problem. Factories and other work establishments employing large numbers of women present obvious opportunities for abuse of power.

So, I fear, do educational establishments. There are two schools of thought in local universities. One holds that students are adults and if they want to socialize or sleep with profs that is their decision. The other holds that this is a dangerously asymmetrical situation full of dire possibilities and should be avoided.

Personally I prefer the second view. But that is easy for me, because by the time I got into the business I was a happily married man old enough to be the average student’s father. Those who take a more conventional approach to academic work face a long period in which they are neither purely a student nor completely a professor. This is unsatisfactory for a number of reasons, of which the danger of romantic misunderstandings is only one.

Well we shall see. I suspect it will only take one example to unleash a flood of stories. But Hong Kong is not as kind to whistleblowers of all kinds as … say, the US. I am not sure, if I had a daughter who was considering being that one example, whether I would encourage this, or not.

Let us hope, at least, that we shall not see much of that weasel word “inappropriate”. Good behaviour and bad behavior we all understand. “Inappropriate” sounds like an etiquette problem, like using the wrong fork for your fish or wearing a hat in church.

Most of the behaviour which people are complaining about is not impolite; it’s criminal. Forcing people to have sex with you is rape. Grabbing their private parts is indecent assault. Grabbing other parts is assault.

I realize that there are marginal cases where two people may have different views of the situation. Indeed the import of an action depends on its context. I had a lady colleague of considerable beauty on a Hong Kong newspaper who was often patted by the editor. There was nothing explicitly erotic about it. He patted her shoulder. She didn’t like it, didn’t complain, and eventually left. Clearly this would now be regarded as objectionable

On the other hand I had a colleague in a local university who occasionally patted me. This was also on the shoulder and I did not take it as an erotic invitation. I was a bit disconcerted the first time – do I look like a dog? Apparently this lady regarded me as a large and potentially fierce animal.

But then some writers maintain that this is the world women live in; they permanently share their space with larger, stronger and potentially fierce animals called men. Soothing massage is a survival skill.

This brings us to another delicate area, which is the question of consent. The Economist opened its discussion of Mr Weinstein’s alleged crimes with this quote: “I spent a great deal of time on my knees,” Marilyn Monroe once said of how she became a film star. “If you didn’t go along, there were 25 girls who would.”

You have to wonder what was going through the minds of all these young things who turned up for an evening “interview” in Mr Weinstein’s hotel room. After all this is not a promising venue. Generations of Hong Kong reporters have been told, by me, never to agree to an interview in a hotel room. Temptation lurks if you are alone in a small room with a bed and a person of the opposite sex, or in these liberated days with a person of the same sex if that is your preference.

There was an amusing piece in the Guardian the other day by a lady who accepted the Weinstein invitation but turned up with a chaperone. The “interviewer” was angry and the “interview” extremely short.

Mr Weinstein’s proclivities were in fact well known. I have a friend in Hong Kong who, in his prime, was notorious for his, shall we say, hearty sexual appetite. I once asked him if this bothered him. On the contrary, he said, he treasured it because it meant that if a lady accepted an invitation to his flat she knew what was likely to happen later. She might refuse his advances but she would not be shocked by the approach.

I do not suggest that we should blame the victims in any way. But I do wonder if some of the people who now claim to have been shocked by Mr Weinstein’s actions were, at the time, willing to pay an unsavoury price to further their careers. They shouldn’t have been asked for it, of course, but Ms Monroe was surely not the first, or the last, to feel that this was the way the business worked.

The times are now a-changing in Hollywood. Are they changing here?

I am an enthusiastic amateur cook. After many years of managing with a variety of recipe books I discovered a great deal of inspiration on Youtube. Famous chefs here strut their stuff, and this brings us to the matter of the Michelin Guide, or if you pronounce it in French with the adjective after the noun, the Guide Michelin.

This dates back to 1900, when the owners of the Michelin tyre company, in an effort to increase demand for their product, started publishing an annual free guide to petrol stations, garages and hotels. In due course this became a paid-for publication, and developed a speciality in reviewing restaurants, which it still does today. The guide now comes out in the form of a little red book, and grades restaurants in three categories:

One star: “A very good restaurant in its category” (Une très bonne table dans sa catégorie)

Two stars: “Excellent cooking, worth a detour” (Table excellente, mérite un détour)

Three stars: “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey” (Une des meilleures tables, vaut le voyage).

The annual appearance of the guide now attracts, at least in France and the UK, the sort of industry and media attention which attends the Oscars. Chefs take very seriously their star status and in at least one case the constant struggle to keep three seems to have led to the suicide of the cook concerned. For a detailed video tour of the scenery there is an hour-long piece of BBC here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0f-j1ctaQqw

Let us just say (for we have to get to the local angle soon) that the guide has attracted a certain amount of controversy. Some restaurants have asked not to have stars, either because a star produced a surge of demand which overwhelmed the successful chef, or because it led customers to expect a sort of “fine dining” to which the restaurant did not aspire. Marco Pierre White, who despite his exotic collection of Christian names comes from Yorkshire, tried to give his third star back. Explanation here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U-xCIstDBaI&t=5s at 44 minutes. Raymond Blanc (who has a whole Youtube channel to himself and deserves it — see https://www.youtube.com/user/TheRaymondBlanc) is quite happy with two. Jamie Oliver, a name to conjure with and the owner of a fleet of successful restaurants, has never had one (though he does have an MBE, and sundry other awards). The identity of the guide’s anonymous inspectors is a closely guarded secret, but one disillusioned former inspector went public with the complaint that some of the things the company claims – for instance that candidate restaurants and existing star-holders are reviewed repeatedly – are not true. Well French people take this stuff seriously.

And not only French people, it seems. A little row has been bubbling along in America about the coming and going of various cities which have had Michelin guides of their own, and then did not have them. It then emerged that to have a Michelin guide published about your city you pay the publisher a fee, which they politely call a commission. You do have to offer a reasonable number of restaurants for them to inspect, but they do not take the initiative. You cough up the money. No money, no guide. In the course of this miniscandal the Michelin people pointed out that “The guides in Seoul, Macau, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore were all commissioned”. Were they indeed?

I don’t know what the people in Seoul, Macau, Bangkok and Singapore think about this, but it seems rather a curious use of Hong Kong’s public money, even allowing that the government has more of it that it knows what to do with. Also I seem to remember that when the Michelin guide to Hong Kong first appeared we were told, by people who should have known better, that this was a tribute to Hong Kong’s status as a culinary capital, an acknowledgement of the extraordinary quality and diversity of our food landscape. No it wasn’t. We just bought it.

According to a local food blogger called e_ting (get it?) he had some suspicions about this and specifically asked the Tourism Board in 2014 if it had any involvement in the genesis of the Hong Kong guide. The Tourism Board’s reply (which would have struck me as suspiciously detailed) said that the Board denied “any lobbying of Michelin to come to HK, any influence over restaurant selection, inspector and restaurant nomination, and rankings in any way”. The possibility that the Tourism Board had financed the whole enterprise was not mentioned. Mr ting now feels with some reason that this was not as illuminating an answer as it should have been, and wonders if – now that Michelin has let the cat out of the bag – we shall hear from the Tourist Board.

Perhaps we shall, Indeed I can practically write their answer now. “Encouraging Michelin coverage a legitimate activity to boost tourism … valuable publicity for Hong Kong … draws attention to a seductive local attraction etc. etc.” Well certainly the Board uses the Michelin material on a generous scale, as for example here: http://www.discoverhongkong.com/eng/dine-drink/dining-events-awards/michelin-guide-awards/index.jsp

You have to wonder two things, though. One is why, if this was such a good idea, the Tourism Board has been so slow to claim credit for it. The other is whether this is really a practical way of increasing tourist numbers. Hong Kong tourists generally come from a long way away. The more affluent, the further. We have six restaurants which are, apparently, “worth a special journey”. But that means an hour or two driving across the French countryside. Are people really going to fly into Hong Kong for the pleasure of paying spectacular prices for what is, after all, in the end only food?


Well for once I am sorry I missed “Straight Talk”, a TVB programme on which crumbs from the upper crust are obsequiously interviewed. Chief Executive Carrie Lam was the star on Tuesday, and warmed by the studio lights and the atmosphere of fawning adoration she was interestingly revealing.

When she thought she was retiring last year (you remember that bit, before C.Y. Leung was promoted to a non-job in Beijing) she discovered, apparently, that she “could not afford to buy a flat in the urban area”.

She could afford “only” a three bedroomed flat in the New Territories, costing $15 million. Unfortunately for the vendor of this palace Ms Lam then discovered that as the Chief Executivette she would have the free use of Government House for five years, so the deal fell through.

Meanwhile, prepare a tissue for this bit, “When I quit the civil service and joined the principal officials, my lump sum pension was only a mere $7 million,” she said. A mere $7 million. Did angels weep?

Let us leave aside the possibility that a great many people in Hong Kong would be deliriously happy to have $7 million. Let us leave aside also the observation of some close observers of the local real estate scene, that you can actually get a three-bedroom flat in the urban area for $15 million. Maybe the lady is fussy.

What viewers may have missed here is that Ms Lam’s pension entitlement is a complicated matter. When she quit the civil service she was 50. It is usually considered inconsiderate, if not rude, to reveal ladies’ ages but Ms Lam’s date of birth is the first item on her Wikipedia page so that cat is already out of the bag.

The official minimum retirement age for civil servants under the Old Scheme (the arrangements for more recent recruits are less generous) is 55. So until you get to that age you are not entitled to a pension in the sense of regular monthly payments at all.

You are however allowed what the Civil Service Bureau calls “commutation”, in which you exchange some of your future pension entitlement for a lump sum now. This goes up to 25% – again the later arrangements are different – so that is where the $7 million came from. In other words it was not Ms Lam’s “pension”, in the usual sense of the word. It was the result of cashing in a quarter of the pension early.

At the end of C.Y Leung’s first term Ms Lam was 55 (consider my excuse repeated) and so she could expect her pension to start. As the CSB web site puts it in impeccable bureaucratese: “Under the current pension suspension policy, if a pensioner is re-employed to the Government, e.g. as a non-civil service contract staff, the payment of his/her pension may be suspended during his/her service of re-employment unless and until he/she has reached the applicable normal or prescribed retirement age under the relevant pension legislations.

Ms Lam is now receiving the pension, and the CE’s salary. This is a fairly mind-blowing thought. It used to be said that the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong SAR received more than any national leader except the Prime Minister of Singapore. Have we now overtaken Singapore in this dubious steeplechase?

Well no doubt Ms Lam has earned her good fortune, and may consider it a poor reward for the abuse which will come her way if she keeps parroting the Liaison Office line. Still I think she should consider carefully before giving the impression that she deserves sympathy for her housing problems.

Ms Lam owns no property in Hong Kong because, as the SCMP put it,  “she had been living in government quarters since becoming a civil servant.” In other words between 1980 and 2007 she was spared the need to pay for accommodation at all. She was also entitled to an education allowance for the kids, and the free medical and dental services provided for civil servants. In the later stages of her career she could also save on travelling expenses by lavishly abusing a government car, as all Hong Kong’s senior civil servants do.

Then we have five years as a top political appointee, which is generously rewarded and also attracts a great deal of free food. If Ms Lam is short of a bob or two she hasn’t been concentrating. I notice also that the question of property in the UK, where her family lives, did not come up. A pity.


“Oh would some Power the gift give us, to see ourselves as others see us,” sang the poet, or at least that was what he meant. The poet was Robert Burns and the original is in Scottish.

It is not relevant, but I cannot here pass unnoted that the poem from which this phrase comes is called “To A Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church”, which is an unusual source of artistic inspiration.

The sentiment has become, at a personal level, technically obsolete. Everyone can now see videos of themselves, if they wish. If these videos are shared on social media they may provoke a great deal of comment indicating very accurately what “others” see in them.

More complicated variations on “us” – our city, our country – remain elusive. Usually there is, as Kahneman puts it, an inside view and an outside view. Generally we prefer the inside view. I confess to a certain skepticism about Hong Kong books written by visitors, however careful their research.

But sometimes the outside view offers insights which insiders seem to miss. Everyone outside the US knows, for example, that American gun laws are crazy. This is a complex issue, for Americans. Nobody else has a problem with it.

Similarly from a distance Brexit is clearly a stupid idea. No responsible government should have held a referendum because that implied by its very existence that going or staying were two equally viable alternatives. British politicians have to pretend otherwise.

Locally outsiders who are free to make their own minds up invariably note that Hong Kong’s autonomy is wilting, a development which many of our fellow-citizens either do not see or do not mind. Sometimes the view from a distance is clearer.

This brings me to a programme I was watching the other night on DW, which is the international channel run by Germany’s national broadcaster.

The programme was a documentary about the situation of Filipino domestic helpers in Hong Kong. It started in the Philippines, where we saw the doings of an employment agency run by a memorably obnoxious Hong Kong gentleman.

Apparently he refuses most of the people who apply. Those who are accepted must pass tests, some of which were rather alarming.

“What is the most important quality of a domestic helper?”

“Um, obedience?”


One lady was firmly told she was “too fat to go to Hong Kong,” which was a bit rich coming from the agent, who was no sylph himself.

The film makers then came to Hong Kong, pointing out as they did so that Filipino ladies making the same journey did so with a large burden of debt.

They ran through the usual indignities: the “live in” rule, the “two weeks” rule, the frequent absence of the accommodation and other amenities specified in the contract, and the spectacular abuses which surface in the courts.

They interviewed several ladies who had taken refuge in a home which takes in those who are in dispute with their employers. Disputes with your employer are not something to be undertaken lightly because the Labour Tribunal takes its time in such matters and meanwhile the employee with a gripe cannot work for anyone else. Which means she has no income. At all.

DW did – this was a serious enterprise – manage to film inside one employer’s home. The employer concerned had nothing to be ashamed of. Many others had apparently refused.

Viewers were led to the conclusion that the condition of overseas domestic helpers in Hong Kong was either slavery or something much closer to it that it should be. That is, I fear, the outside view.

The inside view? Well, just as many Americans can honestly say that all the gun owners they know are responsible and law-abiding, many Hong Kongers can say with their hand on their heart that all the employers of domestic helpers in their circle are humane and generous. In both cases that doesn’t get us very far.

Of course some employers are OK. The problem is not whether it is possible to be a good employer, but whether it is easy to be a bad one. Some people, for example, think that for their money a helper should be willing to work 16 hours a day six days a week. Some would extend that to seven.

Employers who are violent, rude, or given to sexual abuse are no doubt in a minority. The question is whether that minority is as minor as it should be.

The indebtedness problem is not our fault. The debts are illegally imposed by employment agencies and loan sharks, usually before the worker comes to Hong Kong. This does, though, put the worker in a vulnerable position. Put simply, she cannot afford to lose the job.

The “live in” rule is a government artifact and it is all our fault. The resident servant relationship is always fraught. It is said that “no man is a hero to his valet”. Your servant knows things. Folk songs are full of stories in which this syndrome ends in tragedy: the servant betrays the master, the servant betrays the master’s wife’s infidelity, the servant becomes the romantic target of the master’s daughter. Sad stories. Really we are insisting on a recipe for trouble.

Requiring the helper to leave swiftly if fired is a comparatively recent wrinkle on the situation, a shameless sop to employers concerned that dissatisfied workers might move to more desirable situations. Like the rest of us can.

The official line, as recently enunciated, is that changing the live-in rule “will not solve all the problems”. This is true, just as switching to electric buses will not stop global warming. Is that a reason for not doing it?

We seem to have a bit of a head-in-sand problem here: a willful refusal to recognize that our arrangements for foreign domestic helpers have a dismal effect on the territory’s international reputation. Outsiders who look at the situation are usually appalled.

The rules are not very good. And the ones which would help are not enforced. The government insists on some contract provisions, but makes no effort to see that they are observed in practice. This is left to the most vulnerable party to the contract, and so we find helpers expected to live in dog kennels, broom cupboards, tents in the living room, and so on.

If this is to work, the least that is required is a swift and effective method of resolving disputes, which the Labour Tribunal is not. Mediaeval cities which held fairs used to have what were called Pie Powder courts (believe it or not from the French pieds poudre, meaning dusty feet) which provided a swift service for foreigners who did not wish, and could not be expected, to hang about to wait for justice.

How about an Overseas Employees Court required to resolve at least the more straightforward cases in a week?

Some years ago a friend of mine who had reached some eminence in her profession and had a Master’s degree was invited to join one of our more prestigious local universities as a teacher. “Go for it,” I said, having had a lot of fun as a university teacher.

This summer she was told that her contract would be renewed for a year. She had by then become so fed up with the whole game that she offered to leave by Christmas. Teaching in Hong Kong universities has become much less pleasant. This is a serious matter because an unhappy teacher is unlikely to provide a pleasant and educational class.

What the universities’ PR people call the “undergraduate learning experience” has deteriorated as a result, despite the proliferation of flash new buildings, educational technology, and elaborate bureaucratic mechanisms intended to measure and promote “teaching quality”. Students are grouchy. I sympathise. What went wrong?

Part of the problem dates back several decades, to when the UK government of the day discovered a cheap way of expanding access to university education: they relabelled a large number of existing polytechnics and colleges as universities. Suddenly people who had merely been post-secondary students became university students, to the great joy of their parents.

This innovation was loyally copied by the Hong Kong colonial government. But there was a misunderstanding at the heart of it. The planners knew that many of the courses provided in polys and colleges concerned practical matters and led to professional qualifications. They supposed that this would continue, and these activities would benefit from the increased respect which came from being conducted in universities.

This was not what happened. From the point of view of the staff and senior management of a newly promoted institution, the way forward was to become as much like a university as possible, thereby increasing the prestige of the school and the prospects of its staff moving to what were sometimes tactlessly called the “real” universities. It is a characteristic of universities that they concentrate on theoretical and prestigious matters, and their staff regard research as their main activity, whatever the taxpayers think they are paying for.

So each newly promoted institution pruned its prospectus of anything which did not lead to a degree, and purged its staff of anyone who was teaching such things. Possession of a PhD became a prerequisite for appointment and the production of research became a prerequisite for promotion.

In retrospect I now realise how lucky I was. I arrived at what was then Baptist College in a brief window of opportunity between the time when staff had to be practising Christians and the time when they had to be practising PhDs. People who arrived two years before me were expected to attend a weekly service. People who arrived two years after were told to get a PhD if they had not got one already. Having many years of professional experience, they were told, merely got you the job; it had no significance in the university value system.

Indeed J.K. Galbraith pointed out many years ago that universities did not like people who engaged in real-world activities. They were assessed, as a result, by outsiders who were not members of the tribe and did not share its superstitions. This made it difficult to place them on the prestige pyramid, a problem most easily solved by leaving them at the bottom. So it has always been.

This disconnection from the real world explains why so many university graduates finish up in non-graduate jobs.

The next problem was the solution, or non-solution, of the great research university question. A consultancy pointed out that while Hong Kong might need a large number of places teaching undergraduates, it did not really need a large number of places doing the sort of research which universities do. This implied that some local universities would become research universities, and some would become non-research universities, a fate for which nobody was going to volunteer.

The consultants recommended that there should be two research universities. Prestige and connections reduced the candidates to a short list of three: Hong Kong U, Chinese U and the HKUST. Getting from three to two pr0ved beyond the capacity of what had become the Education Bureau. Hong Kong U was not going to be changed in any way because it was confident of being one of the two. The two rural candidates were urged to merge, and refused. Even an attempt to fold the IEd into Chinese U to produce a bigger candidate was a failure. The stalemate was widely, if surreptitiously, welcomed by the other universities, which all retained their “research” status pending a resolution of the impasse.

The solution eventually adopted was that instead of research funding being distributed more or less fairly between universities, it would be distributed on a competitive basis. University staff would apply to a central fund for research grants. The intended result of this was that “research universities” would emerge from the competition and the others, having no funds for it, would give up research. But this was not what happened at all.

All the universities, however humble, devoted much effort and ingenuity to attracting as much research funding as possible. All, to varying extents, succeeded. The possibility that there might be a cost to this was not considered. An academic is a person who, when asked if you should turn left or right at the next junction, replies “both”.

A popular trick is to reward anyone who gets a research grant with a reduced teaching load. This is indisputably successful in encouraging research. Indeed I occasionally meet local academics who have been so successful in playing this part of the system that they no longer teach at all. The flip side of this is that their less research-happy colleagues have to do more teaching. This is achieved by longer hours, and also by larger classes. When I started as a course planner there was much soul-searching over the possible dangers of having more than 100 people in a class. Populations of 300 or more are now common even in supposedly top universities.

Another unhelpful innovation was the four-year degree. This was not, although it took people a long time to get their heads round this, an extra year. What happened was that the universities took over responsibility for what had previously been Form Seven. It was decided that this was too early for the sort of specialisation that people go to university for. The year would be filled with “general education”, which would offer a wide-ranging discursive approach suitable to the upbringing of gentlefolk.

Some of this was achieved by a sort of academic forced shopping. You must take one course in each school or faculty, for example. Some of it involved courses specially designed for the purpose. Some of it involved a judgement that everyone should be required to do, say, two languages.

All these ways of dealing with the problem produced difficulties. Supposedly elementary courses designed for people who were going to major in logical positivism might not be elementary enough, if inflicted on people who had signed up for sewerage studies. Also the offering department might not welcome the influx of tourists.

Courses specially designed for general education implied the existence of people qualified to teach them. But university staff now have to sport a PhD, a desperately narrow and concentrated research degree which commonly takes seven years. This is no preparation for teaching a wide-ranging survey subject and indeed the survivor may be reluctant to attempt such a course.

Making a language compulsory produces a huge surge in demand which the department named after the language concerned is not equipped for or interested in. Universities have devoted much ingenuity to providing massed language instruction without increasing the number of staff who are counted in research surveys. The most amusing solution was devised by the university which had, and still has, a fleet of “visiting scholars” with suspiciously local names. They teach the compulsory English courses.

The upshot of all this is that times have changed. I remember the late Dr Lam Kow-wai, who was head of the Department of Communication at BU at the time, addressing a room full of disgruntled students. This was soon after the Tienanmen Massacre and Dr Lam, as a well-known left-winger, had become a figure of suspicion. “Whatever you think of me,” he said, “you must not doubt one thing: in this department the students are our first priority.” I nodded agreement.

You would have to be very optimistic to tell undergraduates that now. They are likely to be subjected to huge classes, taught by people who are either overloaded, not interested in teaching, or both. Many of their fellow-students will be there because of some curriculum-planning wrinkle and are not interested in the material offered either. If there are seminars for small groups they will be presided over by graduate students working as a condition of their scholarships. Lectures commonly go on for three hours, a monstrous travesty of teaching wildly at variance with the results of research into what students and teachers can handle. Those who graduate discover that they have qualified for a better class of unemployment.

The attractions of higher education in the UK are elementary and obvious. The ordeal may be the same, but the duration is only three years.

I wonder if local vice chancellors should have more urgent things to worry about than the contents of their notice boards.