Owing to an accident of economic history the estate where I live has moved up in the world. Houses which used to sell for 5 or 6 million now command eight-digit prices, and the first digit is not 1. My humble Honda rubs hubcaps with expensive European brands, the odd Tesla, and luxurious Japanese people-carriers.

One of the minor drawbacks of this is that we attract a lot of attention from the real estate industry. It seems that really rich people are in a state of constant wanderlust, so they are prime targets for agents flogging the latest new palace.

Scarcely a week goes by without a glossy brochure dropping through the letter box inviting us to own a piece of the latest “timeless masterpiece” (I am not making this up) offering “exclusive executive living”.

There will be a club house, a pool. There will be tennis courts. There will be space for your three cars.

An odd feature of these plans is that there is usually a little room next to the kitchen, mysteriously labelled “store”. A walk-in pantry? But why, a visitor from Mars might wonder, does it need its own tiny toilet?

We seasoned observers of the Hong Kong scene know what is going on here. The “store”, which is approximately the same size as the lift, is actually going to be the domestic helper’s bedroom. A humane employer will bear this in mind when recruiting, and avoid tall ladies, unless they are willing to sleep standing up, like a horse.

I suppose labelling the helper’s room a store is a harmless deception. Potential buyers will no doubt be told by the agent, if necessary, what the store is for. This is a point real estate vendors like to cover, because of the flattering implication that the potential buyer they are addressing can afford servants.

In the days when my wife and I occasionally indulged in that classical Hong Kong hobby, visiting show flats at the weekend to see what was on offer, we were occasionally shocked by suggestions that tiny and rather unattractive spaces could be used for this purpose.

The most alarming example was in a three-story house and consisted of the space under the stairs which in more self-sufficient British households would be used as a broom cupboard.

I do not know why otherwise honest and reputable architects go along with this. Some developments are prepared to be honest and label the tiny room “maid” or “ser’t”. There is no room for more than four letters.

Rooms of this kind now appear in surprisingly small flats. An agent in Shatin is offering 700 square foot flats with three bedrooms, and a “store” complete with the give-away micro-toilet.

What is the difference between a “maid” and a “store”? My unscientific observation is that a “maid” will have a window and a “store” will not.

I am prepared to be told that helpers who have a room of their own, however small, should count their blessings. At least they are not among the considerable number subjected to arrangements like a tent on the balcony, a plank on the washing machine, or the use of the living room sofa when the family have finished watching television.

The basic problem is that our government insists that helpers must live in their employers’ homes. It heads off complaints about this arrangement by insisting also that there should be a clause in contracts about accommodation. And then it loses interest.

This leaves enforcement of any understanding about decent accommodation up to the helper. Any complaint can lead to one of two outcomes:

  1. The complaint is not substantiated, the offended employer fires you, and you must leave in two weeks.
  2. The complaint is substantiated, so the contract is annulled … and you must still leave in two weeks.

Formal complaints are, understandably, rare. And I fear the obvious, if unlikely, solution would not help. If the government was persuaded to take an interest in protecting this vulnerable group of workers then occasional inspections would concentrate on the low-hanging fruit – flats which are obviously too small for a “store”.

Inspections would be dreaded by helpers because, as in the two scenarios above, the end of the story would be two weeks to go home. And after all once you are in it you cannot make your flat any bigger. I expect some of the employers who plumb depths in the provision of accommodation department have other merits which endear them to their helpers.

The basic problem is a toxic combination of two apparently unrelated government policies – insane land prices and the rule that overseas domestic helpers must live on the employer’s premises. The first is regarded as an insoluble problem and the second as not a problem at all. So I expect no progress.

In the meantime it seems to me that the architectural profession needs to brush up its ethics. I know you are supposed to supply what the client wants but it is a characteristic of a profession that it has standards it will not compromise.

You know what that little room next to the kitchen is going to be used for. The developer knows, the real estate salesman knows, and the buyer knows. Far be it from me to suggest that this implies some minimum size.

But for pity’s sake, we all know a human being is going to live in that box. Can we at least make sure it has a window?






The MTR – once the pride of Hong Kong – seems to have come down with a nasty case of the Reverse Midas effect: everything it touches turns to dross.

Its trains are unreliable, its building projects have defects (besides being over budget and late, which is normal for railway projects) its interventions in the co-location debate are tactless and its boss picks fights with the press if the weather is too hot. What is going on?

Some observers hold that the current bad press reflects a deterioration in the corporation’s performance. When there was still a separate KCR we had two competing railway systems and both had an incentive to look good. Now we have a railway monopoly and the sincerest efforts to do a good job are diluted by the knowledge that after all the clients have no choice.

Another controversial move is the MTR offering its services overseas. This is no doubt very exciting for the staff concerned. But whatever comes of this wanderlust it is a distraction. Talent and effort devoted to the railway needs of distant cities are withdrawn from Hong Kong’s requirements.

A kinder theory is that the MTR is suffering from what is known technically as an availability cascade, where a topic in the news becomes a sort of self-propelling typhoon. Stories make the topic newsworthy and produce more stories which attract more media attention and the public gets the impression that something major has changed.

Which may not be the case at all.

A good local example was the Light Rail Transit system in the North West New Territories. This attracted no media attention when it opened until a van ran a red light and was hit by an LRT train, killing the van’s passenger. Suddenly any incident, however minor, on the LRT was a news story. Anything less trivial than a loose screw was front page material.

After a few months in which the new system was routinely described as “troubled”, “controversial” or even “defective”, the government imported a railway expert who looked at the whole network and announced that there was nothing wrong with it. The incidence of defects and minor glitches was normal.

The MTR is bound to get some stick every year when it adjusts (or as we peasants say raises) fares. Delays may be rare, as the corporation says they are, but the system is close to full capacity in the rush hour, so any hold-up in the proceedings produces spectacular crowds of disgruntled commuters.

Then there was the case of the stray dog on the tracks which was sacrificed to the timetable. The dog died, and with it a good deal of the affection and respect which the public had nurtured for the MTR. Reporters are paid to remember these things. There’s blood on those tracks.

A quite different theory has it that the MTR is performing no worse than it did, but is making a mess of its public relations. Personally I am reluctant to believe that PR is that important, but this theory has some facts going for it.

The MTR has a PR department, of course. Most of the people in it were apparently recruited from TVB. This is the sort of thing that looks a good move if you are a non-journalist staffing a PR department. Journalists, on the other hand, know that television people are widely regarded by their peers as a bunch of over-paid prima donnas who, because of the need for pictures with everything, spend most of their time covering events staged for their benefit.

The relations between journalists and ex-journalists in PR are always a bit prickly anyway. The poacher turned game-keeper thinks he should still be on warm sociable terms with the other poachers. This doesn’t seem obvious to the poachers.

One of my colleagues has recently been struggling with the MTR’s PR department, which seems to suffer from that delusion common among amateur PR people that their job is to avoid at all costs giving a straight answer to a simple question.

For the question we need a bit of background. Until last year the government adamantly refused to recognise internet-only web sites as media. This meant they were not sent official releases, were not admitted to press enclosures at events like elections, and were not invited to press conferences where the government lies, I beg your pardon the government lines, were expounded.

Our new Chief Executive promised before her election to do something about this, and something has been done. Suspicious minds may wonder if this was in any way connected with the appearance of a small fleet of pro-government news websites.

Well, news websites can now if they wish register with the government, pay a small fee, jump through some awkward bureaucratic hoops and get the same service from the Information Services Department as their print counterparts.

But note that this is not compulsory. If you run a news web-site you may not wish to register and the law does not compel you to do so. Indeed some of the requirements are quite onerous because the system is based on the Newspaper Registration Ordinance, which, surprise, was designed for newspapers. So some news websites are not eligible.

Some of the websites which did not register have discovered that they are not invited to media events organised by the MTR, while registered websites are. This was not supposed to happen. They suspect that the MTR is using the list of registered websites as a list of all the relevant media.

Note an important legal wrinkle here. A newspaper which is not registered is infringing the law. The list of registered newspapers is a list of all the legal media of that kind. The situation of websites is quite different. For them registration is an option, not a requirement. So the government’s list of recognised internet-only news media is just a list of the organisations which wanted access to the official news teat badly enough to jump through the bureaucratic hoops necessary to reach it.

It appears, though, that the MTR is treating both lists the same way. No registration means no invitations.

In pursuit of the MTR’s line on this point, my colleague asked if the corporation barred non-registered media outlets/journalists from its press events. You would think this could be answered with a yes or a no. After all neither position would be something to be ashamed of.

Well my colleague collected three answers, the last and longest of which went like this:

MTR Corporation attaches great importance to maintaining positive relations with the media. We strive to provide timely responses to facilitate media, no matter traditional and online media outlets, in their reporting as far as possible. If media are interested in receiving our press releases, we will not hesitate to include them in the recipient list. 

Regarding the Corporation’s media events, due to limitations in relation to venue or arrangement, we are not able to accommodate all of the media organisations in each of our press event. We understand that the Government’s Information Services Department (GIS) has a well-established mechanism to handle online media outlets in covering its press conferences. Therefore we make reference to it and if any media is included in GIS’s list, we will include the organisation in our media event invitation list upon request. 

Please be assured that we will review our handling from time to time. We appreciate your comments and will take it into consideration during the review.

This is an attempt at a “yes” disguised as a “no”. It appears (last sentence of first paragraph) that any media may, if they ask, be sent press releases. On the other hand only media in the government list (see last sentence of second paragraph) may, on request, be included in the “media event invitation list”. So if you are not on the government list you can have the press releases, but not the invitations.

If it was my story I would have reported this as a “yes”. My colleague was more cautious, and thought the MTR would complain that he was putting words into its mouth. We both thought the MTR was being evasive.

I would have thought, actually, that from their point of view a prime objective would be to avoid looking like a government department, which is not a passport to popularity these days. So relying on the GIS list is both unfair and unwise. But if that is what you are doing, why not say so?



It appears to be a curious fact of judicial life that judgments in the High Court are often models of objective legal lucidity, as are judgments in the Court of Final Appeal. But something comes over judges when they are appointed to the Court of Appeal.

Consider the long-awaited judgement in the case of a civil servant, married to another man, who sought judicial review of the government’s decision not to accord him the benefits accorded to civil servants in more conventional marriages.

Mr Justice Andrew Cheung, presiding, based his decision to over-rule a lower judge who had granted the relief sought by citing the Basic Law. This, he said, meant that the situation in Hong Kong was different from that in other places.

The relevant part of the Basic Law goes like this: “the freedom of marriage of Hong Kong residents and their right to raise a family freely shall be protected by law”.

In Cheung’s view this has “embedded in it” the traditional view of marriage. But this is an elementary error. The law is what it says it is. Clearly if the Basic Law says Hong Kong people have freedom of marriage that may or may not be interpreted as meaning that they have a right to marry persons of the same sex if they choose.

But that was not what the court decided. The court’s view was that “freedom of marriage”, because it did not specifically include same–sex unions, must be held to exclude it.

Mr Cheung, in fact, seems to be trying to have his cake and eat it. At the same time he wants to rule that the Basic Law over-ruled everything which came before it, but also that “traditional, historical, social, moral or religious background and values” must be decisive.

Mr Cheung thinks that the position of the Basic Law has to be accepted until the Hong Kong mini-constitution is changed or there is a “definitive court interpretation”. And what is the Court of Appeal for, one wonders, if not to provide definitive court interpretations?

Then we have the argument that, as Mr Cheung puts it, that the law “is and has always been understood” to mean that the Basic Law “constitutionally guarantees the right to heterosexual, not same-sex, marriage”. I would have thought Mr Cheung was old enough to make a distinction between the age of the Basic Law (21 years) and “always”.

But leaving that aside, legal history is full of statutory interpretations which prevailed “always” until some court with the power to do so looked at the original statute and decided that the conventional interpretation was wrong. And after all, the question of same-sex marriage or its implications does not come up that often.

It is difficult to avoid the impression that the judges in this case have simply foisted their own prejudices and opinions on the Basic Law and turned a rather simple matter into a complicated constitutional one.

Because when you come down to it the civil servant who brought this case was not seeking the right to marry another man in Hong Kong. He is already married to his husband, perfectly legally because the wedding took place in New Zealand, where such unions are allowed.

The only question which the court had to consider was whether he should be treated the same way as other civil servants who contract lawful marriages in places outside Hong Kong.

Marriage overseas presents many opportunities to elude Hong Kong’s traditional etc. background and values. Some countries have different ages at which the participants can legally consent, some have different ages at which the consent of a parent or guardian is required, some countries require notice and some do not.

Some countries allow solemnisation by an imam, some by a priest, some by a civil magistrate and some by almost anyone.

Among the more esoteric possibilities available to globe-trotters are the places where a bride is traditionally purchased by the donation of a small herd of cows to her family, and the places where 12-year-old girls are married to men 40 years older than them whom they have never met before the wedding. I do not know if there is any truth in the story that Russian sex workers could be purchased by lonely bachelors from Vladivostok pimps, but the point is that the civil service did not inquire.

Cheung J professed to be worried that if the government lost the case it would “lead, almost inevitably, to similar extensions in other areas concerning, for instance, public housing, social welfare, public medical benefits, employment benefits and protection, pensions and life insurance”.

But he has now launched the government down another slippery slope, towards the position where It may, as the “custodian of Hong Kong’s prevailing socio-moral values” feel called upon to sit on judgement over the acceptability of marriages conducted in other jurisdictions.

Hong Kong has no jurisdiction in New Zealand and has hitherto accepted that a marriage which meets New Zealand’s requirements is valid for all purposes in Hong Kong. Are we now to question marriages solemnised in Nevada, Afghanistan, Taiwan…?

And where, in any case, did judges find the idea that our government is the custodian of the public’s values? I do not know anyone who would buy a used value from this government, whose twin functions are to protect the rich in the enjoyment of their wealth, and to implement the policies of the Liaison Office.

The government, like the Court of Appeal, cannot both have its cake and eat it. Having shredded its already flimsy facade of democratic legitimacy it has no claim to embody the public’s desires or preferences. It is simply an imposed colonial administration. People in search of moral guidance will look elsewhere.

But not, please note, to the Court of Appeal.



It’s funny how one incident can rocket a politician from obscurity to public figure overnight. Consider Mr Ma Fung-kwok.

Until last week Mr Ma was an obscure piece of government lobby-fodder. He sits in Legco for the Sports, Arts, Culture and Publication functional constituency and is the convenor of a minor political entity called the New Century Forum, which is a sort of Taste to the DAB’s Park’n’Shop. Same goods, higher prices, nicer décor.

Mr Ma, who also sits in the NPC on our behalf, has not been a political skyrocket though he was at one time counted among the early admirers of C.Y.Leung.

His connection with culture, apart from sundry advisory posts in the gift of the government, is as managing director of a company called Major Trend Entertainment Ltd. This is a small company – it admits on the TDC website to 1-5 staff – with global ambitions in the “video products distribution business”.

It lists its major markets as “Africa, Australasia, Central & South America, China, Eastern Europe, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Middle East, North America, Other Asian Countries, Scandinavia, Southeast Asia, Taiwan, Western Europe.“

This suggests that Mr Ma is a seasoned traveller, which makes the story of his ascent to public joke rather a puzzle, because it occurred at the airport.

According to newspaper reports Mr Ma was passing through the usual security screening when the person who stares at an X-ray of your hand luggage noticed that there was a receptacle in the Ma backpack larger than the official limit, which is 100 ml.

Mr Ma seems to have supposed that since the 200 ml container – a tube of hair gel – was more than half empty it should not have been intercepted. He was invited to throw it away and refused.

So far this is the sort of little misunderstanding that could happen to anyone. I have personally lost two sets of scissors to the security screeners. My wife was deprived of a tiny screwdriver of the kind you use to adjust the screws on your spectacles. A colleague had to donate a very nice bottle of wine to the Perth airport.

If Mr Ma had ditched his gel we would have heard nothing of it. However an argument then ensued. In this he mentioned that he was a Legislative Councillor. He further dropped the name of Fred Lam, the chief executive of the airport authority.

In the end he was allowed to keep the tube of gel, in violation of security rules. This was, as might have been expected, written up as an example of a bigwig taking advantage of his status to bully humble airport employees into bending the rules.

Mr Ma later tried to repair matters in chats with other reporters. He did not dispute that he had mentioned his legislative status, or dropped the name of Mr Lam. These ingredients in the conversation had got there innocently, he said. He also apologised for any misunderstanding, which was nice of him.

The legislator bit came up but “he only mentioned he was a lawmaker as he was concerned about airport security measures”. The mention of Lam? He “mentioned Lam’s name because the second staff member who spoke to him claimed to be the highest ranking airport official, so Ma corrected him”.

Well Mr Ma is entitled to the benefit of the doubt. I confess, though, to having some difficulty in envisaging conversations in which innocent mistakes of this kind might be made.

“You can’t take that on board, Sir.?

“Why not?”

“Airport security rules, Sir”

“But I’m very concerned about airport security.”

“That’s what they all say, Sir, why should I believe you?”

“I have to be concerned about airport security because I am a Legislative Councillor… Oops, I wasn’t going to mention that…”

The matter of Mr Lam coming up also presents some difficulty. Suppose you are buying a tube of hair gel in Watson’s. A difference of opinion arises. You ask to speak to the boss.

“I am the boss,” replies the staff person you are talking to. Do you at this point say “No you are not the boss. My friend Li Ka-shing is the boss”?

Well there we are. Mr Ma is entitled to be presumed innocent, and innocent I am sure he is. What bothers me is the fact that someone of such an age and social eminence is using hair gel.

I am reminded of the old etiquette dilemma, the cause of much social soul-searching among young Prussian officers in the early 1900s. If you are dancing with the Colonel’s wife and your monocle falls down her décolletage, what do you do? Pursue it, ask the lady to pursue it, dance on and pretend nothing has happened?

The answer to this question, according to the crusty (fictional) general in H.H. Kirst’s Officer Factory, is that a man who wears a monocle is a fop, and no fop can become an officer.

I am not concerned whether Mr Ma takes his hair gel to Beijing with him or not. Why is he using it at all?

Diligent examination of the various Ma photos on the internet suggests that Mr Ma is having a problem common among men in his age group. Areas of his head which formerly supported a lush crop of vegetation are now barren. Part of his scalp is, if you will excuse a four-letter word, bald.

Mr Ma’s solution is the technique known to men of my generation as the Bobby Charlton comb-over. Mr Charlton was an eminent footballer whose hair artifices always disintegrated under the stress of combat, leaving an interesting lopsided effect which lasted until he got back to the dressing room.

What you do is to let the hair at the side, where you still have hair, grow very long. You then plaster it over the top of your head, concealing the bare skin beneath.

This could be considered a controversial method for a legislative councillor. If we cannot trust a man to be honest about the state of his scalp, how can we trust him about more important matters?

But for a representative of the arts and culture we can perhaps suggest some more creative solutions, pioneered by cultural icons which whom we are all familiar. I suggest Mr Ma could be invited to choose from:

The Elton John Solution: wear a wig which is so outrageous that nobody can mistake it for real hair. It’s just an indoor hat.

The Yul Brynner/Telly Savalas Solution: shave it all off and go for a smooth dome. I understand some ladies find this look very appealing.






Stories about the activities of the Consumer Council, worthy though those activities certainly are, generally pass unnoticed. Sometimes the council uncovers a concealed, or at least unpublicised, health hazard. Sometimes the council points out that the cheapest alternative is not the worst and the most expensive not the best.

I suppose this is all useful to some people. But it doesn’t do much for me. Like most men I am a get-it-over-with shopper, unless I’m looking for a new toy, computer. Or car.

But I find myself strangely haunted by the fact that the Council reported last week on its latest series of comparative tests: on toilet paper.

The spokesman unveiling this scientific breakthrough did his best to make it sound important. Toilet paper was used by everyone, he pointed out, keeping a straight face and carefully avoiding the phrase “the bottom line”. Also, it was difficult to assess the comparative merits of different rolls before you bought one.

In an effort to push aside this veil of ignorance, the Council had obtained rolls of various brands, and compared the length of the unrolled banner, the weight of paper supplied, its absorbing qualities and its softness.

This left me with some disturbing visions. Faced with these important questions, did the Council’s researchers find a long corridor, and bemuse its usual users by unrolling toilet rolls along the floor to measure their length?

Then there is the question of the absorbent qualities. What did they use as a test substitute for … well what toilet paper usually absorbs?

Actually my impression was that toilet paper had become a pretty uniform commodity. And indeed the differences the council had uncovered seemed rather small.

It was not always so. In my youth paper was still rationed, so most households used recycled newspapers. Sometimes you just found a pile of last week’s news in the corner.

More pretentious households would carefully cut the paper into six inch squares. These were then threaded onto a shoe-lace and hung up under the cistern, which in those days was usually high on the wall behind the throne, presumably so that the flushing water got a running start, as it were.

When rolls began to appear again the paper was cheap stuff, not particularly soft and a rather unappetising muddy colour. You could, though, print on it, and private manufacturers used to put their brand name on every sheet.

I also noticed, though if I had not seen this I would not have believed it, that in government offices — and other places where the paper was paid for by the taxpayer — it had “Property of HM Government” printed on it, also on every sheet.

This hard stuff was gradually replaced by the modern version, which is more or less the same as the tissues you get for other purposes, but on a roll instead of in a box. You cannot print on it, thank goodness.

While this change was taking place it made sense for the purveyors of the soft stuff to advertise it on television. This had to be done tactfully. On-site interviews with satisfied users were out. The only ad I remember featured an appealing puppy dragging a roll of the new gentle wipe along the floor. A good dog toy, then.

I notice that the Consumer Council did not consider the one type of toilet paper which few of us can avoid, but which scores rather low on some of the attributes tested. This is the stuff which comes on a giant roll, inserted in a plastic case with a hole in the bottom through which the paper emerges. This arrangement is usually found in public toilets run by the government, though it does crop up in other public facilities.

The theory, I suppose, is that if you supply rolls of the conventional kind then users will be tempted to take the whole roll home rather than just meeting their, ahem, immediate requirements.

This is a poor excuse for low standards in the matter of absorption and softness, not to mention the absence of perforations, which often produces a mess when you try to tear a piece off.

On the other hand it does seem that this cheap paper could be printed on, and our leaders are missing an opportunity here. Now that nobody watches television any more the old Announcements of Public Interest find few viewers.

On the other hand, for some toilet users looking for the paper is a rare break from looking at their phones, and an opportunity for a few well-chosen words. Like “Now wash your hands.” Or “Enjoy our new identity as citizens of the Greater Bay Area.” I’d enjoy a wipe with that one.

“The agent of economic theory is rational, selfish and his tastes do not change,” according to Bruno Fey, and this may be one reason why economic theory has few points of contact with the real world.

People are not rational and consistent. I will leave the question of selfishness for another day. We generally expect, though, that people should make an effort to be rational and consistent, particularly when they are in positions which involve making decisions for the rest of us.

But this is not what we get. Consider the matter of violence. We all disapprove of violence. We also all recognise that violence comes on a scale, with varying degrees of seriousness, depending mainly on the effect on the victim but also taking other circumstances into account.

So we might have at one end of the scale a pat on the back which would in other circumstances qualify as a sign of affection, and at the other — well take your pick — public executions by hanging, drawing and quartering, perhaps.

Where on this scale might we place the mischief of Mr Ted Hui who, irked by the presence in Legco’s backstage areas of officials apparently photographing the scene-shifting on mobile phones, grabbed a phone from one of the snoopers.

Taking advantage of the snooper’s female gender he retired to the nearest gents’ latrine to – or so one assumes – have a quick look at the “gallery” section and see if he was one of the unwilling stars of it.

We can I think infer that the violence part of this was quite low down the scale. Our prosecutors, ever anxious to add another pro-dem scalp to their trophy cabinet, have settled for “common assault” for the snatching part. The proceedings in the toilet qualify for that much-loved legal blunderbuss, “accessing a computer with dishonest intent.”

It was suggested at the time that the victim was in tears. I find this difficult to believe, though I realise that digital natives (or young people as we used to call them) have an affection for, if not an addiction to, their mobile phones which is difficult to understand for those of us who first met phones when they were large pieces of black Bakelite with a round dial and a wire going into the wall.

Perhaps she jumped to the conclusion that Mr Hui’s trip to the toilet would end with him dropping the offending phone in a place from which recovery would be unpleasant, if not impossible.

Perhaps the phone, which was on official business, was an official phone, whose loss would entail extensive form-filling and recriminations. Anyway I think we can all agree that it was naughty of Mr Hui to cause a lady such distress, whatever the legal status (still to be determined in court) of his actions. But as a piece of violence it hardly registers on the Mayhem Meter.

The government’s reaction, from the Chief Executive downwards, was that Mr Hui’s conduct was “barbaric”. This seems to be the most conspicuous local example of over-inflated rhetoric since the last time some sycophant said that C.Y. Leung would make a good Chief Executive.

If we are going to use “barbaric” for snatching a lady’s mobile phone, what will we have in reserve for occasions when the victim is killed and eaten?

What will we have in reserve if the victim is roughed up, has his nose rubbed along the pavement, is whisked off to the local police station and coerced into coughing up one of those “confessions” which we all take with a pinch of salt?

Well when it happens in Beijing, it seems, words rather fail us. The Chief Executive managed to “express regret”. The Secretary for Justice thought the actions of the policemen concerned were “very strange”. You what?

The whole point of having a lawyer as Secretary for Justice is that there are times then the government and the public need an authoritative statement of what the law is. Telling us that the actions of the police were “very strange” is like going to your doctor and being told that the mysterious growth on your neck is “very decorative”. That may be true but it is not what we want to know.

Actually I doubt if it is true that the police action was “very strange”. The mainland police are not like our police. Not yet. It is a commonplace there of reporting (along with demonstrating, protesting, worshiping in the wrong church and other controversial actions) that you may be beaten up by policemen.

One of my former colleagues had such a rough time covering a protest in Tienanmen Square that his back was permanently damaged. That’s the way it goes. Those who are taken into police stations commonly emerge on a stretcher, occasionally in a box.

Carrie Lam says she hopes that people will not expect the government to “use certain wording to show that it cares”. Not at all. We know the government doesn’t care. We would just like to see it pretending.

Of course senior officials do not have a monopoly on baffling inconsistency. Last week legislators were much excited by the news that tickets for the Flying White Elephant, or the Express Rail Link as we are supposed to call it, would come in two categories. Those for destinations served by trains starting in Hong Kong and finishing in that destination could be bought from the MTR. Those for other places on the network would have to be bought from the mainland rail system or an agent of it.

And (surprise!) the agent will add a small fee to the cost of the ticket. So legislators who happily swallowed the bill for the world’s most expensive railway were upset that travellers on this marvel might be ripped off a few bucks by the China Travel Service.

I am reminded of the passage in one of Parkinson’s books in which he points out that the building of a new power station will preoccupy the company board for five minutes, because few people present know enough about it to comment, while the construction of a bicycle shed will take an hour because everyone has an opinion.

The rail link is a hole down which billions of dollars have been poured and will continue to flow. Even in the original proposal it was never going to make money on a normal basis because it was never expected to pay its construction costs.

For book-keeping purposes the rail link is treated as if a choir of angels had descended on us and built the thing for nothing.

Honestly accounted for it will, as I have said before, have cost $100 billion. You no longer have to take my word for this. In the debate on the Great Ticket Robbery Mr Michael Tien, a rare railway-literate legislator, explained that “It’s just like buying the side dish for $100 billion and when you purchase the side dish you can’t book the main course at the same time.”

This does not sound to me like a recipe for a successful restaurant business.

Not in the club

My first job in journalism was as Sports Editor of a local weekly in North Lancashire. This was a sought-after way of starting because you got experience of editing and production, as well as reporting. Also it was effectively a part-time job, so you spent half the week doing the usual news stuff, thereby qualifying for a transfer to mainstream reporting later if you wanted it.

My Saturdays were devoted to the doings of the local football team, Morecambe FC, who are now clinging precariously to the bottom of Division Two but in those days were not in the league proper at all. If they were playing at home it was an easy half-day. If they were playing away I travelled with the team.

When I had been doing this for a year or two one of my female colleagues expressed a desire to try football reporting. Her father was a faithful supporter of Manchester United and she had seen many matches. Still, this was a daring ambition at the time. I spent five years as a full-time football person and in that time I only came across one lady football writer.

She wrote a couple of home games, which were received with great trepidation in the office but made it into print after lots of people had read them. The question then arose of an away match. This turned out to be a problem because the team coach did not carry ladies. Directors who wished to take their wives to away games had been firmly refused in the past.

An exception was made. In order to reduce the cultural shock my colleague, who already had short hair, dressed in a gender-neutral style: trainers, jeans, duffle coat. And so we arrived on a midweek evening at the ground of Blyth Spartans, who hang out somewhere near Newcastle.

Of course we arrived long before the kickoff. My routine was to obtain the latest version of the opposition’s team as soon as possible. The only other pre-match chore was to locate the bar. This was my contribution to the happiness of the team. It was considered faintly embarrassing for a professional athlete to emerge from the changing room and ask “Where is the bar?” My boys could ask “Where is our reporter?” and get the same directions.

The Spartans were aptly named. The usual palatial accommodation for directors and visitors was absent. They did, though, have a large wooden shed with a bar in it for the spectators generally. My colleague and I had just got past the door when we were intercepted by an elderly gentleman in a flat cap and a pronounced Geordie accent.

“You can’t go in here,” he said.

“Why not?”

“I don’t believe he’s over 18.”

I gently pointed out that not only was he over 18, but also he was a she.

“You still can’t come in,” said the guardian of the door. “We don’t admit women either.”

And that, gentle reader, was the last time I was refused admission to a boozer until last week, when to the great amusement of many of my friends I was thrown out of the Hong Kong Club. Not physically, of course. Gentlemen do not struggle with doormen. My wife and I got as far as the lift and then were told to leave by a lad who in a less up-market milieu would be called the bouncer.

There were some ironies to this. I am the secretary of a society which has no premises of its own. We meet and hold events in various clubs of which our members are also members. Our Annual General Meeting is traditionally held in the Hong Kong Club.

Accordingly I had secretarially circulated the notice of meeting, agenda, minutes of last year, and a separate email warning that the Hong Kong Club was having one of its bursts of enthusiasm for its dress code, which outlaws denim and sports gear.

The man on the door decided that my wife’s shoes were trainers. This was nonsense but one can sympathise. Trainers are no longer always in white with the odd stripe or two. The choice of colour and materials, especially for ladies, is now so wide that almost any pair of flat shoes could be trainers.

I was less impressed by the announcement that my respectable pair of brown leather shoes, of the style which I think used to be called “loafers”, were “sailing shoes” and accordingly came under the prohibition on athletic footwear. So we went home.

Apparently I was not the only person to be subjected to a rather arbitrary assessment of his footwear, because a few days later I was told by a member of the Club that the policy had now changed. Guests with controversial feet or other sartorial deficiencies would no longer be refused admission. Instead the staff would take up the matter later with the member who had invited the guest concerned. Which is sensible.

Still, incidents of this kind leave me with a lingering nostalgia for the days when lamp-posts were decorated with hanged aristocrats. Readers who are tempted to take this remark literally will find the relevant song, with subtitles, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L9VoRmjxvPs&pbjreload=10

In a modern city one cannot, I realise, expect to roam freely everywhere. We obey the promptings of MTR station staff, keep out of electricity sub-stations, stop for red lights and so on. Private property is private. But there is something uniquely irritating about restrictions which appear to be designed to preserve rich people from contact with the poor.

Unfortunately Hong Kong is addicted to this sort of thing. When I first came here Lane Crawford’s, which was then in Central, still had a sign saying “No slippers”, for which there was no conceivable practical justification. It was just a way of saying “no admission to people wearing cheap shoes”.

Periodically we have stories about signs, discovered by some new arrival who is not yet used to this sort of thing, excluding domestic helpers from part or all of some members’ club. Members can bring in their families, their friends, their business contacts, but not their home help. Some of the more luxurious estates carry social apartheid to its logical conclusion and have separate lifts for helpers.

Hong Kong Land no doubt wishes to forget that it once proposed that Filipinos should be banned from Central on Sundays because they were harming the trade of the luxurious shops in whose vicinity they picnicked.

Well I suppose if a group of people wish to get together and jointly run a legal society to which entrance is selective there can be no objection in principle, though clubs which exclude women are having a hard time of it these days.

What puzzles me is why so many exclusive clubs, whose members must be supposed to be comfortably off because membership is outrageously expensive, are cosseted by our government. They receive a massive subsidy in the form of exemption from the need to pay a market price for the land on which they sit.

The currently notable example of this is the Hong Kong Golf Club. Indeed the government has got as far as to include paving over a golf course or two in its list of possible solutions to the land shortage. Other equally exclusive and land-hungry organisations have escaped mention.

Do we need six golf courses is a good question. Do we need two racecourses is a better one. Perish the thought that we should move the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, but is that huge open-air car park a sensible use of a piece of Causeway Bay?

A government with guts might also question the requirements of the PLA, which appears to have little use for its extensive holdings in Hong Kong. The barracks in the urban area are all overlooked, and all notoriously empty most of the time except for the small squad which mounts a 24-hour guard on the gate.

But I digress. The problem is that we are asked to believe the government is a cuddly caring organisation devoted to comforting the afflicted. Yet while claiming it cannot afford the usual ways of doing this, which come under the general heading of social security, it does not even bother to collect a real rent from plutocrats who want space to play expensive games.

So we do not believe it. And then our leaders complain that we do not love them.