Knives in the Wind

Yesterday I run downtown to catch the Chief Executive’s question and answer session at Legco. I’m late–I sign in, and run upstairs to the gallery, worried I’m going to miss something.

No worries. The security guard in the gallery is slumped in his red seat, snoozing. So are two of my press colleagues. The others are scribbling away dutifully in their notebooks as CE Donald Tsang Yam Kuen delivers his bracing opening remarks: “I’d like to share with you my thoughts on the duty of a politician….”

Tsang is revealing why he hasn’t yet declared his candidacy for Chief Executive of Hong Kong in March: he’s too busy with his job. “My role as CE comes above all else,” he’s telling the legislature. Of course everybody sitting here knows that Tsang gong daai wah. Talks the big speech. In plain English or Cantonese, this is bullshit. Nearly everything Tsang does and says is tied to his re-election ambitions. Even though he’s anointed by Beijing and there is no question that he’s going to run, and win. He’s bear-trapped (his choice, of course) by a system that forces a politician to spin his popular mandate from the straw of public opinion polls instead of from the gold of universal suffrage.

However, once Tsang officially declares he’s in the race, he’s going to have to start declaring campaign expenses publicly. There are rules about how much he can spend and how much money he can take in. So he wants to do it at the last possible moment. This is a familiar little dance for Americans, who watched George Bush do the same two-step in 2003-4.

The performance continues. I whip on the headphones attached to my seat and pass the time flipping between the English translation and Cantonese channels to keep my mind occupied during the lull.

I’ve logged many hours in the Legco gallery; I’m a fan. My colleagues, who consider Legco duty a chore, think I’m crazy. But I also love daai hei, grand theater, which is another term for Cantonese opera. The pace is just the same. In Legco, there will be long, slow and deliberate sections, where it seems as if nothing at all is going on. Then, suddenly, the chamber erupts in a whirlwind of acrobats, gongs and cymbals, and Jackie Chan juggling knives while doing gong fu backflips down the aisle.

Today, there are two Jackie Chan segments on the program. The press corps, who’ve logged a hundred times as many hours in the chamber as I have, know exactly when they will occur. So do I. So do the thirty students in the opposite Visitor’s Gallery who instantly rise from their seats and lean over the railing to get a good view when Legco president Rita Fan calls the name of the next legislator up on the list to ask a question:

“Leung Kwok Hung, yi yun…”

Longhair is in great form today. He’s keeping the theatrics to minimum. Normally he has a prop, or two or three–a rubber mask with a long nose, a wooden cage, or a porcelain rice bowl that he’ll break just as his voice is rising to a crescendo and he’s making his final point about poor pensioners suffering. If he gets that far. At least half the time Chairlady Fan cuts him off and tosses him out for breaking some parlimentary rule, like an angry schoolmarm sending the brat to the principal’s office.

But he’s got no stagey accessories today, just the power of his word. Which is enough. Longhair’s forte is telling the Emperor he has no clothes, asking directly the question that other legislators might think but not speak. He doesn’t need props, and I wish he’d give them up.

Actually, today the other legislators have been stepping up to the plate, too. Three of them already have pushed Tsang to declare what he’s planning to do about the fact that Hong Kong’s current big-money boom isn’t trickling down to the working class at all–the gap between rich and poor is larger than ten years ago. Tsang responds by doing the dueling my-statistics-are-better-than-your-statistics thing with his interlocutors.

Then Longhair stands up and cuts to the chase.  “Absolute power corrupts absolutely. The fundamental reason why the poor are getting screwed is that we don’t have universal suffrage in Hong Kong. And by the way, when you were in Beijing last week, did you ask the officials about creating universal suffrage in Hong Kong by 2012?”

Tsang hems and haws. “It, um, wasn’t appropriate to bring it up at these meetings.”

For Tsang, however, this is not the most crucial moment of the session. Longhair can be brilliant, but he is still viewed by most of the political media’s heavy hitters as a court jester, not to be taken seriously. (Except in The Standard newspaper, in articles written by an excellent political journalist, Michael Ng).

No, the climax of today’s daai hei is the first face-to-face round between the Civic Party’s Alan Leong (he of the rickety bicycle skills, the quixotic challenger running for Chief Exec) and Tsang.

Leong stands up smartly, and sharply drills Tsang on the Star Ferry debacle, and the administration’s attitude towards heritage preservation. I’m impressed. Leong, a lawyer, is usually a rather dull speaker, who reads his speeches off the page. I’ve never seen him get this tough in the Legco chamber before–usually the most moving and eloquent speeches come from his fellow Civic Party member, the marvelous Margaret Ng.

(I’ll do a long post sometime later, handicapping and doing deep background on the rich characters that populate Hong Kong’s Legislative Council.)

Anyway, Leong has barely sat down when Donald, who’s obviously prepped for this moment, whips out a little knife. His dis of Leong in Cantonese, goes like this: I admire legislator Leong’s fung chi wah yin. I really need to learn it as perfectly.

I have never heard the phrase fung chi before, so this morning I go to the English language dailies to see how it gets translated. In SCMP, Ambrose Leung quotes Tsang thusly: “I admire your sarcastic rhetoric and have much to learn from you.” Michael Ng in the Standard writes it as: “
I must express my admiration at the satirical words used by legislator Leong. I have to learn more from you.” Google’s translation program coughs up “ironic speech”.

Fung chi. Sarcastic rhetoric, ironic speech or satirical words? I race to the dictionary this morning and find the characters


They’re lovely, perfect. The first character, fung, combines the radical for speech with the one for wind. Words propelled by the unpredictable fury of the wind. The second, chi contains the radical that means knife. I am not surprised. The word chi can also mean thorn, and in other combinations it gets even better: Assassin. Bayonet.

Me, I’d probably take poetic license with Tsang’s very fung chi riposte to Leong and put it into English like this “I admire Legislator Leong’s barbed tongue. I really must learn to sharpen mine as well as he does.”

But Ambrose and Michael’s translations will do fine. The important thing is that yesterday when Donald Tsang responded to Alan Leong’s challenge, a wind filled with knives blew through Legco. That’s all you need to know.


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