Freedom Beyond Noodles


This little note at the bottom of a column in today’s South China Morning Post reminds me it’s been some months since I visited my favorite noodle shop:

Celebrating 20 years of Freedom Noodles

Amid
the economic downturn and a series of closures in the catering sector,
a popular, yet humble restaurant called Freedom Noodles – founded 20
years ago on the ground floor of the Professional Teachers’ Union’s
clubhouse in Causeway Bay – is still going strong.

Democrat
Cheung Man-kwong, who is head of the union, said the 20th anniversary
of the Tiananmen Square crackdown this year had a special meaning for
the shop, which was a favourite in the neighbourhood.

“There is
more to the name of the shop than the freedom for customers to choose
whatever combination of ingredients they wish for their dish of
noodles. The owners were active supporters of the pro-democracy
movement before June 4, 1989,” Mr Cheung said.


I didn’t know that the owners of Ji Yauh Mihn Ga were pro-democracy supporters, but this knowledge will add to my pleasure and comfort the next time I happen to be near the Bowrington Market in Wan Chai and duck into the steamy shop and order a bowl of their delicious and utterly satisfying seui gau mihn.

Lately, there’s been a foodie scramble to anoint one or another Hong Kong noodle shop as the “best” won ton noodle place in town. I blame this urge to categorize and rate on the recent release of the Michelin Guide for Foreign Tourists Coming to Hong Kong who Can’t Read The Chinese Menu and are Afraid Someone Might Slip Dog Meat in their Dumpling. The “classic” elements of the won ton noodle soup have been analyzed and proclaimed by these experts. If a soup does not contain slivers of the more expensive white chive (as opposed to the lowly green one, which is so cheap that the vendors in the gaai sih will often give a bunch away for free to customers, like a pack of Kleenex at the 7-11), it is instantly crossed off the golden foodie noodle list.

According to the believers of the Won Ton Bible, just about the only “real” noodle shop in Hong Kong is a place on Wellington Street called Mak Gei. Now, I live about a two minute walk from that shop, and I eat there from time to time, and their won ton mihn is fine by me. The broth is richer than usual, and suitably shrimpy. The won tons are a good size, not too big or small, and the noodles are springy and chewy.

Still, Mak’s is not a noodle soup that I go out of my way to eat. For one thing, it’s pricey and they’re a bit mingy on the portions–$38 Hong Kong dollars only gets you a bowl the size of a teacup, three small wontons and a baby’s fistful of noodles. If you want to make a lunch of it, you really have to order two bowls, which puts your tab close to $10 US–a lot of moolah for a bowl of noodles in the Time of Financial Tsunami.

But it’s not money that makes me less interested in eating a bowl of Mak’s noodles than a $14 bowl of Freedom’s. Soup, no matter what culture you are in, is not just about the ingredients–it’s about the soul. In this chilly month, of this cold, cold year, I want to be comforted by friends and familiar faces. I want to pick up my porcelain spoon and chopsticks, lower my head to the steaming bowl, and knock elbows with teachers, unionists, market vendors and taxi drivers. I want freedom from the gnawing fear that these people, this shop, and this won ton mihn will disappear in a blink, replaced by some rapacious developer’s crappy concrete tower filled with slick corporate restaurants that promise a “perfect” won ton “lifestyle”.

Thank god, we’re done with that. For a while, at least. The upside of the finanical tsunami: a pause, and a space, to be filled not by mere things, but by things that matter.

Like Freedom Noodle’s 20 wonderful years of pro-democratic, won ton soup.

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The King of You Tube


The banners have been pulled down, the leftover campaign flyers are headed for landfill or papering the bottoms of birdcages, and the last lonely, sticky salty-sweet crumbs of double yolk mooncakes have been swept away. Hong Kong’s election season, and the Mid Autumn Festival, are officially over.

Long Hair’s folded up his lantern.

And gone back to work. (He needs to hire a new head assistant–anyone interested?)

Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s journalistic pundits and analysts have finally started to catch on to the real big story of this election. The early spin–that the vote was a huge loss for the pan-Democrats–fell apart within 24 hours, after people had a chance to do the math and figure out that the total percentage of Hong Kongers who voted for pro-democracy candidates was the same as four years ago. The second spin, that Hong Kongers voted from their pocketbooks for grassroots candidates, became the narrative du jour for the rest of the week. But then, the polling results from individual stations came out and revealed this puzzling fact: Long Hair and his party, the so-called “radical” League of Social Democrats, polled just as strongly, if not more so, in middle and upper middle neighborhoods as they did in public housing estates.

Which leaves two big mysteries:

1. Why did a grassroots, supposedly working-class party like the LSD pull so many voters from across the economic class spectrum?
2. Why didn’t any of the pre-election polls predict the big victories of Long Hair and the LSD?

My handle on this, until a day or so ago, was that the polls had simply missed a lot of Long Hair’s voters.  Most of the local pollsters work from number lists of fixed-line telephones, which are practically pre-historic relics here in HK, where 98% of folks have mobile phones. I also figured that, since people often vote for candidates who reflect themselves and their lifestyles, and since Long Hair practically owns the brand name of “rebel”, that a typical Long Hair voter would either hang up the phone on a pollster, or mess with them:  “Sure, I’m gonna vote for James Tien. That guy really knows his way around a banana.”

Still, there was something missing in the picture, a blank spot on the radar. But then suddenly, it hit me while I was watching the now-viral Gary Chan Hak-kan video, “Try My Breast”, and surfing the links to it on You Tube. That’s how I found the clip, from TVB, of Long Hair’s wonderful election night speech–the one in which he now (famously) grabs the open mike to gloat at the pro-Beijing flacks of DAB: “You spent ten million dollars, and you only got two seats, and we got five. Go to bed!” (The powers that be quickly turned the mike off, so Long Hair’s follow up comment, in which he uses a rich Cantonese phrase (sau pei) that likens the DAB to tofu scum or a foreskin, take your pick, didn’t get broadcast).

After you get past the thrill of enjoying Leung Kwok Hung’s gleeful, in-your-face political showmanship, what you notice is this: the video clip has grabbed more than 159,000 views–that is, more than three times the number of people who actually voted for Long Hair. Not only that, this week the video’s received more than 450 viewer comments.

I read through the responses–some are in English, but most are in the language I like to call “Internet Chinese”, a fusion of traditional characters, spiked with spoken (often profane) Cantonese and English words and letters. 98% aren’t comments really, but cheers. Some of them echo Long Hair’s “Good Night DAB!” from the video. Others shout, “Go Long Hair!” “Long Hair is the best!” “You’re a hero!” Some repeat their cheers 3, or 10, or 50 times. A few flamers materialize, only to be squashed to a pulp by masses of indignant, Long Hair supporting netizens.

This all looked familiar to me. I spent the spring in the U.S. reading similar flame wars on the political blogs during the presidential primaries. The landslide winner of those flame wars was Barack Obama, who leveraged his netizen fanbase into political capital, and won the primary. Obama became the King of the Blogs.

But Leung Kwok Hung, Long Hair, has become more than that. He is HK’s Mong Sih Wong —King of the Netizens.

Unlike Obama, Long Hair didn’t plan or strategize his huge popularity in the online world. Like most things Long Hair, it just kind of happened. Long Hair has always had a base of fanboys (in 2004, his strongest demographic at the polls was young men), and I noticed when I first started hanging out around his office four years ago that it was run, mainly, by shy, kind of geeky Hong Kong guys in their twenties who spent most of their time staring into the computer screen. (And who could be counted on, in the event of a computer crash, to help get you back up and running).

From the beginning, Long Hair’s website was a central part of his operation, and (unlike most other “straight” Legco member’s websites) constantly changing and updating. Long Hair’s office staff used it as a double edged tool: to alert followers to his packed schedule of upcoming demonstrations, and to document the demonstrations (especially any clashes with the police) through photos and videography.

The hottest part of the Long Hair website, back in the beginning, was its board, or  “touh leuhn keui” (in Cantonese, literally, “discussion corner”). For a while, one of Long Hair’s staff members spent most of his time on the job running it, and the website. But after about a year, Long Hair and businessman Siu Yeuk Yuen launched the Internet radio project, www.myradio.com.hk, and the discussion action moved over to that board, and to its sister project, www.hkreporter.com.

Every week for the last four years, with few lapses, Long Hair has appeared twice a week on programs on myradio.com.hk. One program is a loose, free-ranging, two and a half hour political discussion with Mr. Siu. The other show–and, I would say, the more important one, in terms of Long Hair’s rise as Netizen King, is his soccer program.

Long Hair loves football, maybe even more than he loves politics. His fellow commentators on his football broadcasts happen to overlap almost 100 percent with his computer-geek fanboy followers. They’re the ones who found the wallpaper of Che Guevara’s portrait to put on his mobile phone screen,and who downloaded and installed the MP3 of the “Internationale” that plays every time Long Hair gets a phone call.

They are, also, the guys who helped transform him, at the age of 50, from an Internet sideliner to a tech-savvy Internet user. It used to be that an email to Long Hair was as likely to reach him as a message in a bottle–he was a phone guy, all the way. (He is so old school he can’t even type in Chinese, he writes with a pen.) But now he regularly answers and reads his email (in English), surfs, and finds the viral videos before I do. What happened? Well, we acquire new languages and skills when we have a strong need for them, and once Long Hair’s net geek football comrades showed him that he could find the (illegal) live feeds of European matches on Chinese websites, his tech fluency went exponential.  Now he surfs and downloads–music, films, videos–like a pro. More important, he knows the online world not as a tourist, but because he lives there too.

During the Legco campaign, as essayist and netizen badboy Martin Oei points out in his great article today in the HK Economic Journal (warning: it’s behind a pay wall, and in Chinese. It would take me all day to translate so I hope Roland does), some candidates tried to jump on the web bandwagon. Some joined Facebook. “Broomhead” Regina Ip hired rap musicians to make her a cringe worthy promo video called “Reginababy”. As it usually does in Hong Kong, a Reginababy parody appeared almost instantly, and (of course!) has out-polled the original.

(And, guess who’s behind the parody? None other than fokguy, aka Kay Lam, aka the creator of the fabulously snarky parody of the government’s official 2007 Hong Kong Handover video “Folk Guy’s Always With You”.)

It’s an incestuous world, this Hong Kong netizen universe. This is, after all, probably the most connected city in the world. We Hong Kongers are wired up the wazoo, to cellphones, computers, heck, even our television comes through a broadband connection. Internet culture here is more intense, pervasive and powerful than it is in the U.S., where there are so many other media diversions competing for attention, and where you really can, still, escape to places beyond the reach of the Wired World. Here, in small, densely-packed HK, you can’t. If you lose your temper and your cool and suddenly start screaming at the guy next to you on the bus, you can be sure that someone will quietly whip out his cellphone and film you and the next thing you know you’ll be screaming your Cantonese profanity in front of 200,000 netizens on You Tube. With subtitles.

In Hong Kong, more than perhaps any other city in the world, we live our lives on You Tube. The wackiness and spontaneous non-conformity that in London, or New York, invigorates street life doesn’t exist here. People are reserved, conservative, unwilling to risk making a public fuss, being the object of attention. But on You Tube, you can feel free to shout and snark and behave like a citizen of a less inhibited society. That’s why, in vast numbers, Hong Kongers have taken up residence online. Charles Dickens did his research for his novels by walking the streets of London; to find the soul of modern Hong Kong you gotta surf in Chinese on YouTube.

Really, there’s only one public figure in Hong Kong who breaks the mold, and routinely steps out of line, shouts and behaves outrageously in public, rather than behind the safety wall of a computer. Who dresses as he pleases and doesn’t give a fig or fart about what anyone thinks.

And that’s Long Hair.* No wonder he’s the hero, the King of the Netizens. In the parallel universe of Hong Kong’s You Tube, the net boys are his avatars, his disciples in the practice of free speech. Every televised appearance he makes, every time he stands up to speak in Legco, they record, creatively splice and upload it online. Then they skewer his enemies who “try their breast“. Even if Long hired a top political consultant, they couldn’t do a better job of image-making than this army of committed, clever netizens. (And, since Hong Kong election rules still ban tv and radio political advertisements, any traditional consultant coming here would be working like a plumber with no tools).

Thanks to the netizens in the discussion rooms, on the Internet radio, and You Tube, Long Hair is more than just a politician, he’s become a leading Hong Kong brand. He stands for sticking it to the mighty and powerful. For speaking out in public. For daring, and being brave. A vote for him isn’t just a ideological choice, it is much more powerful than that. You vote for Long Hair, because at some deep level you wish you could be as completely and freely yourself in the real world, as you are in the virtual one. And, knowing that you can’t, you vote for Long Hair to say, “Thanks”.

Such emotions transcend issues of income and class, just as Internet use does in super-wired Hong Kong. And they have a deeper, profounder pull than political platforms or propaganda. Most crucially: they don’t register on pollster’s questionnaires, which explains why the pre-election polls didn’t predict the Long Hair victory. And that brings up a real problem, as we head into the age of online campaigning, in Hong Kong and all over the world. With the old-fashioned tools at our command, we can easily count the 44,763 Hong Kong voters who made Leung Kwok Hung a legislative council member. But how do we begin to enumerate, or even identify the citizens of You Tube City who  made Long Hair a political and cultural icon? 

_______
*I’ve always wondered why the Hong Kong press almost always prefaces any mention of “Long Hair” with the word “radical”. Yeah, sure, he’s a Trotskyite, but Leung Kwok Hung’s politics of social democracy certainly wouldn’t raise eyebrows in any European country. My suspicion is that people see Long Hair as radical not because of his political ideas, which fall well within the left-center spectrum of Western democracies, but because of his uninhibited public behavior, which contrasts so sharply with Hong Kong’s straightlaced norms.

The Breast Is Yet To Come

Here’s how I know that the LEGCO election is really over: Leung Kwok Hung is sitting at my dining room table, with me and Po Ying and another friend, and he’s deep into his second bowl of rice. During the election, Long Hair was surviving on almost nothing. “I’m on a diet,” he’d insist. “I’m not eating after 5pm”. Thank goodness his eating habits are back to normal; during the last days of the campaign I kept imagining a disastrous scene: that in the middle of scolding Lau Gong Wah or Gary Chan Hak-kan, Long Hair’s knees would buckle from hunger, and, clutching his megaphone, he’d crumple to the ground surrounded by DAB supporters bonging him on the head with their placards.

Speaking of that Mr. Chan. By now you’ve probably seen, or at least heard about, the hysterical video on YouTube that some creative Hong Konger produced, showing Chan stuttering in English to a foreign reporter during his first post-election interview. “We will, uh, uh, we will, er, um…try our breast” , Chan told the journalist, sealing forever his fate. Henceforth, the legislative councillor from New Territories East district shall be known, in newspaper columns and on hundreds of Hong Kong Internet chat boards, as “Nai Bo”--“Titty” Chan.

Long Hair, displaying his lightning political reflexes, opened his statement at the LSD’s press conference the other day by telling the reporters, “We will not try our breast. We will try our best.” After people stopped laughing at Long Hair’s clever out-English-ing of his political rival, they began to wonder: How is it that Long Hair, with no formal education beyond a Chinese-medium secondary school, speaks far better English than a Chinese University masters graduate who worked as a special assistant to Hong Kong’s Chief Executive for $70,000 HKD (about 9,000 US) a month?

“I use English every day,” Long Hair chuckles. “I read English-language books and have lots of English speaking friends. From the way that Hak-kan speaks on that video clip, you can tell he seldom uses English at all. He has no opportunity to practice.”

English-language proficiency isn’t something that’s high-priority in the China-focussed bubble that is the DAB. Party chairman Tsang Yok-sing and ex-Legco member Choy so-yuk are Hong Kong University graduates, and reasonably conversant, but they are exceptions. Most, if not all, the DAB’s PR info and material is Chinese-only. Their website has a very clumsy English language section, which has a banner that reads, (strangely, considering the DAB is the arm of the Chinese Communist Party in HK),  Fighting! China.

The DAB’s disinterest in English-language outreach probably has its roots in the party’s origins as an anti-British colonial government protest group. You don’t learn the language of your hated occupier, or if you do, you don’t show it off. As a result, the DAB’s worldview is narrow, parochial, and completely focussed on China and things (mainland) Chinese.

However Hong Kong is both a Chinese and an international city. Hong Kong’s fortune springs from its ability to make deals, do business transactions, and move money across the world and across cultures. The very nature of Hong Kong is tied together with its ability to translate, and the city’s future hinges on its continued ability to do so. (And by “translate” I mean more than just language here.)

But it all starts with language. Languages are the key that opens the door to other worlds. You hold one in your hand, and the possibilites begin to flow. Without my (limited, crappy, but practiced every day) Cantonese, I would not have the tools to see Hong Kong as I do, and would not be writing this story for you. Without an interest in the English language, the DAB will remain eternally parochial. Which would be fine if they were still in the position they were in the 1960s–that of a fringe, opposition party fighting colonial oppression. But what a disastrous future Hong Kong will have if the city is led by a group of people with such a limited mindset! This is the biggest reason why I rue the emergent alliance of the DAB and Hong Kong’s executive branch. The DAB, has a dark, angry, and xenophobic strain that runs entirely against the grain of Hong Kong’s city culture. The party of Gary Chan Hak-kan does not represent Hong Kong at its breast.

(Sorry, couldn’t resist!) Anyway, back to dinner. Leung and Po Ying and I raise a toast to the amazing LSD victory–the little party with no money, less than 2 years old, now has a LEGCO representative in three out of five districts! Long Hair, Wong Yuk-man and Albert Chan will sit together in the LEGCO chamber. “Now, if they throw me out of the chamber, they will still have to deal with Albert and Yuk-man,” Long Hair chortles.

I wonder who will be doing the tossing. Long Hair’s nemesis for the last four years, former Legco president Rita Fan, has retired. Already, names are being floated for the post of next LEGCO chairman. The DAB, of course, wants to put its chairman, Tsang Yok-sing, into the post.

“It will probably be Tsang yok-sing. That’s okay with me,” shrugs Long Hair.

At that moment, a wonderful idea jumps into my brain, and I throw it out for dinner table discussion:

“What about Miriam Lau?” The solicitor from the Liberal Party was Rita Fan’s protege in the last session of LEGCO–Lau would take over chairing the legislature from Mrs. Fan when she took her lunch and dinner breaks.

Long Hair is dubious. “I think the DAB wants the chairmanship”, he says. Anyway, Miriam Lau’s Liberal Party was crushed by this last election. They lost all their races in the popular vote, and only won 7 seats in the functional constituencies. Just today, one of those members, Lau Wong-fat, resigned from the party, leaving the Liberals with only 6 seats. Lau Wong-fat had, outrageously, been campaigning against his party and for the DAB candidate in New Territories West.

But, I tell Long Hair, listen to me. Do the math. The pan-Democrats have 23 votes. There are two other independents who are said to be anti-government. The Liberal Party still has its six votes. It adds up to 31, enough votes to claim a majority.

The Liberal Party is furious at the DAB, and blames its humiliating defeat on the DAB’s treachery. They’re simmering, sussing out what to do next. In an article in today’s South China Morning Post, a senior party member declares that the party should “shed its image as a government ally. “

Well, here’s one way they can do it, brilliantly:  Join forces with the pan-Dems to elect Miriam Lau as Legco Chairman for the next session. How cool would that be!? In one swoop, you dis the DAB, and its chairman Tsang yok-sing. You also serve warning to the pro-government, pro-Beijing bloc: We have the votes, and if you don’t work with us, we can join forces to vote you down again.

Yeah, I know, the Liberal Party and the pan-Democrats are the most unlikely of bedfellows–but then again, stranger alliances have forged in the Parliaments all around the world.

Whatever happens, the early days of new session of LEGCO are going to be very, very interesting. For HK political junkies, the breast is yet to come.

The Village People


After reading this essay from a fellow Hong Kong blogger named Chonghead, I feel like I have been unkind. Or, at least, that I’m guilty of painting the brusque, aggressive villagers of Sai Kung, who harassed me and my fellow Long Hair supporters on election day, with brushstrokes that are too broad and careless. There’s a side to these villagers that in the heat and anger of the moment I was unable, or unwilling to see. But Chonghead, an ex-urbanite who lives up in a village in New Territories West, points it out: Those legions of pro-Beijing, pro-government DAB supporters, the troops of the infamous tit piu, or “Iron Vote” aren’t casting their vote out of blind obedience. They’re voting with passion.

It is not, of course, a passion that we advocates of a free and fully democratic Hong Kong can easily understand. We are big picture people, and our mantra is change! Change the system. Change injustice. Change intolerance. Change the world, or at least our little corner of it. One of our weapons of change is the vote. But in Hong Kong the system is rigged, and just about all a vote can do is hold the line, keep things from getting worse. Even if 60 percent of Hong Kong voters choose a pro-Democracy candidate, the most this will do is secure about a third of the seats, barely enough for a veto. This, in a legislature that by definition is already hamstrung. So the passion gets frustrated, cynicism and indifference set in. The government is all-powerful, there’s no use fighting them, nothing will change. On this election day in Hong Kong, 55 percent of the people decided to stay home.

And what about the Iron Vote villagers? Chonghead observes them walking, in the evening, to the polls, large families strolling together cheerfully. They come out, willingly, in droves, to vote. Because they feel their vote has power, that it means something.

But the passion behind the Iron Vote isn’t change, but stasis. These are small town folk who want life to stay calm, to stay predictable and same. And they want a gentle, paternal government to ensure that this happens. This is a deep and abiding passion in Chinese village culture–go take a look at a map of Guangdong province and count the number of villages named Ping On–“Ordinary Peaceful”.

Actually, this is a deep and abiding passion just about everywhere in the world. I’m thinking about my own country, America, now. Really, how different is the mindset of a villager in the New Territories, from that of the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska? As the U.S. heads into the home stretch of its own big elections, I see nothing but a replay (albeit a more nuanced, complex one) of my little clash with the troops of the DAB in Sai Kung. You’ve got your people–mainly educated, city slickers–who rally behind the banner of CHANGE. And you’ve got your small town folk (in the sprawl that is the contemporary U.S., small town is a mindset, rather than a geographical location) who distrust those city types and their so-called “change”. Who use their vote not as a weapon of change, but to celebrate who they are, to affirm the as is.

I told you that I felt I had been unkind to the “Iron Vote” villagers. The other day, in the hot sun, defending my banner against their elbows and jeers, I could only see them as an ugly, faceless tribe, not as individual human beings with history, feelings, opinions.

The ugliness is there, but it’s not in the Iron Voters themselves. It is in how they are being used. Their honest passions, their love for their homes, their beliefs, are being manipulated for the benefit and profit of others. This is the greatest flaw of democracy. It only works if everyone agrees to play fair, on a level playing field. It assumes nobody will cheat or game the system. Ah, but the high minded and fair minded are always easy prey for the schemers and the powerful (and the “powerful” have many names–DAB, Republican Party, DNC).

That’s true in Yuen Long, Hong Kong and is true in Brooklyn, New York and San Francisco. In the fight to keep democracy true, we are all, all of us, village people.

View From the Gaai Tauh


Gaai tauh,

街頭
is the Cantonese word for street, or crossroads. It literally means “street head”. If you hang out around Long Hair, you’ll soon learn the word, because battling for public opinion in the street is what he’s famous, and infamous, for. “You should stay in the gaai tauh and forget about LEGCO” was the thrust of the attack that DAB candidate Gary Chan Hak-kan hurled at Long Hair during their LEGCO debate.

Hmmm. Talk about pot-calling-kettle. Yesterday, while passing leaflets for Long Hair in Sai Kung, I witnessed about the fiercest, nastiest street fighting protest tactics I’ve seen during my time in Hong Kong. And it was not Long Hair leading the charge at the gaai tauh–it was the shamelessly aggressive DAB troops. They blocked and elbowed us when we tried to hand literature to the passers-by. They surrounded us with bodies and blocked the view of our banners.

And, the most shameless of all–they bussed in voters so elderly and frail that I feared for their health under the blazing, 33 degree midday sun. The DAB is admitting they bussed voters to the polls, but they claim they stayed within the bounds of the election regulations, and didn’t tell them who to vote for.

Oh yeah? So what were those little cards with a big X on ballot position 10 that I observed clutched tightly in the bony, trembling hands of straw-hatted, cataract-ridden grannies being led by DAB volunteer’s hands to the polling station?

Gary Chan Hak-kan was there, in Sai Kung. I didn’t observe him leading the parade of dear, frail Ah Pohs, but I saw him on the scene, handing out water to the ladies that were scheming to push us away from the voters. My mother used to say that the character of a man is not how he wins but how he plays the game. Well, Gary Chan won his seat in LEGCO, but the DAB played a nasty game of gaai tauh.

Meanwhile, far from the street, in the studios of NOW TV, TVB and RTHK, the pan-Democrats are weeping and wailing and rending their garments. Audrey Eu was spotted crying in Chai Wan. Ex-Legco rep Sin Chung Kai hit the television rounds to proclaim that the pan-democracy movement was in peril. Ditto Ronny Tong.

But I’m looking at the results today, and guess what? The pan-democrats have held their line. I haven’t looked at all the Functional Constituency results, but they still have at least 23 seats, enough to keep LEGCO from becoming the government’s rubber stamp.

So why, then, all the wailing? I think it is because the democrats who did well in this election are not the smooth, professional and middle-class democrats that the media dotes on. Instead, the winners were the street fighters–Democratic party stalwarts like Albert Ho and Cheng Ka Foo, and the Sunshine Boys of the LSD–Wong Yuk-man and Leung Kwok Hung.

Long Hair did brilliantly, grabbing the best share of pro-democracy votes in NT East district, and defying the polls that said he’d be lucky to hold onto the last seat. Wong Yuk-man came in with the highest pro-democracy total in his district, Kowloon West. The third man in the LSD troika, Chan Wai-yip, held onto his NT West seat that nobody thought he had a chance of winning.

In this Hong Kong election, it was the economy, stupid. The party of the wanna-be tycoons, James Tien’s Liberal Party, went down in flames. The Civic Party won its seats in professional, middle class Hong Kong island, but fell down elsewhere–who would have thought that Long Hair would out poll the smooth, Oxford-toned barrister Ronny Tong?

In other words, the big news isn’t that the pan-democrats are dead–it’s that the shape of the democracy movement is changing. The democrats with a populist, gaai tauh appeal, who can go one-on-one with the DAB in the streets, were the winners. The democrats who landed in the helicopters are the losers. The old-school, Hillary Clinton HK democrats wiped the floor with the high-falutin’ Obama-types in the Civic Party. It’s that simple.

So I wonder why the press I’ve seen so far just doesn’t get it? The report this morning in the NY Times acknowledges the populist angle, but then goes on about how the DAB’s high numbers indicate “Chinese national pride after the Olympics.” Please. Having been out on the gaai tauh all week, I recognize this spin for the drive-by analysis it is.

Listen up: It wasn’t about the Olympics. People in Hong Kong aren’t so foolish as to conflate pride in being Chinese with blind support of a dysfunctional Hong Kong government. The DAB grabs big numbers because they have money, manpower, and the shamelessness to drag anyone with a heartbeat to the polls. They are as cunning and ruthless as Karl Rove, and they will shove and push and send out the attack dogs. In Hong Kong, everybody knows that if you want a favor done, they are the go-to boys.

But the big story of LEGCO Elections, 2008, is that in spite of all the DAB’s power, they still couldn’t knock the pan-democrats out of the box. Because there are some pan-democrats, like Leung Kwok Hung, who are not afraid to play the ground game on the gaai tauh.

Down To The Wire

Hong Kong Election Diary–Part 3

Live Blogging of the 2008 Hong Kong LEGCO Election. To read in chronological order, start at the end of the post and work back.

3:54am- Leung Kwok Hung wins re-election to LEGCO!!

The Victory Lap

 

It’s official. He’s won. And so has Wong Yuk Man. I’m not gonna wait up for the final vote count. I’ll leave you with a picture of the terrific woman who took control of the Long Hair campaign in the crisis stage, and worked overtime to bring it to victory: Chan Po-ying. Gung hei Cheung Mo! Gung Hei Po Ying!

And goodnight, all.



3:36-Okay, I’m getting annoyed now.

The TVB and NOW TV reporters have been interviewing a long string of dullards, talking heads and also rans. I’ve seen two interviews already with Wong Shing Chi. Why aren’t the networks jumping on one of tonight’s huge stories–Long Hair grabbing the largest share of the democratic vote in his district. A guy who, just a week or so ago, was supposed to lose his seat!

Every commentator is droning on about the decline of the pan-democrats. Yet the League of Social Democrats, a completely new party, is set to get three seats in this new legislature.

Are we really moaning about the decline of the democrats, or the inept politics of the Civic Party?

They seem like the big losers tonight, to me. On Hong Kong island, they thought they would easily be able to win two seats, and so they ran two of their biggest vote getters on the same ticket. But they didn’t get enough votes, and lost Audrey Eu’s seat. In NT East, high-flying helicopter guy Ronny Tong looks like he will just scrape by.

And they still haven’t called the seat for Long Hair yet….

3:26-Leung is at 12.8 percent of the vote and the TV stations are still not calling the race for him

What’s up with this?

They’ve called seat number #2 for DAB hack Chan Hak-kan

3:07-41,153 votes

This is strange. The NOW TV graphic has put a red circle next to Long Hair’s name, signifying he’s won his seat with 11.69 % of the vote. But they haven’t put his picture in the little empty seat at the bottom of the screen.

3:01am–NOW TV’s cool graphics

show Long hair with more than 11 percent of the vote.

Check the very cute empty LEGCO chairs at the bottom of the screen!

Andrew To has fallen behind, alas.

2:29am– The DAB’s lead candidate, Lau Gong Wah

has won the first seat in NT East District.  Six more seats to go. Long Hair is in line for the next one–he’s still holding a strong second place with 33,146 votes. 

Barring some very strange and unexpected turn of events, he’ll retain his seat in LEGCO.


1:51 am: 19,445

Leung is back in second place again, behind Lau Gong Wah. Could Long Hair end up as the #1 democratic vote-getter?!

The NOW Broadband TV election night graphics are much better than TVB. When the tallies change, the numbers flip like the board at the airport

1:40am–Leung Kwok Hung, 14,558

and Wong Shing Chi, 14,559. Talk about a slim margin!

So far Leung and Wong are the two top pro-democracy vote-getters.

I’m flashing back to last winter when I was talking to Long Hair about the election, and he was saying how he expected the majority of the pro-democrats in his district to vote for Ronny Tong. I told him he shouldn’t believe that. Ha! I should have asked him to put money on it.

Outside of the New Territories East district, I’m watching the tallies for my buddy Andrew To (To Kwan Hang) in Kowloon East. He’s battling for the fourth seat. As I came home just now, I discovered that my night doorman, Mr. Poon, cast his vote for Andrew. Mr. Poon used to support the Federation of Trade Unions, but he has no use for them because they haven’t given enough support to the fight for minimum wage in HK.

If Andrew pulls off an upset, that would be very cool.

1:33am–The latest total: 11,667!

Long Hair is holding strong in third place, behind the DAB’s Lau Gong Wah and rival dem Wong Shing Chi. (Long Hair and Wong have been trading for second place all night)

Another surprise: Liberal Party chairman James Tien is low man on the totem pole! He may lose his seat.

The number to keep in mind is 60,425. That is the total vote Long Hair received when he won in 2004.


12:48am–I am superstitious about being overly optimistic

But, damn! The earliest hard results show Long Hair in third place, with a 30% share of the vote, behind the DAB candidate and Wong Shing Chi.

Okay…these are very, very early results, just a couple of thousand voters tallied.

Still, the trending looks good.


11pm-I call Leung to tell him the news about the poll

He’s already heard. He sounds exhausted, but calm. “Whichever way it goes, I’m okay. I’m not going to wait around for the result. I’m going home to get some rest.”

Sounds like a good time for me to go get something to eat. I will check back in later.

10:40–The Polls Close, and NOW TV NEWS is showing

a very cool graphic that shows the head shots of the candidates in each district that “gaau yauh gei wuih dong syun”–“Most Likely Chance to Win Election”. These are the preliminary results of the HKPOP exit poll.

They’re flashing five faces and two empty chairs for New Territories East district:
Wong Sing Chi, Leung Kwok Hung, Cheng Ka Foo, Lau Gong Wah and Chan Hak Kan

That means they think that Long Hair is in the top five votegetters!? With more votes than Ronny Tong from the Civic Party? That would be amazing, and unexpected.

I wonder if the clash with the DAB goons this afternoon won Long Hair a last minute sympathy vote? As a fellow “victim” of the DAB’s shameless behavior, that would make me feel very, very happy.

It’s funny, how these voting patterns can come down to a last minute event. Last election day, Long Hair told me, he accidentally bumped into James Tien while campaigning. Long Hair said he wanted to do something that had impact, and was seized by an inspiration when he found an uneaten banana in his backpack.

He confronted Tien in the famous banana incident (Mr. Tien, do you know the price of a banana in the market!?). And that moment, he thinks, clinched the election for him.

10:21–How do you say Shameless in Cantonese?

(answer: 無恥  mouh chi)

While we were fighting the “Battle of Sai Kung”, Long Hair was getting stomped by DAB goons in Tai Po.

9:54–Francis sends me an SMS: “Poll Not Indicative”

He’s sitting amongst a bunch of reporters and number crunchers in the main election press center in Kowloon Bay, so I’m going to figure his opinion represents the general wisdom.

9:30pm–Ming Pao has released some results of its private exit polls

These are the infamous exit polls sponsored by a handful of media. They are releasing selective results, without figu
res, as of 8pm.

According to the Ming Pao news flash, both Long Hair and Emily Lau are losing their seats in New Territories East. But then how does that work out? That would mean the DAB gets two seats, Civic Party’s Ronny Tong and Democrat Cheng Ka Foo each get one, James Tien gets one, and where do the remaining 2 seats go?

Possibilities: One to Democrat Wong Shing Chi, and the other to independent pro-Beijing stealth candidate Scarlett Pong?

But that would be odd, since Pong has polled consistently low in all the other surveys so far.

Long Hair just phoned to thank us for the support today. He’s on his way to Ma On Shan.

The turnout figures are really low so far–36.66 percent of eligible voters have voted so far. Less than an hour left until polls close.


9pm–In The Final Hours, I Become a Human Billboard

Wearing the latest in Sai Kung headwear fashion (a steal at 9 Hong Kong dollars, or $1.10 US!) I ditch the wordy Long Hair leaflets and embrace the role of human billboard.

After a certain point, it isn’t about reasoning or logic anymore: it’s about market presence.

7:50pm–Helicopters!

Ha…the Civic Party really doesn’t believe in a ground game at all. On NOW Broadband TV I just saw a clip of Ronnie Tong, the CP candidate in New Territories East, dropping into his district on election day in a helicopter. Oh, and he was accompanied by Anson Chan. Guess now that she’s retired from LEGCO she’s joined the Civic Party.

While the DAB spends its bucks on lunch boxes, the Civic Party blows the bank on airfare.

6:40pm–Sussing out the competition

I’m back home now, after several hours canvassing. After finishing up in Sai Kung at around 3pm, I went down to Hang Hau station to join another group of Long Hair supporters there. There were about 8 or 10 of us, and the situation was quite different. The DAB had fewer people there (even though the area is more populated and the station is busier), and they were actually pretty mellow, sharing space with our band under a broad, shady tree. The DAB’s hardcore supporters live in New Territories villages (like Sai Kung) and there’s more political diversity in urbanized “new towns” like Hang Hau.

The big action on the ground at Hang Hau was James Tien’s group, the Liberal Party. They had about 75 supporters, lots of bright yellow flats and banners emblazoned with the number 1, and–around 5pm–James Tien himself, rolling up in a caravan led by a bright orange Morris sports car. (Tien, famously, collects expensive sports cars. Election day seems like a bad moment to remind people about this.)

Once again, my totally un-scientific anecdotal observations:
1. The two big on-ground presences here on election day are the DAB and Tien’s Liberal Party. One has the bodies, the other has the bucks.
2. The Democratic Party is missing in action in this Eastern part of the district–probably they decided to marshal their forces at two or three central locations and skip the outlying areas. Still, I haven’t seen many banners for them along the roadsides at all.
3.Ditto the Civic Party. They splashed out on slick-looking backlit ads in the MTR, and on taxis, but they’re nowhere to be seen at the ground level.
4. Finally, I only saw two supporters of Emily Lau, and one banner all day.

Long Hair’s ground game is pretty good, considering his budget. We’ve got a band of supporters at all the major stations–Tai Po, Shatin, Tseun Kwan O, Hang Hau and Sheung Seui. Thanks to last-minute volunteers like William, we were able add a station in  Sai Kung. I’d say we’ve got good presence today, and that we are number three in the ground game after DAB and Liberal Party.

Does playing the ground game make a difference in votes? It seems like the Civic Party doesn’t think so. Perhaps they just figure the DAB is going to control the streets on election day, or maybe they decided to concentrate on Hong Kong Island, where the race for the second seat is close. Another possibility is that they think their middle class and upper class voter base doesn’t need the extra boost of banners and bodies at the last minute.

Whatever. I think they’re wrong. Hong Kong elections aren’t yet at the stage where you can do a media campaign and neglect the street.



6pm. The Battle of Sai Kung and the Politics of Meanness

When we get to Sai Kung around 10:30 the plaza outside the Wellcome supermarket is a sea of DAB banners. Every tree, every post, every available space is covered with huge posters and flags featuring the rigid grins of DAB candidates Lau Kong Wah and Chan Hak-kan. Loud speeches from the candidates blast from a loudhailer.

There are three of us Long Hair supporters, and we have exactly two “flats”–that’s what they call the tall banners that roll up out of a box like a window shade–and three tattered bamboo-pole Long Hair flags. We face more than 150 troops from the DAB, the Man Gihn Lyun, who are occupying every bench, and hogging the shade of every tree, stretching for about fifty feet on each side of the busy market entrance.

I’d always heard about the DAB’s legendary troops of “iron voters” who appear on polling day. But this is the first time I’d seen their organization first hand, and the only way I can describe it is mean and creepy. Most of the DAB people in their turquoise vests are on the other side of 60, the kind of ladies who wield their sharpened elbows when you’re trying to get on the bus, and who will haggle with you in the market over a couple of pennies.

The sun is wickedly hot, and just as I’m looking around wondering how to claim a small area for our Long Hair ioutpost in this sea of hostility, a bright young fellow with a spiky haircut approaches me. It’s William, who found Long Hair through his Facebook page and called out of the blue to volunteer today. Right now he seems like an angel from heaven: We were three against an army, and now we are four.

We base ourselves at an outside table at the Starbucks (thank you, Starbucks, for your support of Long Hair!) and put up one of the big flats just outside the coffeeshop, at the busy intersection of a side street and the main street, that has no DAB posters.

Almost immediately, four rather large DAB women come over and surround us, blocking the view of our poster. They stand shoulder to shoulder in a phalanx, preventing us from greeting the passersby.

I’m angry enough to explode, and that’s not usually my style. I shout at the women, sarcastically, in Cantonese, “Well, I’m so glad to see so many supporters of Long Hair out here today by his banner!”.

They look a bit shocked, then pretend not to hear me. Three more supporters, meanwhile, have dragged another DAB banner and put it right next to ours. I am without words, I’m so annoyed, but don’t quite know what to do–I don’t want things to get nasty.

David, meanwhile, is sussing out the territory. He locates the Sai Kung polling station, in the old town hall down at the end of the street. There’s an empty space we can work from, located just before the cut-off zone where no political activity is allowed. It is a great position, we’ll have the last contact with people before they enter the polling station. But it’s got zero shade, and is totally exposed to the blazing sun.

We take it anyway, and work under the hot sun. I run to the market and buy a cheap straw hat. Meanwhile we hold onto our position by Starbucks, and split into two groups of two.

I work with David. When I finally start to speak with people, and hand out folders, the mood lifts. Things get better. Once again, about one in ten people seem pleased to see a representative of Cheung Mo. The “see” is the main thing here, I realize. We are down to the sta
ge where the election isn’t about thought or ideas, it is about branding and product placement. The fact that we are here, holding the signs that say number “5” (our poll position) and wearing the colors, is what matters.

As I get into a rhythm of passing leaflets, I’m able to observe the opposition more closely. Although they seemed formidable when we arrived, I realize they’re not very effective. The very meanness that allows them to grab all the spots and push and shove the other candidates to the side affects their ability to mingle with and influence the public. People are mostly running away from these squadrons of unpleasant ladies who thrust flyers in the nose of anybody going by. They are a terrible advertisement for their “product”.

And, thankfully, it turns out they don’t have much stamina. At around 12:15, the ranks of DAB soldiers begin to thin, and by 1pm, they are at a third of their original strength. Why? It’s time for their free lunch, of course.

Just before the call for faan haap, a small bus pulls up to the curb beside where David and I are handing the leaflets. Some of the most elderly and infirm people I have ever seen in Hong Kong begin, excruciatingly slowly, to descend the bus steps, helped by some of the DAB volunteers. I see a lady, who looks more than 80 years old, bent in two by osteoporosis, clutching a card in her hand that shows her where to mark the “X” for the DAB. I try to look into her eyes, but they are cloudy with cataracts.

On the arm of a DAB worker, under the blazing middday sun, she hobbles towards the polling station.

I’d been hearing about this for years, and now in Sai Kung, I’m seeing it with my own eyes.
This is the “iron vote” of the DAB.

9am. And so it begins…

The polls just opened in Hong Kong, and I have just rolled out of bed. I’ll be heading up to Sai Kung with David and Sally in an hour or so, to pass out leaflets for Long Hair. “There’s not much you can do at this point,” Long Hair waxed philosophically to me last night, over a couple of beers at Club 71. “Not many people are going to be changing their minds about who they’re voting for at this point. I’ve done my best, and now its up to the people to decide.”

It’s still close in the New Territories East legislative council district–Leung Kwok Hung, Emily Lau, and Wong Sing Chi, all candidates from the Hong Kong pan-Democrat camp, are battling it out. One of them, perhaps two, will lose.

But I’m optimistic. I’m no statistician, but I have been working as a volunteer on the ground for Mr. Hair for the last three days, in Sai Kung, Hang Hau and Tai Po, which is a pretty good cross section of the sprawling NT East district. I’ve noticed a pattern when I hand out the flyers to the passers-by. About 40 percent of them just walk by, eyes averted. Some are tethered to their mobile phones or to electronic media, others appear drugged or dog-tired, lost in a daze. I figure these are the people who aren’t interested in politics and won’t be going to vote at all.

The majority people smile politely and take the leaflet. Some of them already have a collection of other parties’ election propaganda (we leaflet-handers jockey for position outside the MTR exits). Occasionally (about one in every 15 people) I will get a strong negative reaction to the “Long Hair” brand. By strong negative I mean this: One guy in Hang Hau actually took the folder, tore it ceremoniously in two, and then threw it on the ground and stomped on it.

But roughly one out of every eight people gives me an extra energetic smile, and a hearty “Way! Cheung Mo!”. I figure these people will probably be voting for Long Hair.

So, based on my rough calculations, one out of every 8 citizens in NT East is a Long Hair supporter. That is roughly 12% of the vote–he only needs 10% to win back his seat.

My totally un-scientific calculation is buttressed by another observation. Yesterday, while handing leaflets out in Sai Kung with Long Hair, we all chuckled as the motor-caravan for the Liberal Party candidate James Tien roared by our little outpost. Tien, a tycoon, had two snazzy vehicles and a big shiny yellow bus full of paid operatives. The loud sound system from the bus playing Tien’s speech drowned out our ragtag band of Long Hair supporters when it passed. We laughed, waited till they passed, and then got back to work.

Then, suddenly, I spotted a man dressed in pressed bermuda shorts and a white Lacoste polo shirt racing towards Long Hair from behind. He looked like a Sai Kung businessman on his way to play a few rounds of tennis. But it wasn’t a Sai Kung tennis player–it was James Tien himself.

He had spotted Leung and jumped out of his caravan. Tien raced up to Leung from behind, then–before Long Hair had a moment to realize what was happening– the Liberal Party chairman ambushed him in a bear hug from behind. Two press photographers suddenly materialized to catch the meeting of two long-time rivals–just as Tien had planned. Tien held Long Hair in a bear hug grip for a while, and whispered something into his ear.

What did he say to you?, I asked Long Hair later. He chuckled. “He thanked me for attacking him during the election. He said he got a lot of press from that, and it was all because of me.”

The fact that even Long Hair’s enemies gravitate to him like a heat-seeking missile during the campaign season says more about his chances for success than any number of polls. The South China Morning Post has an article today that says that last minute voters are choosing familiar candidates, and that people are voting for personalities, not ideology or issues. Long Hair in the last four years has consistently polled in the top ten of Hong Kong’s “best known” legislators. His charisma, which he has in abundance (and which his two major rivals have in negative numbers) will probably carry him over the finish in an election season that, issue wise, has not been about much.

That’s my prediction. And now, I’m running back up to Sai Kung to hand out leaflets. Here’s a little marching music to take you to the polls:


Fighting For Votes Everywhere

Hong Kong Election Diary–Part 2
On the Ground With Long Hair’s Troops in Tai Po

My baptism by fire as a foot soldier in the battle for the hearts and votes of the people of New Territories East begins in the bowels of the Tai Po train station. It’s hot, it’s sweaty, the station is under renovation, with dark green barricades blocking the passageways. The air reeks of exhaust fumes from idling busses–like most Hong Kong suburban railway stations, Tai Po (大埔), the site of a Chinese pearl-fishing village and market that dates back to the 10th Century, is now one of the New Territories busiest transport nodes, where commuters change from the express trains to the mini-busses (siu ba) and private shuttle busses that whisk them up into their apartment complexes tucked into the surrounding hills.

It takes me fifteen minutes to find Po Ying in the labyrinth of tunnels, but then I hear the recorded voice of Long Hair playing through a loudspeaker on an MP3 loop, and spot her standing by a row of banners. She is handing out red and white flyers to the commuters streaming by, while shouting instructions into her cell phone.

“Great!” she shouts at me above the din, and without further formalities, presses a stack of flyers into my hand. “Take these. Go over there where people are waiting for the minibus to the middle class housing estates. Lots of them can speak English.”

I look down at the flyer, and recognize my own writing, transformed by the grassroots graphics of Long Hair’s designer. It looks terrific.

I find a good spot facing the stream of rush hour commuting pedestrians, and start to work. Unsure what to say in the situation, I try, “M’goi, Cheung Mo!” and “M’goi, tau yat piu”. Literally, “Please, (for) Long Hair.” and “Please, throw one vote!”. I haven’t been a political ground soldier for at least 20 years, but I do remember that the best way to get people to accept your leaflet is to make eye contact with them, so I do. I also bow slightly and smile a lot.

The results amaze me. In only a few minutes, my folders are gone and I have to go back to Po Ying to get restocked. “Hey, give me some of the Chinese language folders, too,” I tell her.

The crowds stream by, faster and thicker after the trains arrive from Kowloon, then thinning out in-between arrivals. The train that stops here at Tai Po is part of a line that stretches from Kowloon to the China border crossing into Shenzhen. Everybody and anybody rides this train. I slide flyers into the hands of old grannies dragging baskets filled with empty plastic bottles, of businessmen with expensive watches dressed in beautifully cut suits. The exhaustion of the workday spreads over their faces, and I hesitate to disturb them.  But I also seem to be making a lot of folks chuckle–the sight of a Westerner speaking Cantonese and handing out flyers for Long Hair is probably about as entertaining as the Mexican Mariachi bands the ply the New York subways. I take that energy, and try to work it. “Tau yat piu!”

Po Ying seems glad I’ve signed on to help out tonight. Heading into the stretch, Leung Kwok Hung’s campaign for re-election is struggling. Long Hair’s hardcore group of volunteers is dedicated but shorthanded. (Long Hair’s loaned some of his best workers to help fellow LSD candidates in other districts.). It is also low on cash. The buzz I hear is that the LSD’s chairman, former radio host Wong Yuk Man, was stingy when distributing the party war chest (and that he took the lion’s share for his own LEGCO race in Kowloon West district.) Besides the 6 person team I’m working with today, there’s only one other Long Hair leaflet-handing team working this sprawling district of 1.6 million people that’s about the size of Brooklyn.

Meanwhile, the media hasn’t been paying as much attention to Long Hair’s campaign as they did in 2004, when he won his first LEGCO term. It could be, fair enough, that the media don’t find his re-election bid as interesting a news story as his first campaign was. But there are other factors influencing the media coverage, and to understand them you have to first understand a bit about the political mahjong that is a Hong Kong LEGCO election.

I’ve mentioned before that the election system in Hong Kong is a modified “first past the post” system. The actual rules of the game are more complex. In New Territories East, for instance, thirty candidates on ten slates are contesting 7 available seats. But the larger parties have padded their slates with extra people who have zero chance of winning–younger party members who are on the list for “seasoning”. When you extract these ringers from the list, and take out the no-chance-in-hell independent candidates, the number of real, serious contenders comes to 9–six incumbents, and three newcomers.

Although Hong Kong’s four different election polls are not especially reliable, (last election, Long Hair polled about 5% of the vote, but won with around 9%) it’s almost certain the pro-Beijing DAB will win one, possibly two seats. Liberal Party chairman James Tien is pretty sure to win another. Which means that the rest of the seats in this district (4 or 5) are being fought over by the six pan-Democrat candidates.

The big story of the 2008 LEGCO election is the subtle, sometimes vicious, in-fighting amongst the Democratic opposition. In New Territories East, there are two Democrats who’ve polled pretty solidly throughout–the Civic Party’s Ronny Tong Ka-Wah, and the Democratic Party’s Andrew Cheng Ka-Foo. Both will probably take a seat. Now we’re down to two or three available seats, and three pan-Democratic candidates.

Best case scenario: the remaining NT East democrats, Wong Sing Chi, Emily Lau, and Long Hair all win. But for that to happen, the DAB would have to poll low, and take only one seat. I don’t think that’s going to happen, which means that one of these three pan-Democratic candidates is going to end up holding the short straw.

Who will that be? When I learned to play mahjong last
summer, one of the concepts that it took me a while to understand was
this: In mahjong you aren’t just playing to win. You are playing to win
by making other people lose. In the mahjong politics of Hong Kong, what Long Hair has to do to stay alive and win is this: he needs to kick the DAB, in hopes that he can draw their votes down, keep them from winning that second seat, and maybe collect some extra votes from anti-DAB voters in the process. He also needs to make sure he out-polls Wong Sing Chi and Emily Lau.

In the twisted logic of Hong Kong’s mahjong politics, Long Hair’s got to fight for votes against candidates who are his political cohorts. If he’s going to win, one of them will probably have to lose. To his credit, he won’t go after them.

From the other side, though, it’s another story. Although the pan-Democrats agreed before the election not to attack each other, both Wong and Lau have subtly been jockeying for position in the three-way struggle. The other day, Emily Lau announced a “go gap“–an urgent notice to her supporters that she was in danger of losing. Her announcement got big play in Apple Daily, which also published an “analysis” of the latest polls that suggested Long Hair’s popularity was responsible for Lau’s decline. The result? In today’s poll, Emily Lau’s number are up, and Long Hair’s are down.

The daggers are flying in the messy House of Pan-Democracy. Now for the down and dirty: a little bird told me that Apple Daily is pushing Emily Lau’s campaign as blowback, because Apple Daily’s owner, Jimmy Lai, is feuding with LSD chairman Wong Yuk-man. (Lai, in this scenario, is maneuvering to shaft LSD member Long Hair in his re-election race.) Another bird told me that the money for all the big, fancy taxicab ads and huge billboards for Civic Party candidates like Ronny Tong came from the deep pockets of tycoon Richard Li, maverick son of gazillionaire Li Ka Shing. (This rings true–a few months ago the Civic Party had to shutter its newspaper for lack of funds. The party, so they said, was nearly broke. I wondered how they could suddenly afford such a splashy campaign).

Democracy is messy. I’ve just come back from watching the raucous, rancorous Democratic Presidential primary play out in the U.S. The fallout from the angry battle between the supporters of Hillary and Obama is still settling, and it may lose the party an election that was theirs to win.

Will Hong Kong’s Democrats end up slashing each other to a loss? Can Long Hair’s ragged, understaffed and under-funded campaign make it across the victory line this year? Stay tuned–election day is only two days away.

“I don’t believe the polls”, says Po Ying, as we fold up the Long Hair banners, turn off the loudhailer, and carry all our un-distributed leaflets back to the Tai Po office. “We just have to fight for votes, in Tai Po, in Shatin, in Tseun Kwan O. Every day, everywhere.”

Addendum #1
In case you are new to HK politics, and are wondering why it is important that the pan-Democrats hold onto a block of seats in the legislature, the answer is this. Hong Kong’s legislature can’t propose legislation. The only power it has is as an opposition: it can veto government budgets. If the democrats don’t hold on to at least 23 seats, Hong Kong’s LEGCO instantly turns into a rubber stamp legislature.

Addendum #2-Banned in the Mainland
While I figured it had to happen sooner or later, I was hoping to slip through the cracks. No luck, in this Olympic year of crackdowns. A few weeks ago, Learning Cantonese hit the Great Firewall of China. This blog is now Banned in Beijing. You HK readers will have no problems though–the Hong Kong Government doesn’t do that sort of thing. Yet. Another good reason to tau yat piu for a pan-Democratic candidate this Sunday!

Eat With The DAB, Vote For The LSD

選舉日記   第一

Hong Kong Election Diary, Part 1

When I get to the miniscule office in a grimy Tai Wai walk-up building that serves as the central node of the Campaign to Re-Elect Long Hair, the Man Himself, Leung Kwok Hung, is multi-tasking. He’s thanking–with many do jehs –a young supporter and his wife, who’ve shown up offering to help distribute leaflets on election day. Meanwhile, he’s thumbing through the pages of Ming Pao newspaper, and shaking his head.

Long Hair passes the newspaper over to me. On one page there’s a huge picture and article about Wong Sing Chi, the churchgoing pan-Democrat who has turned out to be one of Long Hair’s major opponents in the byzantine, convoluted 10-way race to fill 7 legislative seats in New Territories East district (more about that byzantine convolution of an election system in a later post). On the facing page, there’s an equally large, equally photo-filled article about the pro-Beijing DAB candidate in the district, Lau Kong Wah.

“What’s up with this?,” I ask Leung. “If they were profiling all the candidates, why didn’t they do a big feature on you?

Long Hair points to the upper left hand corner of the page, to an extremely small line of four characters that read: Syun geui gwong gou. Election Advertisement.

The articles are printed and laid out in exactly the same style as Ming Pao’s editorial copy. Unless you go over the page with a magnifier, you’re going to miss those four little characters and assume that the puff candidate profiles are news coverage.

Long Hair is used to getting screwed by the Hong Kong press–many HK media have an unspoken embargo on covering him, unless he’s getting hauled off by the cops–and he’s ready to shrug it off as just another one of these incidents. But I’m angry. This isn’t just lousy, unfair journalism–it’s probably illegal. I point out that during an election period, there are strict rules in place about campaign advertising. Surely campaign propaganda tricked up as editorial content falls under some regulation? Long Hair considers this, and then dials his lawyer to see about lodging a protest. (We’ll see what happens.)

Long Hair calls his lawyer

After four months immersion in America’s hyper, media-driven presidential circus, I was looking forward to the gentler, almost old-fashioned campaign intrigues of politics, Hong Kong style. I love the really old-school stuff of LEGCO elections–the toothsome candidates, dolled up like beauty queens in ribbon sashes, glad-handing outside MTR stations, and banners strung along the roadside with geeky photos of the candidates and corny slogans like “We Can Do Better” and “Vote for Hong Kong. Vote for Progress, Vote for Me”.

It’s all kabuki, of course–there’s no real representative democracy in Hong Kong, and half the seats in the legislature will be filled with members “elected” by small-circle vested interests. Maybe that is the reason why, at street level, the LEGCO elections and all their attendant hoopla give such a satisifying, almost nostalgic performance of democracy in action. During Hong Kong elections, television campaign ads are banned. Corruption, when it rears its head, is old school Chicago-style–the last election’s dirt was an unfortunate escapade between a pol and a prostitute in a Shenzhen hotel room. Hong Kong political trickery generally comes right out of the American 19th century party bosses’ playbook. The evil symbol of corrruption here is the notorious DAB faan hap (free lunch boxes doled out to the elderly ground troops of this pro-Beijing party as they are bussed, en masse to the polls).


Hong Kong’s #1 political tool

At least this is how politics has been going in Hong Kong since I first started to track it about 7 years ago.

But something different is going on this election cycle.  I noticed it as soon as I got over my jet lag enough to start wandering around my neighborhood to look at the new campaign banners strung up along all the roadside fences. The candidates themselves were as geeky as ever, but the ones from the pro-Beijing DAB had been dressed by professional stylists, in coordinating pastel Lacoste shirts, and “posed” professionally in upbeat shots that scream “Media Consultant”!

Then, on my way up to Tai Wai on the MTR, I got stopped in my tracks by this. Was it a promo for a CD by a new Canto-pop star? An ad for the latest line by Giordano? Nope, it’s our good friend, that Long Hair bashing DAB “pretty” boy candidate, Gary Chan Hak-kan! (cue MP3 clip of screaming girl fans).

“Hong Kong elections are going the way of Taiwan and the U.S.,” grumbles Long Hair. “It’s starting to become about the image, not the message. The DAB has money for the consultants, for the PR. You know, people are telling me now that my flyers don’t have enough pictures, that I write too much.”

He shrugs resignedly, and goes back to his conversation with the eager flyer-distributing couple. Long Hair’s campaign coordinator, Mrs. Tong, grabs big handfuls of leaflets from one of the dozens of cardboard boxes crammed into this tiny office space, and stuffs them into bright red nylon backpacks labelled LSD, for Long Hair’s party, the League of Social Democrats. There’s no room to move in here, and even to get to the bathroom involves negotiating an obstacle course of bamboo poles topped with “flats”, or banners with photos of Long Hair. This political operation is strictly old-school. The daily drill is like this: Every morning and evening, volunteers man tables outside the major train stations in this sprawling district. Tai Wai, Shatin, Tai Po, Tseun Kwan O, Sheung Seui…

“Sheung Seui?” I wonder aloud to Chan Po Ying, one of Long Hair’s campaign majordomos. “Isn’t Sheung Seui a stronghold of the DAB?” Sheung Seui town is right next to the Chinese border, and it is filled with rural conservative voters and mainland immigrants. Why do Long Hair’s supporters bother to campaign in an area where they probably won’t get many votes? Wouldn’t it be a better use of limited resources to target areas of support first?

Po Ying–herself a recent candidate for district councillor–told me that the Long Hair campaign strategy is to go out every day, and “fight for votes everywhere.” And then she sets me straight about Sheung Seui.

“Yes, it’s true that the DAB controls there. But when you have a situation like that you also have people who feel resentful. They don’t like the ones who are grabbing all the advantage and all the power. So if they see you there, distributing leaflets, then they will feel a little stronger, feel like they are not alone. And when they are less afraid, then they may feel strong enough to vote for you”

The day before, she tells me, she was out giving away flyers in Sheung Seui, when three big goons from the DAB came up to her and started shouting at her. Then they came over and surrounded her.

“I wasn’t scared. I have experience in th
is. And, anyway, this is good for the campaign because when people see the DAB abusing a woman working for another candidate, it looks very, very bad.”

Po Ying has guts, and she stood her ground. As she’s telling me her unsettling story, I can’t help but flash back to another ugly political scene, this one in my own country: the Republican goons who smashed into and terrorized the election office in Miami in 2000, setting in motion the events that lead to the defeat of Al Gore, and the nightmare of George Bush’s presidency. Politics, for all the rhetoric and lofty ideals it’s draped in, is a dirty business, no matter what the language and culture.

But politics is also great human drama, and the narrative of the scrappy, poor David who upends the wealthy media-controlling Goliath is one of the best there is. Long Hair may have no money to fill his follower’s bellies with free rice boxes, but it’s not all about money. “I think people know when they’re being manipulated. I think that voters do respond to values, instead of image,” he tells me.

“Anyway,” he smirks playfully, “They can take the free lunch, and then vote for who they want.”

“Eat with the DAB, vote for the LSD.”



Vote For Long Hair

Of course I’m biting my fingernails down to the cuticle, worried that my dear friend, Leung Kwok Hung, might not make it back into LEGCO–that compromised, politically hog-tied legislature of which he is the most interesting, and certainly the most principled member (show me another Hong Kong pol that lives in a council house flat, and gives away all his salary except $1,000 US a month!). The early LEGCO polls from HK University looked good, giving him about a 6.2 percentage share of the vote, which in Hong Kong’s convoluted “first past the post” electoral system, would return him to his seat, albiet at the bottom of the pack in his district, New Territories East.

But that was before Leung stood up in the stands at the first Hong Kong Olympic equestrian event and shouted “Human Rights for China”–and before Gary Chan Hak-kan, the smarmy, ex-Donald Tsang flunkie who is number 2 on the Beijing puppet DAB party ticket, got the idea that he could ensure winning a seat by picking off the bottom man on the list.

Here’s the latest HKU Public Opinion Poll for the New Territories East district, conducted between 17 and 23 August 2008. There are 7 seats up for grabs.

Gary Chan Hak-kan–I love it that this slimy opportunist pol has the given name of “Hak”–tried to sling mud at Long Hair during the RTHK radio debates this weekend by questioning his commitment to LEGCO. He asked: Why is Leung Kwok Hung bothering to run for office when he’d rather be out on the streets burning tyres and protesting? Long Hair, steamed up, pointed out his 95% attendance record in LEGCO, and demanded an apology from the DAB flunky, who earned $80,000 HKD (around $10,000 US) a month in his sinecure as Donald Tsang’s Xerox copy boy, and has never held elective office. Retorted Long Hair: “I’m working for HK people in the streets AND in the legislature…and where were you?”

Slime is a time-tested political tool, and it is especially effective when slung around in Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing press echo chamber, in newspapers like Wen Wei Po, Tai Kung Pao, and Oriental Daily, which essentially photocopy each other’s anti-Long Hair stories. This week’s HK University poll has Long Hair’s share down to 5.7, which might lose him his seat. The margin of error here is plus or minus 2.7, so it’s hard to tell what’s what. And I wonder, too, about the HK POP survey methods***

When I talked on the phone to Long Hair, he was feeling positive–“This time the people I meet on the street are much more enthusiastic than the last campaign. I feel good.”

But in a few days, the pro-Beijing parties are gonna pull their trump card: an “Olympic Gold medal parade” of China’s victorious athletes is coming to town. Funny, every time Hong Kong has an election, suddenly there’s a special envoy from up north, bringing the treasures of the motherland to the citizens of the Big Lychee. We’ve had astronauts and alleged finger bones of the Buddha, and now there will be golden heroes of diving, ping pong and women’s wrestling to remind us of the wonderful things that await those who keep their head down and follow the lead of the Chinese Communist Party.

Actually, I don’t think the Hong Kong voters are going to be fooled by the Olympic parade any more than by the Buddha bone or the astronaut. People in the city are sophisticated enough to see through PR manipulation. (That’s why NT LEGCO candidate Scarlet Pong Oi-Lan wins the Learning Cantonese Clueless award for her weekend stunt of inviting reporters to join her on a free helicopter ride over the Shenzhen border, piloted by a film-throb famous for his clumsy Cantonese, Michael Wong Man-Tak)

Still, I wonder how many voters are bold enough to believe that voting for a maverick like Leung Kwok Hung can do anything to staunch the tidal wave of history. The greatest success of the Beijing Olympics is the way it has cemented not only the power of the Chinese Communist Party, but also the image of China’s inevitability. The inevitability factor may discourage the Hong Kong voter who might be a natural Long Hair supporter from coming out to vote on September 7th. What is the point of trying to push the river?

Obviously I hope this doesn’t happen. You understand, I am an unabashed partisan here. I actually do believe that a noisy, unbought and unsold candidate like Long Hair makes a difference to the future of Hong Kong. I also think that LH’s triple-threat combo of street protests, High Court judicial review challenges, and standing up to the hypocrisy of HK’s leaders in the LEGCO chamber is worth more than a dozen lawyerly intellectual types like the pro-democracy camp’s front runner in New Territories East, Ronnie Tong. Because, when Beijing forces turn the pressure on a legislator to vote their way, a solidly upper middle class professional like Tong not only will vote according to his class interest, but he has much, much more to lose. (And, so say the batgwas, there are certain reasons why Tong is even more vulnerable to Beijing’s arm-twisting than his party-mates.) When the big crunch comes, odds are he will cave.

But there’s no twisting the arm of a man who has no money and lives in a 300 square foot tenement box surrounded by his books.

This is the kernel of the English language manifesto I wrote for Long Hair’s campaign (which may surface as a flyer in the expat ghettos of Sai Kung at some point, at least I hope so). Yes, it is true, I’ve become a Hong Kong political hack (as distinguished from a Hak-kan). Actually, the term used in HK politics is hak sau, which means “black hand”—ghost writer. Ha! Which translated back into Cantonese would be gwai jok ga.

When I get back to HK later this week, you may find this gwai-lo ghostwriter  in Sai Kung, passing out leaflets, waving hello to fellow English-speaking Leung Kwok Hung supporters like this one.

See you, then, in a few days, on the campaign trail.

_________
***According to the HK University Public Opinion website, the survey method is phone interviews, and the phone numbers are chosen from published lists. Since something like 95 percent of Hong Kongers use cellphones, I wonder about this survey method. Do their lists include cell numbers, or just land lines? If it’s the latter, then I would figure the survey skews towards the stay-at-home pensioner, the traditional backbone of the DAB.
    What’s more, the survey method includes only Cantonese speakers over the age of 18. There’s a sizable number of English-dominant speakers in Hong Kong with voter eligibility–according the the 2006 census, nearly 100,000 alone in Long Hair’s New Territories East district. To give you an idea of proportion, in the 2004 election, Long Hair won with a total vote count of 62,000.
   

Jumping Through Hoops

My lucky date China visa: baat baat baat

Of all the hurdles that I had to clear in order to get my shiny new (and very fortunately dated!), multiple entry China tourist visa the strangest one was this:

“You need a letter from your employer verifying that you are authorized to take vacation during the days you plan to be in China,” explained Michael, my ever-patient, magical visa expediter.

Since I am self employed, I told Michael that would be no problem–I’d just write a letter on behalf of myself!

“No no no! Better not do that,” he warned. They like to see the signature on the letter is different from the name of the visa applicant.”

I see. And so, in addition to buying a plane ticket and a hotel reservation that only my travel agent knows if I’ll actually use, I had to deputize a friend, “hire” her to be my supervisor, and ask her to write me a letter that gives me permission to go on leave from my own business.

As I was printing out this Kafka-worthy document for my friend to sign, the culturally inflected logic of the Chinese requirement suddenly hit me. These seasoned bureaucrats, treating me as if I were any Chinese citizen, were asking me for a permission letter from my work unit, my danwei!

The Olympic season of 2008 introduced a new event: visa hoop jumping. As most of you probably know already, back in April of this year, China’s requirements for a visa suddenly, and mysteriously shifted. Foreign friends of mine who’d been living and working or studying in China for years found they could not renew their business visas in the easy, casual way to which they’d become accustomed. Just before I left Hong Kong, at the end of April, a stampede of mainland-based friends arrived in town, to sleep on our couches while they bargained, begged and pleaded at China Travel Service for a pass that would get them back into the place they had come to call home.

My pal Shanghai Vixen, who was part of the expat exodus, regaled us over dinner with horror stories of stampedes at the visa line, of South African women collapsing in tears, of endless delays, constantly shifting requirements, and general lack of information. (Thankfully, after much stress, paperwork and leveraged guanxi, Shanghai Vixen’s got her situation all sorted out).

The worst news, from my perspective, was that it was going to be tough, if not impossible, for a non-HK ID card holder like myself to get a multiple-entry China visa from an office in the city.

If you are an American in HK, the multiple-entry, or “DO” visa, for tourism or business, is really the only kind worth having. Since the Chinese price their visas reciprocally (as they absolutely should), a single entry visa costs a U.S. citizen over $100. Which makes that last minute impulse shopping trip across the border to Shenzhen, or restaurant odyssey in Guangzhou far too pricey an excursion to consider. What’s more, now that the single tourist visa application requires proof of round trip carriage, plus proof of pre-paid accommodation, it requires a level of advance planning and committment that will discourage the sort of traveler who makes up her mind at the last minute, and wants to be free to change her plans on the fly.

In other words, a traveler like me.

My two-year “DO” was, unfortunately, due to turn into a “MOUH” on August 1st. So one of the first things I did, after I got back to New York this summer was call Michael. Since the Chinese visa office in Hong Kong was changing its tune every day over in HK, I figured (hoped) the Chinese consulate in New York might not be on the same page.

As it turned out, they weren’t. Although I’d been reading all over the blogs that a multiple entry visa was going to be as impossible to obtain this Olympic year as a perfect 17 on the balance beam, my guy Michael told me not to sweat it. The consulate in NY, he said, was still giving one year multiple-entries to Americans who had received multiples before. So I filled out all the forms–including my danwei permission–, jumped through all the hoops, paid my $130 fee, gave it all to Michael, and bingo! One year, multiple entry tourist visa gold. When I get back to HK, I will not have to hesitate for a moment before jumping on a train to sample the dumplings of Guangzhou and the temptations of Shenzhen.

But what of the would-be China tourists intimidated by all the new hurdles? According to news reports from Beijing, a lot of them just decided to drop out of the race and stay home–hotel occupancy during the Olympics has run far below expectations. Obviously it is China’s prerogative to control its borders and choose who gets to enter its country (We who live in the glass house called the USA have zero business throwing stones in this situation). Still, it seems especially mean–not to mention stupid, hypocritical and self-defeating– for nations to insist on the free flow of global capital, goods, and resources while tightening the screws on the free flow of that most important resource of all, people.

The worst fallout of “terrorism”, by far, is the resurgence of barbed-wire nationalism. I hate it that America’s post 9-11 borders are such a nasty gauntlet for my foreign friends. And I add my voice to all the other critics of China’s 2008 Olympic visa hurdles. I hope, for the sake not only of Asia expats like me, but also for the Chinese who make a living from them, that China quietly reinstates the more relaxed, pre-Olympic rules of play come October.