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Why banker’s blog jars

You can read this blog post at SCMP.COM

http://www.scmp.com/comment/blogs/article/1709903/why-bankers-leaving-hong-kong-blog-jars-so-many-people

I’m not sure David Y Zhu entirely deserved some of the more extreme epithets I have seen directed his way on social media over the last week or so.

If you have not read his widely-circulated blog post, Zhu is a 20-something Canadian-raised ethnic Chinese who works in finance and after two years living in Hong Kong recently decided to up and leave for Beijing. By his own admission, living it up under the bright lights of Lan Kwai Fong – night after night of standing on tables “feeling like I’m with the most important people in the entire world” – had left him tired and spent.

Zhu’s reflections seem to have jarred with a lot of people – in my own immediate social circles, at any rate. Good riddance – I’m summarising – to yet another parasitical banker type who embodies the crude excess and presumption of this city’s casino capitalists at play but knows no other side of it. In his defence, he has grasped the un-reality of life in Central much earlier than many of his peers and even hints at the end of his post at doing something more worthwhile with his life (although not yet – he’s leaving banking for private equity first).

Okay, so that’s the case for the defence out the way. Zhu is patently a very smart young man – and yet, and yet, he exhibits a galling absence of self-awareness. Denouncing Hong Kong’s lack of social mobility, he will not, he remarks, miss “gazing upwards to tycoons who will always be tycoons, and dancing alongside white-collars who will always be white-collars.” What the f*** is he talking about? Well, setting aside the question of the precise angle at which he expects to be gazing on tycoons in Beijing, let’s be clear that yes, in Zhu’s world it is he whom the Gods of social immobility have grounded, beached, thwarted.

As someone with “conversational Cantonese”, having grown up in Vancouver, it is quite conceivable that Zhu’s forebears knew what it was to be poor and immigrants. If so, it seems to me that their scion (St George’s School for Boys; Columbia University) has not been urged to reflect on it. It also seems to me that if there is a class of people who do not need help in becoming tycoons, Zhu very much belongs to it. Upper Ten Thousand? I wouldn’t doubt it.

In a world that is growing progressively less equal, social mobility – in that pure sense of people from ordinary backgrounds accessing the more lucrative professions – has crashed. If your entire life has been an exercise in chasing prestige, gaming the education system, networking events and nepotism, you may view the whole equation rather differently. You may well simply consider your own position in life to be fully merited – just never let it be said that your fruitful career, money and privilege are due to anything other than your own individual brilliance.

I did intend to look out a quote from Mao Zedong to carry this theme – you know, just for the mischief. But here instead is what Rod Liddle, a writer from England – where almost everyone who is anyone in public life nowadays was privately educated – had to say in his book Selfish, Whining Monkeys, last year: “My own maxim is never to trust someone who has been to a [private] school, even if they are terribly nice – perhaps especially if they are terribly nice. Always keep your eyes open and your hand on your wallet. There is a class war, and they are the enemy.”

Words to remember next time you see bankers standing on nightclub tables.


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8 existential panics for our times

You can read this blog post at SCMP.COM –

http://www.scmp.com/comment/blogs/article/1701432/8-existential-panics-would-make-bill-gates-proud

There’s plenty of evidence out there, if you can be bothered to Google, say, “world becoming safer”, that – just so – the world is becoming safer. Lower chances of dying a violent death, better healthcare, fewer basket-case states, the list goes on. Time to stop worrying and learn – in a manner of speaking – to love the bomb, then, you might think. Well, not if you’re Bill Gates, it seems. The billionaire philanthropist last month warned of the need to be prepared for a “war” against any future Ebolas or Sarses, and endorsed the view that artificial intelligence poses a potentially demonic threat. In that spirit, I bring you a selection of my own favourite existential panics de nos jours – and in listicle form, too, for added relevance.

1. Nasty video games. To believe some people – including a certain kind of censorious, self-styled radical feminist – the fantasy realm of the video game nerd is not only a bit sexist but liable to breed dissolute, misogynistic sociopaths intent on robbing banks, killing cops and visiting sexual violence on real women. This rather ignores the fact that in the western societies whence these games originate, crime – including violent assaults on women – has been falling since the 1990s.

2. Evil Cults. According to the People’s Daily: “Underground churches and evil cults are spreading like mushrooms … The problem is very urgent.” And who, in all honesty, can gainsay the People’s Daily?

3. Morgellons disease. It may have vanished off the radar in the last year or two but, well, the medical establishment has been wrong about stuff before so one supposes it’s technically possible Morgellons isn’t simply a new manifestation of “delusional parasitosis” cooked up by attention-seeking American mentalists. In other words, either sinister government activities or extra-terrestrials really have unleashed a plague that causes people to feel things writhing beneath their skin.

4. Overpopulation. Currently fashionable cri de coeur of the eternally misanthropic. “The single biggest thing you can do for the planet is to stop re-producing” is how neo-Malthusians frame it, grimly hostile to the reality that we are living in a golden age of prosperity and poverty reduction and that such factors as trade and women’s liberation are destined to make the current boom in the world’s population temporary. Humans are the answer, not the problem. But don’t just take it from me – in their Foundation’s “annual letter”, the Gateses said all this last year.

5. The Internet. Just, you know, in general. Good for blaming stuff on. Not least: evil cults, misogynistic sociopaths, censorious feminists, whingeing Malthusians, the spread of people who think they have Morgellons disease, and global jihad.

6. Global jihad. Okay, there’ve been zettabytes of memory, jeroboams of ink and a fair amount of blood squandered on this one and I have nothing remotely new to add. But fear not, because the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, last week kinda did. Not only, he said, are jihadists badly adjusted types who feel the world is against them, but “if you look at all the psychological profiling about bombers, they typically will look at porn. They are literally wankers. Severe onanists.” Any cartoonists care to… ah, let’s not go there.

7. Toxic food. If it’s not China with its gutter oil, its skagged-out fish, its pesticidal ravishment of Mother Earth and its soy sauce brewed from human hair and bits of old carpet, then it’s the fizzy pop and artery-clogging slime inflicting slow death on human porkers in decadent western nations. In reality, though, even the worst food scandals of recent years have taken vanishingly few lives compared to the devastation actual famine has wrought throughout history.

8. Revolution. No slop tofu or bovine plasma sandwiches for the wealthy – no, they have their expensive farm shops and their delectable independent grocers where everything is organic and hand-fed and bijou. That might not tip the scales, sure, but whatever – the whole class war thing is back on the agenda. Why, they were even talking about it at Davos – hedge fund managers are snapping up boltholes in New Zealand in case things blow up, apparently; and those guys know how to look out for themselves. Plus, the Guardian says that Greece electing a bunch of Trots has got everyone all fired up. Incidentally, most readings of Marx will tell you China wasn’t ready for the Revolutionary Liberation of Humanity in 1949. Ticks a few more of his boxes now, though.


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Undone by fake Lafite

You can read this post at SCMP.COM –

http://www.scmp.com/comment/blogs/article/1694736/fake-chinese-wine-common-now-hong-kongs-amusing-vanity-licence-plates

Becoming inured to conspicuous wealth is a quirk of life in Hong Kong. Stirred into distraction near my office in Central by a revving Lamborghini or Porsche, I might well remark to myself “there goes an expensive sports car”. Having heard tell of a VIAGRA and a SATAN, I might even scan its personalised plates for some momentary amusement. But, pace their owners’ intentions, after a while these thoroughbreds of our gridlocked precincts come to seem, well, commonplace.

A Sheung Wan sidewalk stacked with cases of fine Bordeaux, long the turbo-consumer’s tipple of choice in these parts, might therefore be calculated to induce a similarly world-weary reaction. Something less passive reared in me, however, as, on a mid-day saunter, I was forced to circumnavigate easily HK$2million worth of Lafites and Latours, resting on the journey from loading van to some out-of-sight restaurant holding cell. Mingled with my excitement – at the thought of liberating a case and working a crowbar on it for a lunchtime straightener since you ask, yes – was the nagging reminder that I have some Lafite-Rothschild 1996 doing absolutely nothing for me in a cellar in London.

I don’t make up the rules; I’m just gullible enough to have invested, modestly, in fine wine when I was told it would outperform everything else in sight. If European aristocrats, the uber-charlatans who rate wine growths and multitudes of newly-minted Asians conspire to create a big fat money market in the stuff, then carpe diem, no?

Well, that was a while back now. Of late, prices at auction, for Château Lafite in particular, have sunk to at least a ten-year low on the back of President Xi Jinping turning the screw on corruption, guanxi and extravagance – his trapping of tigers and quashing of flies. Now even the tigers daren’t drink Lafite, even if it’s mixed with Coca-Cola (terribly infra dig – who’s to say the whole campaign wasn’t motivated by embarrassment, besides Xi’s thirst for power?). Or at least that’s what’s reported; I do wonder what they’re drinking at Zhongnanhai these days. And the wolves – are they to be spared?

In truth, the bottom had been falling out of the whole business for some time, owing to another facet of capitalism with Chinese characteristics: fakery. In its upward march, the country has excelled itself in many spheres, but in the standard of its fakes it is in a league of its own. Sure, the Ferraris and Lamborghinis have been easy enough to detect, but the best of the wine fakers have been so successful that they’ve fooled serious investors, auctioneers, even oenologists. It’s set some people back, myself included, but what can you do? In the purity of the deception and in the denuding of European exceptionalism, it almost merits awe.

Nobody really complains about the mass-produced but largely convincing knock-offs of Western oil paintings you can buy from Shenzhen’s Dafen Village. But then faking it, or at least repetition, is by and large the name of the game in the art racket anyway. Fear of cliché begets cliché in a world in which artists and critics collude to take themselves in – convincing themselves that they are, respectively, purveyors and arbiters of originality. It’s all so much intellectual evasion, but so long as the price tag convinces the purchaser he’s buying Art, it ticks along. And so it goes with the Lamborghini and the Bordeaux – their prestige depends on faith in the power of money itself.

By the way, marked up in a restaurant a bottle of that Lafite will still cost you HK$9,500, easy.


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New blog at SCMP.COM

I’ve started writing a regular blog for the South China Morning Post.

Couple of posts here:

http://www.scmp.com/comment/blogs/article/1679528/tipping-answer-hong-kong-taxi-drivers-woes

http://www.scmp.com/comment/blogs/article/1688229/hong-kongs-press-freedom-comes-under-attack-it-appears-were-not


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Trivial hirsute

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine as a Rant column

Jesus Christ, famously a December birthday boy, declares in Matthew 6:3: “Let not the left hand know what the right hand doeth”. In other words, give alms for the sake of it, not so you can tell yourself, and everyone else, that you’re an alms-giver. In humility, there is beauty and grace.

If male facial hair is any guide, it cannot be said that November is a month for such things. The wisdom anchoring “Movember” – now a fixture on global calendars, with its mandate on men to grow a “mo”, or mo-ustache (clever, eh?) for 30 days – seems to be: “Let the left whisker, and by extension the world, know exactly what the right whisker doeth.”

Look chaps, I know you’re doing it for a cause – raising awareness of men’s health issues and suchlike – and if you’ve badgered me for money you’ll get it. And I know that, y’ know, you care about stuff. But what’s to stop us all doing charity, thoughtfulness and all the rest of it without the circus – and the endless selfies?

Movember, now in its tenth year, was just the start of it, unfortunately. Singposting that you’re good / moral / give a stuff – whether via self-defacement (an off-putting Movember tache here, an Ice Bucket Challenge video there) or some small act of self-empowerment (giving up the fags for “Stoptober”: that’s a real thing in the UK) is where charity is at now. It’s like social media has made little celebrities of us and we’re all running our own PR – you only care if you care conspicuously.

Narcissism is at large, unshaven and wearing philanthropy’s trousers.

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